Broadly speaking, our assumptions are just generalizations of things we know to be true in specific instances. With every additional piece of knowledge, our assumptions become more reliable, and because actual experience sticks so much better than book learnin’, travel provides the double benefit of specific information in a format we will never forget.
Last night at the pub, I followed the “Toilet” sign directing me down the basement stairs. At the bottom of the staircase, a metal gate closed off an additional bar area on the left, and two doors opened into well-lit rooms on the right. I walked into one of them and almost tripped on man standing in front of a urinal. “Oops, wrong one,” I said, and turned around. In the other room, I found three stalls. Each one had a movie quote stenciled on the back wall.* I liked the first one so much, I had to read them all. I didn’t take a picture, though. The quotes were:
- The first rule of fight club….
- Are you a Mexi-can or a Mexi-can’t?
- Something from Superbad, which came out after I had kids so I haven’t seen it.
I loved them all, even though it struck me that none of them were quite what you’d expect for the ladies’ room.
As I came out of the stall, I almost bumped into a man walking into the bathroom. “Oh, this is the ladies’,” he said in an American accent, and quickly turned around. So in the space of probably 3 minutes, two Americans faced with unmarked loos both assumed the door further from the stairs to be the ladies’ and the one closest to be for men. Until that moment, I didn’t even know I had an assumption about where the women’s restroom goes. Then it occurred to me – even the idea of the “ladies’ room” is an assumption. I didn’t notice stalls in my glimpse of the room with the urinal, and the quotes in the stalls were from movies that are sort of masculine. Maybe the pub didn’t segregate bathrooms by sex. Maybe there was a “standing” bathroom and a “sitting” bathroom. That seems odd to me, and probably not true. But I won’t assume otherwise, or even that I know where the ladies’ room goes anymore.
It’s a trivial example, but just think: if G.W. Bush had ever left the U.S. before he became president, what assumptions might he have questioned? Can you imagine that he would have made the same decisions as president? If more Americans had their assumptions challenged by the way things work in other parts of the world, do you think they would have supported his decisions?
*At the Culture House, I bought an English translation of the memoir of one of the Westman Islanders who was captured by pirates and enslaved in North Africa in the 1600’s. When I expressed surprise that a memoir existed from that event, the lady at the museum said, “We are a literary people.” It is true. Icelanders even decorate with words. Greenhouse Studios has a stairwell wallpapered with red-font text. At KEX, where I am staying, the communal kitchen is wallpapered with comic book pages, and newspapers cover the bathroom walls. A metal wall where the elevator should be is covered with poetry magnets (currently sporting quotes from The Big Lebowski – like me, Icelanders seem to include cinema in their definition of literature).