The Beauty of a Toilet: Toilet Museum in Gmunden, Austria

“For many people, having a toilet is an afterthought, one of the easy-to-take-for-granted amenities of living in the modern world. But for 40% of the world’s population that lives without sanitation, having a toilet is a luxury, and one that can often make the difference between life and death” explains a posting by the American Red Cross. I would argue that for many Americans easy and free access to a bathroom is nearly seen as a fundamental human right, which explains the surprise of many American tourists in Europe when they figure out that public toilets often require a fee and receipts are checked consistently to ensure that really only customers use an establishment’s bathroom. And do not even think about hoping to find a bathroom in a supermarket. Bathrooms – and especially clean bathrooms – are not a certainty. This became clear for example on Mount Vesuvius, where no free bathrooms existed. The toilet I ended up paying for (I think it was one Euro) had no water to flush but was not designed to be a waterless porta potty and it had been used a LOT throughout the day. Let’s just put it that way: what cannot go down must pile up. At that point, I really wished for a lot more bushes on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius…

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View over the Bay from Mount Vesuvius in Italy

Considering the impact of toilets and our dependence on them, it is rather surprising that they are not more celebrated or talked about. So it was a nice surprise to find a museum dedicated to toilets in Gmunden, Austria. Sure, the museum is definitely not the main attraction of the town. Rather, the main draw are the panorama of the magnificent lake Traunsee with the tall mountains in the background, castle Orth on an island in the lake, and maybe the ceramic manufacturer established in 1492.

Lake and Boats

Lake Traunsee and Sailboats in Gmunden

 

Schloss Orth

Schloss Orth in Gmunden on a small island in the lake (Photo by Ibokel from Pixabay)

 

Saint Orth

Saint Nepomuk Statue on the Bridge to the Castle Orth near Gmunden

On my last visit to Gmunden, I finally visited the toilet museum in the center of town near the lake. The toilet museum (its official name is the sanitation museum) is one of five rather small museums housed in the so-called K-Hof. The other four museums focus on geology, salt and tourism, nativity sets and sacred art, and current art (it seems this exhibit changes throughout the year). It is a very eclectic/odd mix as one floor houses the nativity sets and the next one the toilets. The museum even includes a chapel. The toilet/sanitation museum focuses on sanitation objects from the 19th and 20th century even though the first water closet was already invented in the 16th century.

 

The museum has some interesting pieces with the majority of the exhbits from Central Europe, but it does lack an international or intercultural aspect. Would not this be the place to show and discuss the differences in toilets and the impact of the toilet on everyday life around the world? I expected the exhibit to be more informative and in-depth. But it does have some extremely beautiful toilet bowls that put the common current and very boring toilet bowls to shame. You won’t be able to find anything close to these in your local store I think. Here are some of my favorite toilet bowls (hmm  – what an odd and unexpected sentence to use):

The exhibit also includes other items associated with the bathroom such as toilet pulls and sinks and even an outhouse.

 

Outhouse

Old-fashioned Outhouse

The museum is entertaining enough but not worth a special trip; however, it is an interesting addition to a visit already planned to enjoy the panorama and the castle, which are worth a trip.

Gmunden is in Upper Austria, about an hour’s drive from Salzburg and nearly three hours from Vienna. The museum is open Wednesdays through Sundays from 10AM till 5PM and during the summer (June-August) Tuesdays through Sundays from 10AM till 5PM. Check the museum’s website for changes in the opening hours and other details.

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Never Forget

Inside of the Mauthausen Memorial

Inside of the Mauthausen Memorial

I am rereading Maus by Art Spiegelman for a class after spring break. The graphic novel covers the parallel stories of Art’s father, a Polish Jew, during the Holocaust as well as the son’s interactions with his father and the struggles to retell the father’s story.The book reminded me of last year’s visit to Mauthausen, a concentration camp in Upper Austria; it is now a memorial site. The visit was a chilling but memorable experience:

Verdant long grass was bowing in the wind as waves of darker green were pushed over the meadow. At the entrance, I passed a group of young teenage girls lolling in the shadow of the fortress wall – in the center a girl in red leggings, with a bright blue backpack, and with a long shiny braid the color of ripe wheat. Just a few meters away, the boys from the same group told jokes, popped gum bubbles, and tried to steal each others’ sandwiches out of their bags.

Four rows of barbwire ran atop the grey fortress walls anchored by guard towers in the middle and at the corners. Individual blocks of granite from a nearby quarry formed the ribbons of wall decorated with polished granite plaques: “In remembrance of the soldiers of the 26th (Yankee) Infantry Division, Third US Army who liberated….” I walked through the gate below the plaques and onto an empty large square, the roll call area, flanked by rows of one-story buildings and ending in another grey wall. Polished plaques upon plaques reflected parts of my face and remembered the 122,766 prisoners murdered here – political dissidents, Roma and Sinti, freedom fighters, homosexuals, Jews; the signs did not seem to end.

Plaques near the Entrance of the Mauthausen Memorial

Plaques near the Entrance of the Mauthausen Memorial

A black-and-white photo display showed the same square I stood in, but in the photo the square was crowded with hundreds of naked males, most crossing their arms as to hug themselves. Most were standing; some were sitting on the ground and with their knees pulled up to their chests. All heads were freshly shaven. The crowd did not end in the photo and the square seemed infinite as if even more men were waiting outside the photo. But in front of me, the square was now empty, a wide plane of grey asphalt that was not in the picture.

Inside Mauthausen Work Camp

Inside Mauthausen Memorial

The wind was pushing waves through the meadows outside the gates, but I walked through small barrack rooms with bunk beds and enclosed by barb wire, saw the ash dump through the windows, listened to my echoing steps through cellars and disinfection rooms. A small underground room that looked much like a group shower bore more black granite plaques: “Here Max Fischler from Drohobycz was killed by gas on September 3, 1944 in his 49th year of life. Unforgettable!”

The two ovens in the next-door crematorium were draped in flags from Israel, Italy, Spain, and Poland. Black and white photos of men with their birth and death dates lined the walls in another room. The air was thick and much colder than it would make sense for a basement in summer. “Over the white pond the wild birds have moved on. In the evening an ice-cold wind blows from our stars” a white plaque remembered German Urbin. And still the grass waves were running through the high meadow outside the camp; the waves were moving away and up the hill – one followed by another and another and another.

Plaque Inside Mauthausen

Plaque Inside Mauthausen Memorial

At the top of the basement staircase, I ran into the class of twelve and thirteen-year olds that I had noticed before in the parking lot outside the gates. They were standing close to each other, nearly huddling but without physical contact. No one was speaking, no bubble popping, no braid swishing. I had never before seen a group of teenagers that quiet, that still, as after the tour of the Mauthausen concentration camp.

Link to the memorial’s website: http://en.mauthausen-memorial.at/

Meet a Saint at the Abbey in Schlierbach, Austria

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St. Julianus in the abbey church in Schlierbach

The visit to the Abbey in Schlierbach and the bones of Saint Julianus reminded me of an article about death that my students had to read for a response essay. The article was called “Death Is Having a Moment” and discussed the emergence of Death Salons around the Western World – see link to article: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/10/death-is-having-a-moment/280777/

The article mentioned a talk about bejeweled skeletons, especially popular in Bavarian, Austrian, and Swiss cultures it seems. A topic that was not surprising to me really shocked some students; most could not imagine what such a bejeweled skeleton could look like. A search online for jeweled skeletons provided images, plenty of examples of splendid pieces of art decorating the bones of mostly saints (for example, see this article with detailed pictures of skeletons: http://www.cnn.com/2013/12/05/world/gallery/beauty-from-the-crypt/ ).

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Interior of the abbey in Schlierbach

I did not expect to see a skeleton/saint in Schlierbach; it was not advertised in any way I noticed. But there he was, right up front but to the side of the main altar, not as bejeweled as some of the more spectacular examples online, but still impressive. None of the Austrians visiting the church with me paid much attention to the saint. It made me wonder whether Austrians are more open to discuss death and accept death as a natural part of life and culture as indicated by the article.

For an excellent online media tour of the abbey, go to: http://www.stift-schlierbach.at/fileadmin/panoramatour/index.html

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Steeple of the church in Schlierbach

Back in Austria

Upper Austrian Hills in the Evening

Upper Austrian Hills in the Evening

Even though the blog is called An Austrian in California, the first postings are from Austria (where I feel more like an Californian in Austria, but more about this in upcoming posts). The trip to Austria finally gave me the last push I needed to actually start the blog and not just think about it. To start with, above is an evening view of Upper Austrian rolling hills that show the less mountainous and maybe less well-known but nevertheless beautiful side of Austria.