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PopAnth — Hot Buttered Humanity
Popular anthropology for everyone.

The hidden beauty of a toilet brush

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The cleaners in the Spanish hotel at Tarragona, where I was staying to attend a conference on medical anthropology, were taken by surprise when I approached them to complain that there was no toilet brush in my bathroom. The head cleaner smiled and said none of the bathrooms had them. I expressed regret and she told me not to worry. Actually, "don't worry" is not the only way of translating the Spanish "no se preocupe," which could also mean that there is no need to bother or care. But I did care! When I returned to my beautifully cleaned room at the end of the day I cared even more. "This doesn't feel right," I thought.

Those of you who have read Sex changes and changing rooms may begin to think that I am obsessed with toilets. I am not! But neither am I afraid to write about bodily things that are outside the bounds of polite conversation.

This reminds me of a conversation twenty years ago with an Angolan friend who had come to live in the United Kingdom. She was complaining about the straight handles of British toilet brushes: how was she supposed to clean the toilet properly, if she couldn't clean at an angle? I recall not being able to relate much to her concern at the time. Yet, there I was, many years later, confronted with a similar concern: never mind the angle of the handle, there was no cleaning brush!

I found it undignified to expect the cleaners to do everybody's "dirty work" and decided to speak to hotel management. "But what if the cleaners are happy with things the way they are?" nagged a little voice inside my head.

So, the following morning I spoke with the head cleaner who told me that she had already complained, to no avail. She was happy to for me to bring the issue up with the hotel manager, who was also taken by surprise by my concern. I explained how I felt it was undignified, and that from a purely pragmatic perspective it was also important to bear in mind that the cleaners only came once a day. He remarked that I could call them whenever I liked. "Do you really think I would feel comfortable doing that?" I asked rhetorically, and he agreed that it was awkward. The topic of conversation was itself awkward. He argued that it was a hygiene issue–not all guests like to see the brushes in their bathrooms, and they can't change them for every guest–which I could understand, but not when he compared this situation to sharing the same glass. The manager concluded that this was a small hotel chain and if enough people complained then he could take the matter up.

Dare I bring this up with my colleagues staying at the same hotel? I carried out a discreet test with an American woman and a Dutch man with whom I was talking during a coffee break in the conference. It was my turn now to be taken by surprise when they both replied that, in their experience, this was normal hotel practice. I obviously haven't been travelling enough! The woman remarked she had never really thought about it. The hotel manager had told me that this was a new trend in Spanish hotels and admitted that the reasons were undoubtedly also economic. Disarmed by my colleagues' reaction, I decided not to take the issue up at the conference, which was coming to an end anyway.

The following morning, I told the head cleaner that I had complained to the manager. She thanked me and commented upon the bad state that some guests leave the toilet in. "But there are so many other things," she sighed, "Do you know how many cleaners we are here? We are three, for seventy-two rooms and forty-three apartments."

She went on to tell me how management sometimes complained about dust but she was not afraid to answer back. She was sixty-two years old, with nothing to lose. This was not the case of her younger, silent colleagues, who were scared of losing their jobs. The unemployment rate in Spain is nearly 30 percent. The head cleaner was aware that due to the crisis the number of guests had diminished, but she said the workload was exhausting. She added that today was a local feast day but because lots of guests were leaving (the conference had finished the day before) none of them could take the day off.

I had come to the conference to give a provocative paper that suggested that it was time to move beyond the concept of the "Other" –so often used in Anthropology–because while it does help to draw our attention to diversity and inequality, it may also be alienating and devoid of responsibility (the "Other" is none of my business).

I had proposed adopting Jean-Luc Nancy's philosophical concept of "being singular plural" instead. Nancy argues that there is no "being" without "with," and this resonates with anthropological understandings of how personal and social identities are intertwined with each other.

It also evokes a sense of interdependence. This came to my mind when, at the end of the conference, we were all offered the most wonderful local exhibition of the human castles traditionally built in Tarragona, where a small child wearing a head helmet climbs to the very top to stand alone on the shoulders of young boys who are standing on the shoulders of older boys who stand, in their turn, on the shoulders of young men who stand…The top part of the castle is missing in the photograph because the last child stays up for such a short period of time that I was too slow to capture the image of his arm raised triumphantly into the air. But I did capture the concentrated tension in the bodies of some of the people below, straining muscles to steady and sustain each other in order to support the child above.

What a beautiful demonstration of "being singular plural" I thought to myself. Why did the hotel cleaners suddenly spring to mind?

Nancy argues that there is no "being" without "with," and this resonates with anthropological understandings of how personal and social identities are intertwined with each other.

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A human castle in Tarragona. Photo by Elizabeth Challinor
A human castle in Tarragona. Photo by Elizabeth Challinor