TO BE fair, we were warned. When in Poland, the guide book said, be prepared for the public toilets to be challenging. Snort. For veterans of the original, now fast-disappearing, French "flush-and-run" specials, what possible terrors could Poland's conveniences hold? You can't avoid them, unless you're teetotal. The seductive nature of the extremely strong and outrageously cheap beer, piwo, means that an occasional visit is essential.

It was my wife who alerted me to possible problems. Disappearing into the depths of the cellar of the central arcade in the "Reynek" (marketplace) in Krakow, she took a worryingly long time to reappear. It transpired that, after a lengthy queuing procedure, she had been severely told off by the babcia klozetowa (brutal old lady in charge of handing out the regulation two sheets of toilet paper).

My wife had had the temerity to protest (via sign language) that this wasn't much of a deal for 40 groszy (about 7p). But the main hold-up had been caused by a fruitless search for a flushing mechanism and a fear of the babcia klozetowa's reaction if she re-emerged without having flushed. It was only after finally giving up hope that she discovered that the mechanism was activated by opening the cubicle door.

A couple of piwos later, I had no choice but to follow. Sure enough, I promptly had a run-in with the babcia klozetowa, who tried to claim that I had performed a function other than the one I had. You see, a pee costs 40 groszy. Something more substantial costs 50 groszy. On this occasion, I was accused of trying to get away cheaply, despite the fact that her beady eye had been on me throughout the operation.

What happened at the gloriously down-at-heel Hotel Dom Turysty in Zacopane (jewel of the Tatra Mountains) was, however, more than a joke. Taken short (50 groszys worth) in the breakfast room, I wrongly assumed that the hotel's facilities would be free. I had already entered the loo when I realised that I had no money. Pounced upon by the duty crone, who thought I had done the business and was trying to leave without paying, I had to suffer a tirade of abuse as I tried to explain that I was just going back to fetch some coins.

On returning, I offered the 50 groszy, which were quickly pocketed. Unfortunately, the old woman considered that sum to be in payment of my (alleged) previous visit, and now refused to let me in again. When all pleading failed, I had no choice but to return to the breakfast room yet again to get another 50 groszy.

This gained me admission, but in the kerfuffle, the crone hadn't given me my two sheets of loo paper, something which only hit me when I physically required it. A furtive peer out of the cubicle door revealed that she had now gone off for a break. The only way to get some paper was to hop from my cubicle to the attendant's kiosk and help myself. I doubt that the two Dutch backpackers who witnessed this will ever get over the trauma.

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