The quirky side of Amsterdam

28th of April 2014
The quirky side of Amsterdam

As cleaning professionals from all over the world converge on Amsterdam for ISSA/INTERCLEAN, ECJ's Ann Laffeaty lists 10 points highlighting the quirkier side of cleaning and hygiene in the city.

The world's cleaning and hygiene professionals will be travelling to Amsterdam once again this spring for the biennial ISSA/INTERCLEAN. During the day they will be networking at the RAI, gaining sales leads, eyeing up competitors' stands and generally increasing their industry knowledge.

But for eye-opening innovations in cleaning and hygiene they should step outside the exhibition hall and head for the city. Here are ten interesting ‘quirks' about cleaning and hygiene in Amsterdam.

1. Amsterdam's state-of-the-art toilet shop. Amsterdam is the birthplace of a toilet concept - pioneered in 2011 - designed to provide everyone with access to clean washrooms when out shopping or sightseeing. For a small fee shoppers can enjoy "an oasis of peace and relaxation" by stepping into a clean, hygienic and attractively-decorated 2theloo toilet.

The company's flagship ‘toilet shop' can be found in Amsterdam's Kalverstraat, though more than 100 others have sprung up all over the Netherlands and in other countries as well.

Anyone can pop in. Simply pay your money at the turnstile and soon you will be entering your own tiny toilet haven lovingly decorated by an artist, illustrator or sculptor. If you are lucky you may be greeted with views of a mountain stream, a grazing deer or an atmospheric night sky. The less fortunate may be confronted with more bizarre images such as that of a giant licking cow: two lipsticked mouths on either side of you, or an angry-looking giant penguin that glares down at you as you relieve yourself.

The concept works well, however, because shoppers no longer need to suffer the angst of being unable to find a hygienic public washroom. 2theloo washrooms are cleaned continuously throughout the day and the entrance fee can be redeemed at the toilet shop where washroom products, gifts and gadgets are on sale. The Amsterdam 2theloo even has its own coffee corner where visitors can fill up with hot drinks.... before the whole cycle inevitably continues.

2theloo, Kalverstraat 126, Amsterdam,

2....and why 2theLoo is so successful. Public toilets in general are nothing to write home about in Amsterdam, and most of them charge an entrance fee. If you step into a bar and ask to use the facilities the bartender may well refuse - or even charge you. This is possibly the reason why so much urinating takes place in public. However, ‘wild peeing' as it is known in the Netherlands can set you back even more than the domesticated kind since perpetrators are fined up to 90 euros if caught.

The stakes are even higher if you decide to relieve yourself in the canal after a long night in a brown bar. Around 15 people each year actually die as a result of urinating in an Amsterdam canal. The reasons for this are unclear: perhaps the victim has had too much to drink; they lose their footing in the dark or the icy-cold canal water makes it difficult to escape. But police can immediately spot the body of a canal-urinator by the fact that their trousers are still undone.

3. Toilets on the go. A recent survey of 850 Dutch motorists revealed a high level of disgruntlement about toilet facilities at service stations. So much so in fact that 74 per cent said they carried their own supply of toilet paper with them in case none was supplied.

The survey, conducted by research bureau PanelWizard, found that dirty roadside toilets made Dutch drivers even more irritable than traffic jams. Around 80 per cent of holidaymakers avoided contact with the toilet seat and 69 per cent used a disinfectant gel afterwards.

Bizarrely, the survey also revealed that many Dutch people would rather ‘go' outside than use a service station washroom. That old wild peeing gene rearing its ugly head again?

4. A litter-free city park - and many happy alcoholics. One unusual phenomenon you may come across in Amsterdam is the sight of down-and-outs and alcoholics cleaning the streets.

In a breathtakingly pragmatic government-funded move, the city has decided to kill two birds with one stone and occupy its homeless in keeping the streets litter-fee. The street cleaning team is mostly made up of long-term alcoholics and its members are paid peanuts for their efforts. And when we say peanuts, we actually mean beer.

Talking toilets

Yes, Amsterdam is paying its alcoholics in booze to keep its streets clean. The scheme, funded by state subsidies and donations, rounds up people in Amsterdam's Oosterpark who have been ‘causing a nuisance' and then puts them to work. Besides the booze they are supplied with cigarettes and a hot lunch for their efforts. Around 20 alcoholics have been taken on so far and the team works six hours a day (apart from the odd beer break).

5. A toilet that talks? On the ECJ website we recently reported the unveiling of talking toilets on Virgin Trains in the UK. The aim of these was to tackle the problem of blocked loos through spoken messages urging travellers to avoid putting nappies, paper towels and other items down the toilet.

But talking toilets were actually initially pioneered in Amsterdam. In 2004 Dutch contemporary artist Leonard van Munster was commissioned to create a talking toilet at the city's De Balie cultural centre. The loo used a computer linked to various sensors to analyse washroom behaviour and generate relevant comments.

For example, the toilet might urge visitors to lift the seat; rebuke them for using too much toilet paper or for failing to flush. Then if you were to light a cigarette the toilet would start ‘coughing' before pointing out the dangers of smoking. And it was also programmed to make jokes and pass comment about previous users.

The De Balie theatre and centre for politics, culture and media is situated in Amsterdam's former District Court. Whether the talking toilet is still there or whether it had to be removed after enraging the visitors is unclear - but if you have time to drop in to find out, do let us know.

De Balie cultural centre, Kleine-Gartmanplantsoen 10, Leidseplein

6. Of cold water and calendars. If you are lucky enough to be invited to the house of a Dutch colleague or client while at the show you will probably notice a couple of quirks about the downstairs loo. The first is that the sink will probably only have one tap - and a cold one at that. Hot water for hand washing appears to be an anathema to the Dutch (one theory is that their toilets at home are so small that there is no room for two taps at the sink).

Unfortunate error

The second quirk is that there will probably be a birthday calendar on the wall. Yes, it appears that the smallest room in the house is where the Dutch go to write their birthday cards.

7. A hand washing error - captured for posterity. At Liberation Day festivals in the Netherlands - held to mark the end of the German occupation in 1945 - the men's urinals tend to be a rudimentary affair consisting of basic metal troughs. A hapless US visitor once mistook one of these troughs for a hand wash station and his error was captured for posterity. Unfortunately for him it has been on YouTube ever since the incident occurred in 2010 - and has so far attracted over 160,000 hits.

8. Toilet bags on trains. The ever-practical Dutch recently came up with an ingenious - though controversial - scheme to avoid city commuters being ‘caught short' in emergency situations.

The 16 per cent of Dutch trains that have no on-board toilets are now supplied with plastic bags for travellers' use.

The bags contain a powder that turns into gel when a liquid is added. In theory, passengers requiring one can ask the driver for a bag and then use it in the driver's cab. However when interviewed on Dutch TV, some rail passengers were dismayed by the idea. "Are you serious?" said one unnamed female passenger. "No, no way, I just can't see myself ‘going' in that. For a man it may be easier, for a woman that's just impossible."

But according to Edwin van Scherrenburg of Dutch National Railways, the bags are not designed for everyday use. "They are for emergency planning only: say for example when there is one metre of snow outside and evacuation is not possible." An unfortunate choice of words on his part?

9. A bizarre presentation to a Dutch government minister. We all want improved sanitation in developing countries - and the more publicity that can be achieved around it, the better.

This must be why the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs' ambassador for sustainable development recently agreed to be photographed seated against a backdrop of toilet rolls - on a gold-painted toilet - where she was ceremoniously presented with a golden toilet roll.

Lavatory ceremony

The presentation was made by Ariette Brouwer, ceo of Simavi, a non-profit organisation based in the Netherlands that campaigns for everyone's right to good health. Simavi also presented Dutch ambassador Kitty van der Heijden with a petition on behalf of the WASH Alliance asking for better water, hygiene and sanitation in developing countries.

Why the point had to be made with poor Ms van der Heijden seated so ignominiously on a lavatory - and in the middle of one of the Hague's busiest squares to boot - is anybody's guess.

10. And finally, a treat for when you leave ..... Airport washrooms are traditionally known for their clinical and impersonal ambience since there is no need to delight and impress the ‘passing-through' airline passenger.

So why did no-one tell that to the powers-that-be at Schiphol Airport?

Admittedly some of the washrooms there are run-of-the-mill, but others are quirkily themed to send you away with a warm feeling about your Amsterdam visit. In one of the gents' facilities, for instance, the urinals are set against a backdrop of Amsterdam streets to provide that ‘wild peeing' effect. A ladies' loo in the departures area, meanwhile, takes a seaside theme and features beach murals, a picket fence and a fake lighthouse. There is even a soundtrack of seagulls calling to add to the illusion.

Another washroom is themed on tall and interesting Dutch landmarks with a picture of a different building on each cubicle. If you require precise statistics on the height of the building, just pop in and check inside the door.

Giant tulips, daffodils and clogs are also used to brighten up Schiphol's loos, and rumour has it that there is a painted fly on every urinal in the gents. But in typical Dutch style, this is mainly for practical purposes since theorists claim that most men will automatically aim for the ‘fly' - which has been strategically placed to reduce the risk of spills, smells and sticky floors. Genius.


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