Except some of the things you learn, you wish you hadn't!

Bear with me while I tell this story of how infatuated I am with the plumbing industry, and how this affliction came across as oh so smug to the rest of my family.

On March 19, we were in the third day of what would turn out for me to be a 17-day excursion in Europe. The last five would be in Frankfurt and Prague, participating in the 2001 ISH Grand Tour, which PM co-sponsored with MCAA and Ecoflex. First, though, came a dozen days in Poland, land of my ancestors, where I, my wife and oldest daughter visited long-lost relatives we did not even know existed until a couple of years ago.

We put on more than 1,000 miles driving through Poland. In the little town of Gniew (G-nyef), 42 miles south of the beautiful historic city of Gdansk, sits a castle dating back to 1282. It originally belonged to the Teutonic Knights, until the Poles kicked them out in the 15th century. Hailing from what is now Germany, the Teutonic Knights postured as heroic Crusaders, although to most folks outside of their ranks they were a premonition of the Nazis. The TKs liked to carry out God's will by slaughtering Muslims and Jews, along with various neighbors who drank from the same communion cup but whom the bloodthirsty warriors nonetheless found annoying.

The Poles got even at the Battle of Grunwald in 1410. TKs were decked out in the heavy metal armor that has become synonymous with medieval knights. Thousands of them gathered in a field on a hot July day waiting to indulge their favorite sport of smiting the poorly equipped Poles. The Poles waited in the cool of a nearby forest. And waited. And waited. By mid-afternoon the TK armor was suitable for frying eggs. When the contents inside were soft boiled, the Poles attacked, and won a victory as stunning as if the Cubs were to beat the Yankees in the World Series.

But I digress. This article must concern itself with plumbing-related matters. So let's pick up on that smugness.

In our search for plumbing, i.e., a W.C., we stumbled across a little museum on an upper floor of the Castle Gniew. An elementary school teacher was lecturing her troupe in the next room. Hearing us enter, she interrupted the lesson to advise us in a polite way that this was a private session and we weren't supposed to be there. Andrzej Olsztynski, 22, whom I had met only a few days earlier but had already become one of my favorite people on earth, was our Polish translator. He sweet-talked her into letting us stay, promising not to intrude on her class. She smiled and waved us in. Unlike their historic tormenters to the east and west, the Poles have never been known for holding rules to be sacred.

As we gawked at the artifacts, my wife Jenny pointed to a piece of crud on display and asked, "What the heck is that?" I didn't even have to wait for Andrzej to translate the inscription. I knew.

"It's a wooden water pipe," I explained with assurance. "This old castle had pretty good plumbing."

See how smart you become when you read PM?

Wooden water pipe from the Castle Gniew in north-central Poland.

A Marketing Opportunity

I told Andrzej about the "hurling fixtures" I had seen on previous trips to Germany. We ran a picture of one in PM after our last ISH tour in 1999. Certain restaurants have these devices, which look like urinals but are installed higher on the wall and have a couple of grab bars along the sides. Jenny shuddered at the thought. Andrzej shook his head and chuckled, "Those crazy Germans."

Katy, 22, thought these were eminently practical devices that should be standard equipment in college town bathrooms. American plumbing fixture manufacturers were missing a big market, she added.

Boilers On Billboards

Boilers are consumer products in Europe. We drove more than 1,000 miles around Poland and saw Viessmann ads everywhere - some Buderus signs as well, but Viessmann seems to be top dog in the Polish market. I kept encountering their delivery trucks on the highway as well.

Viessmann, Buderus and Vaillant are the Big Three European boiler makers. They vie for market share with the kind of rivalry that characterized the American Big Three auto makers in their heyday.

The Big Three also dominate Hall 8 of the ISH show. That's the exhibit hall given over to heating equipment. Their exhibits cost millions of dollars to set up and support, and cover tens of thousands of square feet apiece.

They also make Hall 8 the most crowded ISH facility. Sweatiest, too, what with all the body heat and burners ablaze. The Big Three give away countless tickets for free beer and sausage at their hospitality stations, but wetting one's whistle meant fighting through the densest part of the crowd, so I never did use mine.

Heating contractors have a high endurance threshold. They might duck out now and then for a breath of fresh air, but most of them seem to spend the majority of their ISH time in Hall 8.

Crowd Distribution

Tell you what fascinates me most about the ISH show. The 2001 version spanned 21 exhibit halls in nine separate buildings. Some of those exhibits were given over to seemingly humdrum products such as pipe and fittings.

Yet, even in the farthest nooks and crannies of the most unglamorous exhibit halls, you won't find any exhibitor complaining about a lack of traffic. It's remarkable how more than 200,000 visitors manage to distribute themselves everywhere throughout the expansive complex.

Little Things

This was my fourth visit to ISH, and every time I go, I discover something new. This year, I saw faucet handles that I suspect cost more than all the plumbing in my house.

Also, I was infatuated by the toilet seats of an Italian company, Mamo, which were emblazoned with graphics ranging from cartoons to photos to abstract art. You could get anything you want custom-engraved onto the seats. I think they would be a big hit in America, although Mamo representatives said they have no plans to market in the U.S.

Random Notes

Evgueni Kobelev, managing director of Uponor Russia, gave a fascinating presentation to our ISH tour group about his adventures selling Ecoflex pipe in that country. He told of plumbing systems such that rusty radiator water often ends up coming out through showerheads.

We saw more ancient water pipes, these made of metal, uncovered during an excursion to Prague Castle. Amid so much grandeur, who else but PM and its tourists would find this fascinating?

Finally, I want to say how happy I am to be back in the good old U.S. and away from the two-tiered toilet bowls found in many European public facilities, including the pressroom at Messe Frankfurt and the Europejski Hotel in Warsaw. I could never figure out the point behind the goofy design, until someone described it as a "presentation platter" to better inspect one's . . . well, got to go now. Some knowledge one is better off without.