WTF Weds: European showers, revisited.

Posted on
Oct 17, 2012

Sometimes my mother will say or do something so strange or utterly clueless, that all I can do is pull her onto my lap (for my mother is very wee and weighs nothing, and the genes that cause that are apparently recessive, damn it), gently take her face into my hands and whisper,

“You would have been eaten by wolves if it weren’t for me. Do you understand that? BY WOLVES.”

And she will dismiss me in that charming Italian way of hers, saying something like, “Oh, Geraldine, do shut up,” while sounding exactly like Arianna Huffington.

Recently, though, I realize I’ve evaluated the situation improperly. I simply thought, for years, that there was something wrong with my mother.

That’s why she calls Starburst candies by the incredibly strange name of “Opal Fruits.” Or how she refers to oatmeal as porridge. And then there’s her tendency to put ginger into random dishes like chicken soup.

No, seriously. She puts ginger in EVERYTHING.

She’ll call me when her computer breaks, or when the microwave confuses her, or when she receives a particularly aggressive piece of spam email that’s freaked her out good.

And all those times, I quietly pat her head, do what I can to help, eat her gingery chicken soup, and remind her that without me, she’d be dinner for a creature that was only slightly higher than her on the food chain.

But lately, I’ve been rethinking that. I’m starting to wonder if all the things that confuse my mother – and all the things that are confusing about my mother – are simply a result of her not exactly being from around here.

Yes, she’s lived in the U.S. for thirty odd years (sometimes very odd years), but she’s still a European at heart. I wonder if, no matter how much time you spend in another place, things still remain confusing and novel.

This thought hit me when I found myself confused (once again) by a European shower. We travel to Europe a handful of times a year. You’d think that by now, I’d have grown accustomed to a few things, and I have.

I have no problem drinking copious amounts of tea and gobbling up cake after cake when we’re in Ireland or England. I know that when in Italy, you don’t put cheese on any pasta with fish in it (and that, sure enough, the servers won’t even give you the option of having it).

I get that in Spain, you aren’t going to have dinner before 10pm. That’s just how it works.

But the shower I encountered in our cottage in Ireland was waaay more befuddling that all of that.

Here it is. It looks innocuous enough, right?

WRONG. It was positively evil. There were no knobs or handles of any kind that I could turn to get the water running. There was this little console inside, which I tried to use. At first, it seemed self explanatory.

It had dials for water temperature and water pressure, and a start/stop button! Plus, it was all in English! Surely I could figure this out, right?


I fiddled with those dials. I pressed that start/stop button until my fingertips were red. I did every single permutation of button pressing/dial turning I could think of, until I was near weeping.


Finally, Rand wondered aloud if the cord hanging down from across the room might have anything to do with the shower. He leaned over to pull it.

“DON’T YOU DARE PULL ON THAT,” I snapped. “I am fairly sure that will call the fire department, or set off an alarm, or something.”

I mean, it looked exactly like the little emergency pull-cord I’ve seen in hospitals and hotel rooms. The one you tug on that, with any luck, sends a handsome orderly or bellhop with a chiseled jaw to assist you (I’ve never pulled it. I’m speculating here).

Besides, how could that cord have anything to do with the shower? It was on the other side of the bathroom, and it looked like a fire alarm. There was even a little red light on it.

Rather than test Rand’s potentially disastrous theory, I stuck my head out of our room and screamed to our friends.


“Wait, really?” someone replied. “Ours is working fine … did you pull on the cord?”

“The what?”

“The cord. Did you pull on it?”

“Well … no.” I proceeded to mumble something about fire alarms while Rand looked at me and sighed.

We pulled the cord. Water instantly started gushing through the shower head.

And I realized that maybe I owe my mother an apology.

Leave a Comment

  • Steph

    I can totally relate! I am originally from England but have spent most of my adult life in the US, yet English showers elude me. Not are they so complicated, they’re never that good!

  • Most of the showers in Ireland when we went, were relatively normal. This one though. OMG. Ok, so I’m going to share my story with you.

    It all started when my husband took a shower in our room (lovely little B&B in Dublin). When he got out his teeth were chattering. He said the hot water had run out about 30 seconds after he got in the shower and he couldn’t do anything to get it back. We gave it an hour or so and then I tried it (because I still needed a shower dang it!) and AH SO COLD! We even had the owners come up to our room to see if we were doing something wrong. Nope, we just had no hot water.

    So they told me I could use the back up community shower. I might have cried a bit (yeah, I don’t like “community” anything) and then went to the bathroom to shower. This shower had a funny looking contraption very similar to the one you faced. I turned it on, got it to the right temperature and hopped in. Then, HOLY SHIT HOT! I jumped back and tried to adjust the dials as best as I could figure out. Then, OMG COLD! Adjust, adjust. OMG HOT! At this point, my skin was bright red from literally burning my skin and I was crying again. No matter what I did, the water was either freezing cold or scalding hot. I chose freezing cold water over blisters and rinsed off as fast as I could. Thank goodness we didn’t stay in that B&B long.

  • Andres.R

    Great Post…. I have those moments in europe also. Todays my bday I would love a shout out it be an honor from my favorite blogger of all time.

  • That shower truly does qualify for the WTF designation! I certainly would not have thought that cord was related! And I would have been to afraid to pull it and find out! My spouse, on the other hand, would have pulled it on the way to the loo just for the hell of it!

  • I’m an American living in England with a British husband, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to ask him to come into the bathroom and show me how to use the shower. It’s humiliating, really, and even though I haven’t done it in a while, it’s still a running joke in our household. Every time we visit a new hotel, he asks if I’d like assistance getting the water running. Oh, well, it’s good that he has ONE thing that he can do better than I can. =)

  • The shower in the guest house at my dad’s (in England) is like this, and without fail the first time I go to shower I forget about the cord and stand there trying to remember what the trick is. So you are not alone.

  • fran

    Yeah, that’s an electric shower (I’m in England). You’re right though, they’re rubbish.

    Your mother’s right though – OPAL FRUITS (made to make your mouth water). Also, SNICKERS (not Marathons). 🙂

  • So funny – I was reading this thinking “ah, she probably didn’t pull the cord” (I’m a Brit) – I bet the power was a weak trickle too! Something else we just accept – but we do make a damn good cuppa!

  • Sammi

    you know how you want to pat your mother on the head when something confuses her?
    i want to do that to you RIGHT NOW!
    i knew there was a cord before i even got to the bottom of this post- we have the same at work in the rooms. tho’ we do point it out to the guests and explain that’s what its for 🙂
    bless your hearts!X

  • Eleanor

    As one of those English people who I’m sure people from other parts of the world presume can use showers in my own country, I thought that I would share this small piece of info: bathrooms in the UK are designed to befuddle, confuse and torment. I personally have never lived in a home since I left my parents where the shower was my friend. If it wasn’t the mystery cords, switches on the boiler or small nobs on the other side of the house, it was a shower so stubborn that only a careful balance of turning the shower on full, then down, then increasing the temperature at a snail-paced speed, whilst simultaneously running the hot tap in the bath and the cold tap in the sink, would produce anything even resembling an adequate supply of water for showering under. I wish I was exaggerating, I live in Glasgow at present, and my god is it cold, hopping around from foot to foot , inadequately dressed in a towel whilst running through this complex procedure is anything but pleasant…
    As a side note, showers in the UK which are electric have to have an isolator switch so that you can shut off the electricity supply to the shower for maintenance purposes. I know this only thanks to the never ending plumbing wisdom of my Dad, even he however cannot explain the excentricities of my current plumbing system…. xxx

  • Jenny

    I had one of those moments just this past weekend, visitng my boyfriend in his new apartment. The water seemed like it was never going to warm up, and he said “it doesn’t usually take this long…..OH. you’re doing it wrong.” figures. Why oh why must these things be so complicated?!

  • You have nothing to be ashamed of. The shower cord needed a label or they needed a sign in the bathroom. Isn’t the hospitality industry supposed to be hospitable? As a Baby Boomer I find myself to be a member of the “sandwich generation” on the issue of technology. My 87 year old mother thinks I’m a veritable genius, while my 25 year old son believes that my questions merit eye rolling. In my travels, my most perplexing “How the $-%+& does this work?” moments occurred when meeting Japanese toilets for the first time.

  • abigailabear

    This past Christmas my husband and I were staying at the Park Lane Hotel in London (lovely, btw). On the night we arrived, exhausted and I’m sad to say a bit sick – I decided to take a shower. No matter what I tried I could NOT get the water to turn on. Naked and cold (and don’t forget sick) I yelled to my husband to call the front desk. I listened to the conversation, heard my husband reassure the woman on the phone that “yes, we turned the knob.” He then put the phone down in irritation and said that they were sending an Engineer up to look at it, because after all turning on the shower, “IS REALLY QUITE ELEMENTARY.” I’ll admit I was torn between marching my naked bum down to the lobby to confront this women who must just think all Americans are inept and laughing so hard at the sheer Brit-ness of the statement. In the end the shower was broken! Thank goodness there was a bath:)

  • Never seen something like that shower.
    You know, I would like something like “European” existed. The moment you cross a border, suddendly people speak a totally different language, they don’t use the same power plugs, they deem odd something that for you is normal and vice versa.
    Oh yes, there’s one common thing: road signs are pretty much the same!

  • No fun.. I have to say, I do appreciate how easy it is to get a good shower in the US. I’ve been electrocuted dozens of times in Latin America, and had to suffer through some freezing cold water.
    Croatia was interesting: showers have sprayer heads, yet didn’t have curtains or doors? I didn’t understand how to not create a pool of water all over the floor.

    • Sheena

      My hotel in Italy was like this – nothing to keep the shower water in. We used to build a towel dam to stop the water from flooding our room. I do think the hotel housekeepers were a little annoyed with us – but seriously! How are you supposed to NOT flood the bathroom?

    • Are you sure it wasn’t a wetroom? A lot of smaller bathrooms in Europe are designed to be soaked by the shower. I lived in a dorm room with one, and they’re reasonably practical until you go to brush your teeth and end up with wet socks!

  • isabel

    I think there are the Europeans… and there are the British. They fall in a different category.
    I’m Portuguese and I’ve never seen such a thing in a shower. Here they are pretty normal, I guess.

  • We have a shower just like that!

    If you can master the art of showering in Europe, or anywhere else in the world for that matter, then you will be clean 🙂

    Seriously, that’s the fun of travelling, right?

  • CatCatAttack

    They have those cords in maternity wards, in the private bathrooms, to call the nurse in. So I would not have pulled the cord without instructions.
    You need to figure out what the tech is here in the States, that the Europeans and Brits can’t figure out without assistance.

  • Beth

    Too funny! Sometimes, in England or Ireland, you need to flip a switch on the light switch panel, so be forewarned for future shower befuddlement.

  • Kristina Cline

    wow, I never realized how grateful I am that our hotel in london had a normal shower. It was in one of these row houses near the victoria station. That trip was our first vacation as a married couple, and a pull cord thingy would have ruined our entire trip.

  • Meg B

    I would’ve had the same reaction “don’t pull the cord, the police will come!”. Glad it worked out for you in the end. If I’m ever in Ireland and have the same problem I will remember this post.

  • Kamie

    I’ve pulled the cord in a bathroom in Italy before, no less a hospital bathroom, and the orderlys came a running and a pounding on the door. I could not tell you if they were handsome or not, as I was busy buttoning my pants. Turns out I pull the Wrong cord…. oye.

  • I’m from the UK and I thought this might have something to do with pulling a cord! I would say it’s obvious, but it’s really not. Especially since we often have cords for the bathroom ventilation fan, or the light, or the shower in this case – you never really know! I just assumed the whole world had confusing showers.

  • Sarah

    As a brit living in Canada, this made me laugh! I too was thinking ‘I bet she hasn’t pulled the chord’. I always grew up with a shower like that. I never realized it was weird!

    I’ve got another weird European thing for you (Well, Bristish)… Everyone that I know growing up, had a Henry Hoover. This week I asked my Canadian friend where she kept hers and she had no idea what I was talking about.

    What is a Henry Hoover you ask? It’s a vacuum cleaner with a face. They used to be as common in a british household, as ketchup is in a fridge. Looking back, I don’t know how I spent so many years of my life thinking this was totally world wide and normal. It’s a little red vacuum with a face! The cooler families used to have a Hetty Hoover, which was a pink girly version. I highly recommend you google images it. It was a big hit in the opal fruits era.

    • We still have Henry Hoover! I don’t think they’ve died out at all…when me and my housemates moved into our new place, the first thing we did was go out and get a Henry. If you’re going to attempt to keep a house full of boys clean, you might as well do it with something that smiles at you when you turn around.

      I forgot about the bathroom cord! We had one at home when I was growing up…I don’t think they’re as powerful as normal showers. Thank God my dad got rid of it after a few years!

  • Betty

    Haaaaa! Fun times 🙂

    I live in Europe and I have never seen a shower with a cord.

  • Jessa

    I hear you on this! I’m spending time in London, our shower is different than what I’m used to but I eventually figured it out. On the other hand, the washer/dryer combo and dishwasher are nightmares! When we moved in, I was annoyed we had a drawer full of instruction manuals (already short on storage). I quickly realized why they have been saved. As if doing laundry already didn’t suck…now I have to consult a manual first. While I’m complaining, they both beep continuously when the cycle is complete. And they don’t stop until you turn off the machine (not open the door, turn off). Do a load before bed? Don’t even think about it. I’ll never adapt to these!

    • Tracy

      Jessa, I live in Helsinki and my dryer is the EXACT same. I finally called Miele and they walked me through about 86 steps on how to turn the buzzer completely off. I’ll take the trade off of not necessarily knowing when the dryer has stopped for not having to deal with the incessant beeping! And don’t even get me started on how long it actually takes to wash and dry (and hang so it finishes drying!) a load or the beeping of the dishwasher that can’t be turned off until the thing is opened!

  • Can’t wait til the day you try to figure out how to use an old school toilet in China. I am sure that would make a great post 🙂

  • allison

    IM DYING. IM DYING, LAUGHING. Not that I would know what to do in this situation, Im laughing because I would be just like you were in this situation.

  • Unless it’s a sweater or you’re in an epidsode of the Road Runner, you always pull the string. I’m actually struggling these days with turning sinks on.

  • I have spent a semester in France, a summer in Japan and vacationed in the Caribbean and have never seen anything like this. That cord absolutely looks like some kind of safety/fire/emergency mechanism…and is it outside the bathroom? Strange, but at least I’ll be prepared if I encounter this in the future. Thanks for the humorous write up lol

  • There are showers in the UK that make me wish I was still under a bucket shower in India!

  • James

    My Grandmother had a shower just like that in her bathroom in Donegal.

  • We just moved to Canada. I have no idea what anyone is saying half the time. They say stuff like, “Let’s head to the pub and have bevies and appies and maybe some matrimonial cake.”

    WTF? This is North America!

    I asked a friend to pick up some Sharp cheese and candy corn at the grocery store. Nope. Your choices are “Mild,” “Medium” or “Old.” She actually phoned me from the grocery store to tell me this. (Canadians are very polite and cannot tell you you’re stupid to your face.)

    But here’s the kicker….NO CANDY CORN. They don’t even know what it is.

    So, yeah. Tell me how we can ever accomplish world peace when we can’t even coordinate shower types or cheese names.

  • Bahahaha, wow as an Irish person, I guess I never quite realized how impractical that cord is! Although if you have a cord shower in your house, you’re well modern!
    I have forgotten to turn it on many a time…and god forbid if you forget to turn it off!! There’ll be trouble!! 😛

  • I’m with you. I would have never thought to pull the cord. I need to store this information away in my brain for when I visit Ireland. It will probably be decades from now, and I’ll think how back in 2012 that nice woman Geraldine told me about pulling the cord. FYI – In Malaysia, there’s a switch you have to turn on in the bathroom for the water heater. It’s probably unmarked and nestled among 10 other light switches.

  • Absolutely hysterical! I enjoyed your article so much I’m going to link to it! Good tidbit to tuck away for our family trip to the UK next summer.

  • Absolutely hilarious! Loved every bit of it LOL!! Pictures were amazing!

  • Melody

    Lets be honest though! Even in America you find the most confusing shower knobs!

  • 123

    That was my thoughts exactly when I first came across The Cord

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