Monday, January 14, 2013

Slovakia's aversion to showers and shower curtains

No, I'm not talking about showering in terms of hygiene, which I discussed in this post. Rather, I'm talking about what has to be one of the single most vexing cultural traits I've encountered here in Slovakia. An issue more bizarre than the nation's devotion to homemade gut rot that could double as paint stripper; more disconcerting than how the whole country willingly subjects itself to the nauseating top 40 diarrhea played on Fun Radio and Radio Expres; and more baffling than the Slovak people's love of putting Coke in their wine. What I want to tackle in this post is the general absence of, or resistance to, showers and shower curtains, which makes trying to take a proper shower in Slovakia quite difficult.

The majority of dwellings in Slovakia seem to have bathtubs as opposed to stand-up style shower stalls. But whereas in the US pretty much all bathtubs come with a shower head mounted on the wall at head level or higher and, quite importantly, a shower curtain (or sliding glass doors) to prevent water from spraying all over the bathroom, in Slovakia this is not the case.

Firstly, in most Slovak homes the bathtubs almost never have a shower curtain. Secondly, in the tub there is usually a hand-held shower head attached to a hose which runs from the faucet, and in some cases there is a mounted shower head holder on the wall, in which you can place the shower head. However, this shower head holder is usually placed either too low or at too strange or awkward of a spot to be able to use it for taking a normal shower. It's really just there to hold the shower head when you're not using it.

You're not taking a shower in this tub, buddy! Unless, of course, you're 2 feet tall. There's no curtain and the shower head is mounted down low on the wall, which is quite typical in Slovakia. Also, notice the close proximity of the electrical outlet to the tub. You'd better be really damn careful where you aim that shower head!

This is the shower/tub in our former apartment on Dunajska. Although there is a shower curtain, you can see that the shower head is sitting in a mount that was inserted into the wall at about shoulder level. Also, notice how the window prevents one from mounting the shower head up on the wall above the spigot, where it would normally go. This certainly indicates that the apartment owner has a strange concept of how showers work.

To someone who's not used to this set up, it poses several problems:

First of all, since there is no shower curtain you have to be really careful not to douse the bathroom with the handheld shower head. One wrong move, even for a flicker of a second, and you've sprayed the room, which means when you're done you will have to find some towels and dry the floor and anything else that you've drenched. (And you better hope that you haven't sprayed your significant other's straightening iron that she's got plugged into the wall on a nearby counter).

Of course, the lack of a shower curtain also means that you have to sit, squat, or crouch uncomfortably in the tub to wash yourself, because you'll drench the room if you attempt to stand. This is what the Slovaks do. It probably isn't an issue for more limber yoga-bodied types, but if you're tall, non-limber, stiff-backed, and tend to make grunty old man noises whenever you get up (I am guilty of all four), then this can be quite a formidable inconvenience.

But that's not all. Trying to wash yourself while you've got a shower head in one hand (with which you're trying really hard not to spray the room) quickly becomes a tricky and awkward juggling act. I mean, what do you do with the shower head when you're washing your hair or lathering your body? Unless you're Shiva, you have to keep setting it down to free up your hands, which means that you get cold each time that you do, and if you leave the water on while you've put the shower head down, not only are you wasting water, but you have to make sure the water pressure doesn't flip the head around like a snake and spray water out of the curtainless tub.

This is the bathtub at Terezia's brother Tony's house. When Terezia and I lived here for about a month in 2011, we found "showering" in this tub to be quite the ordeal. Notice the shower head holder mounted on the wall, which is rendered useless by the absence of a shower curtain. Also, notice how all the toiletries are on a shelf unit that's right next to the tub! Trying to wash oneself without accidentally spraying this shelf was a monumental challenge.

So, as you can see, trying to stay clean in this country can be an awkward and uncomfortable experience. Their bathtubs all seem to have detachable shower heads, but without a simple shower curtain, washing yourself becomes a messy and awkward affair. And yet, quite vexingly, despite the fact that this problem is easily solvable, many Slovaks don't seem to have a problem with it in the slightest.

Sure, I could just chalk this up to simple cultural differences and get on with my life, like any normal person would. But no, I decided I needed to get to the bottom of this. I've spoken to a few other expats and non-Slovaks about this and they find the whole thing equally baffling. I mean, it's not like we're in some totally undeveloped country where everyone has to bathe in the local stream and crap in holes. Plus, for me, being able to wash yourself while standing under a constant stream of hot water for a few minutes is one of life's simple pleasures, and I know I'm not alone on this. It's fascinating that a nation's people would deprive themselves of this.

Of course, I want to emphasize that I'm not trying to cast judgment or claim some kind of cultural superiority by condescendingly telling the Slovak people they're "doing it wrong" or that they're doing it the "hard way". I'm really just trying to understand what to me is the perplexing mystery of how so many Slovaks get by in this world without normal showers.

I interviewed a few locals to get a little insight into the matter, although in the end, I'm really no less confused about why Slovaks tend to be cool with this set up. It's simply how things are, apparently, and they just seem to roll with it. At any rate, here's what I found:

1. The notion that a bathtub can double as a shower, simply by using a shower curtain and a logically placed shower head, seems to elude many Slovaks.

They seem to view bathtubs as something you sit down to bathe in, whereas they see showers where you clean yourself while standing as something you only do in stall-type showers.

Case in point: when we first viewed our new apartment, the previous tenants were still living in it, and we got to chat with them a bit. When we walked into the bathroom, we immediately noticed that the bathtub lacked a shower curtain. There was, however, the requisite shower head attached to a hose. Terezia innocently asked how they took showers without a curtain. "Well, this is for sitting, for taking baths," the guy explained matter of factly, as if the concept of buying a shower curtain and mounting the shower head up on the wall was completely unheard of.

Second case in point: in a few of the apartments we looked at during our search, as well as in numerous other apartments that we saw online, the owners had installed a bathtub in one corner of the bathroom, and a separate stall shower in the other corner. I mean, seriously? Am I the only one who sees this as a flagrant waste of money and energy? Don't these people realize that they could simply set the bathtub up with a shower curtain and shower head and be done with it? (And I should stress that these weren't fancy or expensive apartments).

An example of a bathroom containing both a stall shower and a bathtub.

2. Most Slovaks apparently just don't seem to mind sitting/crouching/squatting in the tub to bathe themselves. 

When I asked some Slovaks if this was problematic for them, most shrugged their shoulders or quizzically shook their heads, as if it was something they'd never really thought about. For me, squatting in the tub destroys my knees, and it does little to alleviate the stiff back I sometimes wake up with in the morning, unlike regular, stand-up showers, in which I can loosen up my back after a couple minutes of standing under the hot steady stream of water. However, the people from the US and UK who I've spoken to about this who don't suffer from such back issues agree that having to squat down in the tub is definitely less than ideal.

When I asked Terezia's brother Tony about this, he admitted that having to squat in the tub does seem to irritate his back sometimes, and that standing up to take a normal shower would be preferable.

3. Years of experience appears to have made many Slovaks pretty adept at aiming the shower head so as not to drench the bathroom. 

When I asked people how they avoid drenching the bathroom with their handheld shower heads and curtainless tubs, they told me they usually sit so that the larger wall is directly behind them, and they are careful to aim the shower head in the general direction of that wall. This was my approach when we were staying at Tony's, and while it sounds logical enough, I can tell you from experience that it's easier said than done. A shower curtain would certainly make the experience much less of a hassle.

One of the locals I spoke to said that when he takes a shower, he is constantly conscious of where he is aiming the shower head, to the point where he admitted that taking a Slovak style "shower" is not a particularly relaxing experience for him.

Here's the tub in our new apartment. We need to get a shower curtain ASAP. 

4. Those that I interviewed do, in fact, place the shower head down to free up both their hands when lathering themselves with shampoo or soap. 

This is clearly how you avoid the juggling act, but of course, simply having both hands free while you stand under a properly mounted shower head is so much easier and more pleasant. But the other problem for me and other expats is that as soon as you set that shower head down and the water is no longer streaming over you, you get really cold!

See, when you get out of a hot shower or bath, this phenomenon occurs wherein the droplets of water on your skin evaporate, thus causing your body to immediately cool off. When I asked my Slovak interviewees how they cope with this when setting the shower head down to wash their hair, most acted like they didn't know what I was talking about. This led me to believe that Slovaks must be totally insensitive to abrupt climatic changes. After a bit more probing, however, I discovered that apparently, a lot of people in this country actually don't shower with steaming hot water like most Americans do, but with lukewarm water. So, maybe they're already kind of acclimatized to the cold while showering to begin with?

I don't know about you, but when I shower even in lukewarm water, I get goosebumps and my teeth start chattering. Most people that I know from the US are the same way. Sure, I knew a couple of people back home who claimed to take (and loved to brag about) cold showers, but those people were also totally fucking nuts.

But why lukewarm water? Are Slovaks all born with some kind of special, thick, super-human skin? Or, are they just trying to save on their gas bills? Or are they just used to living in places where the hot water can be really erratic (which is not at all uncommon)? I didn't really get a clear answer on this, although one respondent told me that he believes showering in really hot water is unhealthy, while another said that if the bathroom is properly heated, she doesn't get cold when putting the shower head down or when using tepid water. So, there may be something to this thick super-human skin theory.

5. Many people in Slovakia apparently grew up with bathtubs, not stall showers, and for whatever reason, showers that allow you to stand up while showering are still less common today. 

The concept of standing up to take a shower seems to have caught on quite late in Slovakia. In terms of their development, it seems people got as far as installing in their tubs the now requisite detachable shower head, and then just said, "ah, screw it, that's good enough". So, why in this day and age have more people still not made the leap? They've embraced so many other aspects of western culture - why overlook this one area? Most hotels seem to have stall showers, and quite a few people here do actually have them in their apartments or houses, so the concept of standing up to take a shower is not totally foreign, yet strangely, it still seems to be outside the norm.

6. Bathtubs are often installed in places where it's difficult for them to double as showers.

Basically, it seems not to have occurred to many Slovaks that the tubs they install could also be adapted for use as stand-up style showers. In Slovakia, it's common to see bathtubs with two or three exposed sides, which of course makes it impossible to install a regular shower curtain rod. In the US tubs are almost always wedged in a sort of alcove so that they're surrounded by walls on three sides, making it easy to put up a curtain rod along the one exposed side. In older bathrooms with claw foot tubs, which are not hemmed in by any walls, there are "floating" style shower curtain rods, which are not hard to find and set up, as well as curved rods, which could be a good solution for those corner tubs that are so common here. I suspect this is one reason why some people just couldn't be bothered to get a shower curtain, since installing a curved rod might be a little less straight-forward. But to me, the hassle of putting up a curved shower curtain rod is far outweighed by the unpleasantness of squatting in a tub and doing all I can to keep from accidentally spraying water all over the bathroom.

Tubs with two or more exposed sides are a common sight in Slovak bathrooms.
By contrast, tubs in the US are more commonly placed in alcoves so that only one side is exposed, making it easier to install a shower curtain. 

Sometimes even if tubs in Slovakia are installed in a three wall alcove, like in our former (and current) apartment, you still have myriad other issues that make showering difficult, like a window where the shower head would normally be, or the shower head placed in a weird non-intuitive spot. Or, of course, no shower curtain.

Ultimately, I still don't have a clear or definitive answer to my question about why Slovaks shower the way they do. It seems like they're used to doing things a certain way, and it just hasn't occurred to them to do it differently, and/or they are just totally okay with it. The Slovak way of showering is not for me, and it's certainly bemusing to the non-Slovaks and expats who I know. But like I said above, I really don't want to come off as patronizing, so I should end this by stressing - to each his own.


  1. Hello
    That is definitely interesting view on showering and it is funny for me thinking about that. I will try to describe something, maybe it helps. I am Slovak and yes, baths were installed in past decades just for taking bath. Most of flats in apartment buildings (and all its pipelines) were built in similar way in former Czechoslovakia and in minimal standard. You must not forget, it was in republic ownership at least until 1898. So you just had to lay or sit in bathtube. Standing in it was not considered.
    Much later people, on their own, added shower heads on original pipelins (the simplest way without big reconstruction) and not only for showering but also for easier cleaning. That is other reason, why it is so low. As we discovered, there is one big advantage - you can stand on the floor and you can shower whatever you need :-). As for me, I don't like shower curtains - it is not maintainable very well and I need feeling of hygiene in bathroom. So in our family, we have separated bathtub and stall shower too. It is the best for us.

    1. Hi Slavka,
      Thanks for your informative and insightful comment (and thanks for reading my epic post)! It's true - if there is one disadvantage to shower curtains, it's that they get a funky layer of soap buildup after a few years and you have to replace them. But at least they are cheap. And if you keep them drawn after showering, that allows them to dry out and prevents them from getting mildewy. I suppose a tub with glass sliding doors would be the best option - the glass is easier to clean than a shower curtain, but with a tub one can still take baths if one doesn't feel like showering.

  2. An extremely well researched posting indeed, i was always wondering why my gf does this. Having lived all over the world we are proud owners of both shower curtains and other mod cons. :)

    I think you'll find that the UK is far worse outside london... they dont event have mixer taps in many places.

    anyway i love your blog, reading it avidly.

    1. Thank you so much! Yes, a British guy I know here mentioned something about the prevalence of old non-mixer taps in the UK and how people here consider that to be uncivilized. You can occasionally find those in some older places in the US as well. But I'll still take that over not being able to stand up to take a shower!

  3. Hi there. I'm also from the US and I'm spending one month in Bratislava. I have to ask, what's up with the toilet tank installed higher than your head? The only advantage I can find is that you can lift your arm and pull on the string to give your first courtesy flush, although not to mention that your rump will get soaked as the water gushes through. I am staying at a modern hotel dorm, where everything was bought from IKEA. They have a standing tiled shower, and the shower head is above my head, but there's still no shower curtain! I honestly still don't get it.

    1. Welcome to Bratislava! I haven't seen many toilet tanks installed high on the walls here (I've encountered that more in France and Italy), but yes, there always seems to be something missing from the equation as far as what is needed to take a normal shower. Good luck keeping the bathroom dry!

  4. This is really a fun article and an interesting look at an aspect of human nature. You've inspired me to write an essay about showering in Taiwan!

    1. I would love to know about showering in Taiwan! It's a fun topic because I'd never really realized how different and sort of behind the curve other developed nations are in terms of showering. Whenever it is that I move back to the US, I will cherish every single shower that I take!

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