A Tale of Two Bathrooms

Fill in the blank: It’s hard to feel professional when __________________________.

My response after today?

It is hard to feel professional when your nose is running. And when you desperately need to use the restroom.


This morning, though still congested from the smoke, I woke up with ganas to reach my school and meet my bilingual coordinator. This is the first year my school, Instituto Gómez-Moreno, has had an English teaching assistant, and I aim to make the experience a positive one. I wanted to be punctual, so I made sure that I gave myself plenty of time to prepare for the metro journey. I got up at 9:30, prepared breakfast and a sack lunch, then sat at my computer answering e-mails before I had to leave.

Giulia and Luca, my current roommates, were also getting ready for the day. Living with two Italians has, overall, been great. Giulia and Luca invite me to hang out, introduce me when their friends come over, and are respectfully conscious of my precense within the apartment. It is only normal that there would be some cultural differences between the ways we approach communal living. The situation here is that the two of them shut the bathroom door after they are done. This confuses me, because each time I think the bathroom is free the door is closed. Such was the case at 10:15 this morning when I got up to brush my teeth. Giulia and Luca were both in the kitchen, and I realized that the bathroom door was not only closed, it was locked. From the inside.

Our bathroom

I asked Giulia and Luca if they knew what had happened, and Giulia apologized profusely. None of us could figure out how to fix the problem; the bathroom door has nary a keyhole. Luca looked into climbing out on the roof and into the locked room, but the bathroom windows are way too small—let alone too high up—for any of us to fit through.

I sent María Teresa, our landlady, an e-mail, then dashed off to my appointment. It would have been nice to have used the restroom, but since I wasn’t sure how much time my commute needed, I told myself I could always wait and use the bathroom at the school.

The underground ride to San Blas is 10 stops away from my home metro, Tribunal.  I switch lines once, with the commute taking 30 minutes by metro but 45 minutes with walking included. I ended up arriving at the stop about half an hour early, so I wandered around the area before my noon meeting time.

The metro stop is only about a 10 minute walk from my school

This zona is the sole one that the Fulbright Commission requested us not to inhabit. At first I didn’t understand why—it looked harmless on the surface. Immediately by the metro stop was a children’s playground, and many older folks were milling around watching their neighbors roll by. Once I paused, however, a few creepy characters came into view. A woman wearing a white bathrobe had a thin spray of paint ringing her lips. Another man, though doused in cologne, could not hide the smell of alcohol. A handful of others were clutching paper cups in a way that made me guess they did this more often than simply at noon.

When 12:15 arrived, I gave José María a call to see if he was nearby. He appeared from the metro at this precise moment, and I was surprised to find that he was not that much older than myself. We had a brief introduction with the customary two kisses, then set off down the street to the school.

José María’s English is quite good, and he is eager to learn more. When explained a bit about the area, I was able to squeeze in the word “overdose.” “Yes,” he said, his head bobbing. “We live in a middle-lower class area. There are gypsies. There are people taking drugs.”

This world drops away as the entrance to the school comes into view. Trees are planted all around the colegio, giving us a leafy respite from the sun. Gardens surround the premises, giving everything a green tinge. Inside the building, the first person José María introduces me to is the secretary. She, too, is young. “In fact, she is my girlfriend,” José María explains.

The hallways are lined with famous paintings, as there is an emphasis on creating and appreciating art

I am relieved to find out that we will be teaching 12-year-old—at least I should look older than them! For the most part it sounds like I will be helping in José María’s classes, the social sciences. Score! I am excited about helping with geography and history, especially since orientation equipped us with several interesting projects using Google Maps. I will also be helping with technology and some biology labs as well as meeting with other teachers one-on-one to help them improve their English. I was wondering if I’d be asked to help out in a PE class, but apparently the principal is the one who teaches that.

In the Geography/History department, there are many books, one computer…

…and a lot of maps!

While IES Gómez-Moreno is officially bilingual, this does not mean that all of the teachers speak English; some subjects are taught in English, while others are taught in Spanish. José María explained to me that every teacher has to choose whether to take professional development training in another language, or in technology. As he’s filling me in, I make a mental note to ask about the bathroom before I leave.

Students here have lockers, but they must pay to use them

Unfortunately, the school director (aka principal) was in a meeting so I did not get to meet him today. I did get to see the teacher’s lounge, a history classroom, and the history department preparation room.

One of the history classrooms

Before I knew it, José María was walking me toward the exit and back out onto the street. “Just follow the street, right at the fire station, and then you’ll see the metro.” I thought about asking him if I could use the bathroom, but he was already dashing off to another meeting.

I boarded the metro again and followed the orange line to the red, then the red to Noviciado. I had arranged to view another piso at 2, and I only had half an hour to reach it. I ate my sandwich and peach on the metro, and saw that others in my car were doing the same. I realized I wouldn’t have enough time to stop and use a bathroom along the way, so I pleaded with my bladder to comply and set off walking down the street.

The fourth-floor piso did have an elevator—which began at the top of the second floor. As I walked in, a group of construction workers stopped their work and followed me half the way up the stairs. The building felt rickety, and the apartment was actually missing chunks of wall. Maybe my current digs aren’t so bad after all.

However, my current bathroom had a locked door, so, after the appointment, I practically ran to the only chain restaurant I knew of. While bars are required to have water closets for patrons, public restrooms are not the norm here. Since I’d used a Starbucks bathroom during La Noche en Blanco, I figured I could count on the one in my neighborhood, too. Not so. I entered the store and saw a chunky grid of numbers placed over the door handle. “Enter the customer number that you find on your receipt,” it chirped.

Turning to the counter, I ordered a mini chocolate muffin, threw the purchase in my purse, and punched in the magic number. Relief!


Then, I returned home to find that María Teresa had already swung by the apartment and opened the bathroom door. Vaya día! (What a day!)

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  1. Are you sure you will look older than Spanish 12-year-olds?? I guess you will find out tomorrow!! Good Luck! 🙂

  2. this is my favorite kind of “foreign-experience” story – one little mishap ends up taking FOREVER to get resolved, resulting – hopefully – in retrospective hilarity.

    p.s. your writing voice is super engaging; pairs beautifully with the gorgeous photos!

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