There’s an old joke about a girl who was asked if she had a good holiday in Spain. “Yes,” she replied. “I thought ‘Si’ meant ‘no’.”
Infinitely more important than “si” (yes), I have decided, is “Aseos publicos” (public toilet).
It wasn’t among the handful of words at the back of my guidebook and in Cartagena the matter became urgent. The city, on the Mediterranean in southeastern Spain, is popular with the port-hopping Mediterranean cruises but if you want universal loo symbols, forget it. The centre of Cartagena was almost deserted on a Sunday morning and the few people I encountered spoke no English.
Eventually, when I was absolutely desperate, I found a man sweeping steps to an underground carpark. He seemed to get the message, grunted and gestured. I raced down, feet echoing in the gloom.
Then I saw it, a door labelled “Aseos publicos”. Ladies or gents, I didn’t care, and anyway, the place was deserted. Only afterwards did I register the urinal. Oops. I scuttled out, then noted the ladies a short distance away, padlocked shut. Did the sweeper know? Possibly. I avoided the man’s eye as I returned to street level.
In Málaga, probably because the sheltered beach and year-round warmth have attracted thousands of ex-pat Brits who don’t bother to learn Spanish, there were no problems, but it was a different story in Madrid. After searching unsuccessfully for one in a central city park, I remembered to say “Aseos publicos” and with much laughter, a group of young men directed me to go behind a tall hedge.
Was it going to be like the farm back home, where slipping behind a tall tree was the norm? Surely not.
Thankfully no, for there was the magic sign, “Aseos publicos”, on a scruffy little building: oh the relief!
By Gillian Vine