As I exited the café I took a little detour to the ladies’ room. I found it a bit strange they had a table set up by the door with a dish for tips. It is quite customary in public European restrooms to tip the person who cleans them or, as I’ve seen has become more prevalent these days, to be charged .50 euro cents before even entering the restroom. It’s kinds of annoying, but the cleanliness is worth it. However, it has been rare in my experience to see someone sitting outside a private restaurant bathroom. In fact, I was a little unnerved. I’d just spent a steep amount of money on an afternoon “snack” and now I was passively being prompted to shell out more money? I’d left a .50 euro cent piece my first visit in when I’d arrived at the café so I figured that was good enough and didn’t need to pay again. After all, there was no sign indicating a suggested amount.
To my astonishment, as I walked out of the restroom the woman, who had not been at her post when I entered, was now sitting at her table and very cross with me for not leaving a tip. In an angry tone she made some comment, in perfect English, about her having cleaned and my need to pay. I explained I had paid once before. She was not satisfied with my response. I don’t know where I mustered up the gumption to continue the conversation, but I did. I think I was just so alarmed and thought it very unjust she was taking her anger out on me. So, I said, “There’s no need to be angry.”
Then she responded with words that shocked my core, “You work here for 10 hours a day and then tell me there’s no need to be angry.”
Finally I realized. I realized she must make most of her living off of tips. Now, I imagine making most of your living off of tips is very difficult, but could be worse. Except, she wasn’t doing your typical, not to mention more active, tip-reliant job like being a server, bellhop or taxi driver. Her job required sitting at the top of these stairs for 10 hours a day relying on the tips of tourists, many of whom are non-European foreigners who don’t know the system or respect the system of bathroom tipping, and may even not tip at all or, if they do, do so very minimally. Furthermore, when not sitting in her wooden seat she had to be in a bathroom—in the closed quarters of toilet stalls or wiping down soppy sinks or picking up unsuccessfully tossed paper towels. I could see why she was miserable.
I don’t want to simply pity her though. She deserves more than that. No, I have found myself moved with compassion. I thank her for opening my eyes to what I could not see before. I celebrate my courage to speak up and I celebrate her response to me because after our engagement my perspective on tipping those who clean the bathrooms changed. It became a philosophy, in its truest sense, a love of wisdom. I went from a perspective of selfishness and skepticism to a philosophy of generosity and compassion. Not only did I become more just, even generous with my tips, but, my attitude toward those who worked in the bathrooms changed. Throughout the rest of my travels I made a conscious effort to engage the bathroom attendants. Instead of briskly sweeping in and out as I’d done previously, I stopped and shared light and joy with a grateful smile as I entered and thanked them graciously as I left.
This woman, was an angel—a messenger to me that day and continues to be.