Perhaps it was in New Hampshire, driving through Franconia Notch State Park at a speed that, while demanded by the flow of traffic, felt improbably fast for a two lane highway bifurcated by a guardrail, when we—me, Nathan, his parents in the backseat with the pile of belongings that didn’t fit in the trunk—decided not to stop for lunch until Vermont. I feigned nonchalance and a steadfast commitment to making good time to the border. I really had to pee.
Perhaps it was in Québec City after the walking tour, when we sat on a bench to eat the half-squished cheese-and-hummus sandwiches I had pulled out of my bursting tote bag. To my left was a restaurant where I could see well-dressed Francophones drinking chardonnay from bell-shaped glasses. There was a brisk wind off the St. Lawrence Seaway, and Nathan’s mom had only a spring jacket. She bought a bright pink hoodie in a souvenir shop that afternoon.
Perhaps it was at Montreal’s Monk metro station, where two of the purchased round trip tickets somehow malfunctioned, and there was no one in the information kiosk—just a sign that said “I will return in a few minutes” in French. A kind commuter stopped and offered to swipe us through, but her card would only cover one of the two people. After a few moments of agonizing back and forth, she tried it with the accessible turnstile, which was wide enough for both Nathan and his dad to slip through on one swipe. (Later, on our way home, Nathan’s card worked just fine.)
Perhaps it was outside of Ottawa, where yet another AirBNB featured a drip coffee maker but no filters or beans. I, the sole caffeine-dependent of the group, suggested we could grab some at a Tim Hortons on the way out of town. Construction had rerouted most of the highway, and at the OnRoute where we finally stopped for gas (at 2 p.m., per the damnéd efficiency of our little Prius), the line was so long I gave up and drank a Starbucks DoubleShot Energy from the gas station market, just to alleviate my headache.
Perhaps it was nearing Ontario, when we stopped again at a different gas station-adjacent Tim Hortons. I was in the driver’s seat, ready to leave, when Nathan handed me the Timbits to guard while he ran into the bathroom, and frosting from the bottom of the box smeared across my thigh. We were on our way to a graduation ceremony. I poured half my water bottle onto my leg trying to wipe off the donut glaze.
At one of these moments, or one of a dozen others, I realized how deeply I had internalized the belief that the best kind of traveler to be—the best kind of woman—is an entirely needless one. To be without pain, fatigue, or hunger; to never need the washroom, to know always where one is going, to arrive there always at the appropriate time, to always look refreshed, to be dressed always in whatever befits the weather, occasion, and local custom. And when you have a need, that it never inconvenience another living soul.
Even in the moment of each aforementioned indignity, I knew I was being ridiculous. Everybody poops. And I learned in a year of living in Cairo that there is no use trying to pass as a local—everyone can tell that you’re not. So you might as well spread out the unwieldy map you were given by the chic tour guide with the lilting accent. You might as well announce to everyone that you are lost, that you are tired, that your feet hurt, and you have to pee. You might as well don that eminently practical footwear that greets every passerby with behold, I am an American.
I knew, of course, intellectually, that not a Quebecker in the world would be fooled by my two semesters of college French. I knew, too, that we would never see any of these strangers again. I knew that there was no shadow of a need for me to die of embarrassment that we bungled the Montreal metro system, or to suspect, with a pang of despair, that everyone at the ceremony would see and disdain my frosting stickied pants. And yet, my fellow travelers’ good humor about each mishap seemed to reinforce my own dismay. I sometimes wished they had a bit more of my own self-consciousness about our gaffes—at its best, it makes me empathetic and attentive to the world through which we are so clumsily moving.
I would not, however, wish the full extent of these anxieties upon anyone. Let us wear practical shoes when the occasion demands it, or when we feel so moved. Let us all allow one another to pee in peace, whenever and as often as we like.
Katie is a doctoral student in English and education at the University of Michigan. She loves the New York Times crossword puzzle, advice columns, oceans, and dogs of all kinds.