What is normal is probably one of the most difficult questions ever to be answered. Still, we all seem to know when someone crosses the line; we all can point a finger at someone whose behaviour is beyond what normal people do. But grab one of these pointing fingers and force its owner to give the definition of normal, to formulate once and for all a golden rule that applies to all, and in nine out of ten cases an awkward silence ensues.
I was at a party once. It was somebody's birthday. I had been invited as the friend of friend's acquaintance; I didn't even know the host's name. But the party was al right. There was lots of music, lots of laughter. The small, old house was packed with people. At one time during that long evening I had to go to the bathroom. And when I locked the door behind me I stood and was absolutely amazed at what I saw. It was a small room; standing with my back against the door my knees almost touched the toilet bowl. But halfway up the walls on the right and left there were shelves with books and magazines. There was even a little booklet with crossword-puzzles on a piece of string at an embarrassingly convenient height. And I realised that I was here in the house of someone who actually liked to spend some time in here, reading, browsing through a magazine, sitting on a toilet, alone with himself in this little room that to me has always spelled this one simple message; go there, do your business and leave as soon as possible. Anything else is just not normal.
When I was in Rome I went to see the excavations of Ostia, the former Imperial harbour. It's a romantic site; red brick ruins covered in lush green ivy, pedestals of crumbling marble in temples of forgotten gods. And walking through the silent streets I came upon a public latrine. Romans, normal Romans that is, not the Caesars and the Augusti, but people like you and me, lived in ordinary apartment-blocks six, seven stories high, without central heating and without plumbing. So public latrines were common enough. And the one in Ostia, right across from the Forum baths has been beautifully restored. There are two rooms, one for men and one for women, each seating ten. Long stone benches run along two walls, small holes for seats about a meter apart. Here you went and met your neighbours. You sat down together and talked and laughed and did all the things that normal people do.
Two blocks away from this latrine in a private house, a real domus, lived an upstart, a nouveau riche, a New Man, as the Romans liked to say, a man from humble origins working his way steadily upwards. He was a merchant, growing richer and richer on the ever increasing trade that came with the Pax Romana, that had turned once sleepy Ostia into the most important harbour in the world. For through here ran the umbilicus that fed insatiable Rome. But for all his wealth and public standing this man had one flaw. And this one flaw, much talked about throughout the city, ensured his remaining a New Man forever.
I visited the quiet ruins of his opulent house. And I saw what was wrong. Next to his study, under the stairs, in a space not much bigger than an ordinary closet, he had had a toilet installed, a square marble slab with a perfect round hole in the middle. His own, private latrine, connected by a special link to the city's cloaca. And as I stood in that small room, almost touching the cold marble with my knees, imagining the oaken door behind me, I tried to envision that man, that wealthy Roman, whose weird desire to go and sit in this tiny little room all by himself to do his business, had made him a laughing stock, a strange man and had eventually cost him his entry into Ostia's high society.
I sat down on that marble seat, listening to the sound of the crickets, wondering about him as he had sat here so many centuries ago, perhaps even with a roll of papyrus on his knees, reading Horace's latest poetry, about the aurea mediocritas, the golden middle of the road.
And I thought about his neighbours who had so readily pointed their fingers at this weird man with his abnormal behaviour. Clearly they had known what was normal and what wasn't. They had lived by it all their lives and they had judged others; how to dress, what to eat, how to raise your children. And that way they had ensured themselves a safe place in their community, respectable and normal.
The following stories I wrote over the past fifteen years, all in their own way on this one central theme, this one all-encompassing question. What is normal? And if we know what it is, should we then strive for it? Should we change ourselves and those around us to fit the description, to fit the common mould? Should we perhaps even use it in judgement? But what then of those who would fall short of the mark, those who are unable to or simply refuse to live by the norm that we, the neighbourhood, the community, society, impose upon them?
The real heroes of these stories are people like that. They deal with that norm in their own way. I've met some of them. Maybe you have too. Read about them, think about them. And remember, when you go and sit down on a toilet-seat again, that in ancient Rome you would have been a social outcast for simply closing and locking the door behind you.