Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Send That Guy To The Head Of The Class

As I walked up to the banos at the wine estate Errazuriz in Chile's Aconcagua Valley north of Santiago a couple of weeks ago, I had a vision. It told me to shape up, buckle down and start writing that book that's been teasing me from the far recesses of my mind. I could do this, I told myself, because it would be a book that required virtually no writing. Two words would do it, though they'd have to be in several languages, starting with the Spanish hombres and mujeres. Beyond that, it would be a picture book, focusing on the signs that cultures use to designate the whereabouts of bathrooms in restaurants, wineries, theaters and other public places. Don't you agree that it would be a grand idea if a publisher sent me around the world taking photos of bathroom doors? I've had some experience, and been neither arrested nor assaulted, though I have elicited a few chuckles and mystified and apprehensive glances.

Look, you've heard of sillier book proposals, right? Many have even been successful. Amazon.com lists no fewer than seven books about winery dogs. (There's another opportunity here; Amazon.com doesn't list a single book about winery cats, but I'll have my hands full with the bathroom project.) While Amazon.com does list one book about bathroom signs, I think it's a joke. It was published just this past April's Fool Day, for one, and the author is listed as "I.P. Daily."

Maybe my thinking has been twisted by three months in Latin America. Whether in Mexico, Argentina or Chile, I rarely saw the standard blue-on-white male-and-female silhouettes that make going to the bathroom in a restaurant or winery in the United States so predictable and cheerless. In Latin America, however, restaurateurs and vintners have fun in letting their clientele know which room is for men, which for women. Sure, they occasionally slip into old-fashioned stereotypes, such as using a lacy shawl or bright rose to designate the women's restroom, a set of spurs or a brushy mustache to indicate the men's. But for the most part their efforts seem to be meant in good cheer, to add levity and artistic expression to a routine chore. Why you don't see this kind of originality in the United States perplexes me, but there's probably a law that says restaurateurs, vintners and the like must conform to the silhouette standard for the safety and well-being of their customers. Thus, I can see the chapter on bathroom sings in the U.S. being pretty short. I face the same problem in France, where they don't seem to use many signs at all, probably because of their fondness for the unisex toilet.

As to the vision I had at Errazuriz, it was provided by Soledad Chadwick, described to me as a niece of the winery owner, Eduardo Chadwick. She apparently got the family assignment to highlight the men's and women's rooms at the winery. The wry original paintings with this posting was her response. While they reinforce the old belief that white wine is for women, red for men, that view is now so outdated that these signs can be seen more as artifact than command. Now to see if there's a book publisher about with a sense of humor...and a substantial advance and travel allowance.


  1. Another chapter of your book could focus on restroom doors in Upcountry Maui. Touristy portions of the island utilize the de rigeur blue circle and triangle, but the Upcountry uses "Kane" and "Wahine" along with a healthy dose of creativity. If you don't know which door is suitable for your needs, I'm certainly not going to spoil the joke and tell you!

  2. Mike, years ago, Errazariz was called, "Errazuriz Panquehue" Panquehue I believe is a Mapuche Indian word. I learned to drink wine 35 years ago in Chile. And another delightful non-wine place to visit is Pisuinco--pronounced, well, I am sure you can figure it out!

  3. Thank the lawyers for the lack of creative license in bathroom signage.
    Restrooms in the U.S. are required by law,(Americans with Disabilities Act of 1991), to display the boring blue door signs with Braille, -and- an ISA (International Symbol of Accessability) sign also in Braille to the swing side of the door.
    You would think that one braille sign would be enough and something like the signs you photographed would be obvious as to which gender goes where while serving up a little personality.
    But hey, we're talking about lawyers & bathrooms here.

    Bill Stephenson - Owner
    American Disability Consultants

  4. Marlene, Panquehue, which well may be a Mapuche Indian word, is the name of the area immeditely surrounding the winery. I suspect that Errazariz may have dropped it from its name as it began to pull grapes from more distant vineyards.

  5. Love your site, but did want to clear up one thing -- Bathroom Signs is a real book. I contributed one of the images and just received my comp copy -- it's cute. Perfect gift for my father and his crowd of friends.