The Bidet in Italy

Napoleon Bonaparte, on the way back from one of his many campaigns, famously wrote ahead to his wife Josephine who was awaiting him back in Paris.  The letter was brief and to the point: “I’ll be home in three days.  Stop washing up.”

We all know Napoleon as being a principal figure from French history, but in fact he was born to Italian parents on the island of Corsica, a year before it was ceded to France.  And anyone who has traveled to France during the summer months knows that the French seem to have retained the famous general’s taste for “natural” body aromas.

Yet the word “bidet” comes from the French for “pony,” clearly a reference to the correct mounting position.  So why has this handy little innovation of modern plumbing become a fixture in Italian households (97% have them) while having lost popularity in the country where it was named?

bidet in italy

Classic French Design

Before you tune out and click back over to Kim Kardashian’s Facebook page, let me assure you right away that this is not going to be an instructional guide for the proper use of a bidet in Italy.  (Besides, it’s fun to let people struggle to figure this out for themselves.  It’s a sort of hazing tradition among expats in Italy and we all have to suffer through it).

Italy vs. U.K.

The inspiration for this post came from a recent article in The Local website which stated some of the ways that British culture annoys Italians.  These two opposite poles are perfect for demonstrating the differences between Anglo-Saxon societies and Latin ones.  In my opinion, Americans are neutral in this debate: perplexed by the Italian obsession with hygiene (especially given the total lack of care given to public places) and equally confounded by the sloppy conditions inside most British homes (given the quite orderly nature of their public places).

My wife often recounts horror stories of her four months in England with a trembling voice and sweaty palms.  The memories still haunt her ten years later.  There was butter sitting out on the table for weeks at a time, dogs being served off of the family dinner plates, and…gasp!  Carpeting around the toilets!  Is there no limit to the British disregard for standard sanitation practices?

In Italy, the criteria for good housekeeping are much more stringent.  The internal living space must be kept spotless at all times.  No clothes hanging over the chair, no dishes in the sink, and no wet towels on the bathroom floor.  I live in fear of forgetting to put the toilet seat down.  I must clutch my glass of wine firmly at all times, because if I look away for a moment it will be whisked off, cleaned, and put away before I even realize that it’s gone.

Again, in the U.K. they tend to postpone these mundane tasks while addressing more important issues like showing up for work on time or operating a functioning government.  Not so in Italy—a clean house and personal hygiene are given top priority.  So you see, this idea of “il dolce far niente” is total nonsense as it relates to the domestic realm.  If you’re doing “niente” around the house, you’ll certainly hear about it sooner rather than later.  And Italians have dozens of these little worries and obsessions concerning cleanliness and hygiene that never even occurred to me before living in Rome.

What does the bidet say about Italian culture?

However, I maintain that the use of the bidet in Italy provides the clearest example of this phenomenon—BUT we should denounce a couple of myths.  First, many people around the world wrongly associate the Italians with their malodorous French neighbors, believing that Italians might also lack personal hygiene because they’d prefer a quick rinse in the nether regions to a proper shower.  False.  The accepted philosophy is that you shower, on average, once daily and use the bidet two or three times “as needed.”   I’ll spare you a detailed definition of “as needed.”

Another false myth about the bidet is that it’s an immoral accessory for promoting excessive erotic activities.  I’ve come across people who believe that Italians are a nation of sex marathoners, and therefore, during their “sex-de-force,” they use the bidet to make the chore of cleaning up faster, hence allowing more time to move on to their next erogenous pursuit.  Again, false.  But while this is not the modern explanation, it might very well have been true at some point in history, when high class courtesans needed to speed up client turnover to maximize their profits.

nuns don't use the bidet in italySo then, perhaps not surprisingly, these myths also find some roots in the Church.  Yes, Catholic culture, and its sense of morality as it relates to the human body, once played an important role in bathroom protocol.  Saint Jerome, for example, recommended that young girls never (yes, never) take a bath, so as not to risk seeing their own bodies naked.   It is said that Saint Agnes died at the age of thirteen without ever having taken a bath.  (If the lack of soap played a part in her death, I cannot say, although it isn’t hard to imagine.)  When the popular thinking became more “progressive,” apparently it was OK for young girls to take cold baths—wearing a heavy frock the entire time, and in the presence of a nun.

I’m not sure how things changed so much in Italy to the point where it is now; which is to say at the limit of obsessiveness over germs and such.  But it’s true that in the country most influenced by Catholic traditions, the bidet has found its only place as an index of civility.

For myself, I’m not totally against it, but nor am I entirely convinced of its merits.  However, I will say that I have already given my newborn daughter more bidets than the average American will take in a lifetime, so I guess it’s slowly winning me over.  And the truth is, she loves it!  You should see her smile and laugh when she’s getting her little culo washed.  It’s hard to argue with the unprejudiced reactions of an infant.  As the saying goes, “Out of the mouths of babes comes wisdom and truth.”  Well, my baby can’t talk yet, so not much wisdom is coming out of her mouth at this point.  But that doesn’t mean that other parts of her don’t have some wisdom to share.

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Comments

  1. You left your undies hanging over a chair, again!!! — Your wife.

  2. Joan Schmelzle says:

    Your picture on this page is much to serious and stern for someone who can write articles that are so much fun to read!

  3. I was wondering when you would write something about the bidet! Great…you know you could “sell” the idea to new parents considering you experience…sounds like a great way to tidy a baby up…easier and less messier than all those wipes!

  4. I always enjoy your stories Rick and this one is no exception Lyn

  5. Luigi Barone says:

    I liked this, Rick! Also in The Netherlands the bidet is hard toi find….half way, maybe, between France and the Albions…. yet I rememebr one of the most curious bidet I ever saw was in a French hotel, connected to the running water pipes but fully swiveling on three metallic wheels under the sing when not used… at that time we had no smatphone to relay it on social media!

    • Yes, I’d love to see the picture of that! While “researching” this post, I came across quite a few fancy innovations from the Japanese. They’ve taken the bidet to a whole new level! Although it seems you’d have to be an engineer to figure it out. Ciao, Luigi!!

  6. Ahh,,,my curiosity has been gratified! Thank you, Rick, for clearing this notion of the bidet that takes up so much space in the bathroom and is not very entertaining to look at. For babies, so ideal!!! Now I can see a purpose….thanks for an enlightening post.

    • You’re welcome! Yes, it does take up a lot of space, doesn’t it. But Italians don’t seem to mind…better a cramped bathroom than no bidet! Ciao!

  7. Anna Conti says:

    Great Story Rick! I have to say that I miss the bidet, it really is convenient for multiple things….Besides washing a babies culo, you can also wash your feet before bed. I find that really good if you’ve got kids, especially in the summer time when their little feet tend to get dirty more often.

  8. Funny article…although I still dont understand why the bide is not used by all countries out there…
    I mean, how could you not want such a thing? Whenever I cannot use a bide after going to the bathroom I inevitably feel dirty…

    It’s really not being obsessive about germs or hygiene as you put it, but it’s simply wanting to be/feel clean…and forgive me, going to the bathroom without using a bide does not leave you clean at all

    by an Italian living in New York
    Mattia

    • Hi Mattia, thanks for your comments. And as you said, the article was most meant to be funny. But I must say, I have someone living with me (my wife) who agrees with you 100%. In fact, she uses almost exactly your same words! So I sympathize with your situation…living in NY without a bidet! Ciao!

  9. I really enjoyed your historical and cultural analysis …….. good!

    • Thanks Aurora! Yes, I tried to add a little humor, but yes, it IS an interesting history and cultural phenomenon. Thanks for stopping by my blog…ciao!

  10. The fact is we Italians give hygiene a kind of strong moral value, although it may sounds ridiculous… That’s why I’m glad when abroad admire us for this, I think it’s a sort of redemption by so many other thing of ours. While I can’t see why strangers often are puzzled and stumped… In my opinion bidet is one of the best inventions of all time! How can one live without it? Viva l’Itaglia!
    P.S. Sorry for my English, is not very good!

    • Yes, I see what you mean, Claudia. I’m just beginning to understand the role of hygiene in Italian culture…although there are certainly MANY additional things to admire about Italy! Thanks for your input…and your English is VERY good. (In fact, the only error you made was spelling your own country!) Ciao!

  11. I respectfully disagree on the personal hygiene comparison Rick. I know your wife and other italians may not want to hear this but the truth is I have NEVER smelled more armpit in my entire life compared to the two years I have lived. Even in the winter over the heavy winter coats the underarm stench is unbearable for me. Maybe it’s because Italians prefer to shower at night? Do the deodorants here suck? I’ve been meaning to write a post about this. My upstairs neighbors, for example, have such putrid smell I have to leave the elevator open for at least 2 minutes before I dare even enter! In my WHOLE life in America I maybe encountered stinky people about five times, including a couple of homeless people. Other than that it is a VERY rare occurrence. Here, I can’t leave my house in the summer without fearing an unwanted attack to my delicate sense of smell. Granted, my house is not as clean as everyone else’s but I’ll be dammed if I EVER let my pits smell like that! LOL

    • Now wait a second, Maria-Victoria…you live in Torino. Are you SURE that the smell isn’t drifting over from France? Ha, ha, ha!!!

  12. I loved this article,Rick..And I learned a few things too…Had to laugh about the wine glass getting washed and put away because that is how my brothers and I were raised..we were never allowed to leave a glass in the sink. Thanks for a hilarious post!

  13. I am pretty sure that Maria-Victoria is right about the armpit smell. I am a little too familiar with the public transport system in Rome to not concede in her direction. I’ve wondered if washing / cleaning clothes, especially dry cleaning coats, is a priority for Italians. Some of them most certainly shower daily. I can’t be convinced that they all do this though, especially in Rome. I have also wondered about the quality of deodorant here. My supply comes from the States.

    • Yeah, I don’t know…I still think it’s more of a big city/public transportation thing than an Italian trait. In the US, everybody drives their cars everywhere, even to buy a quart of milk at the corner store…so who knows what they smell like inside their own cars? ha, ha… But in subways of NY in the summer? I would argue that the stench is no less foul than the one in Rome!

      • Mmmmmmmmmm not to take this post in another direction, but I’m used to the subway in NYC, winter and summer, and well….just no. Mainly the subway smell comes from the heat of the actual railways and maybe a few random funky smelling people. But then, I’d sometimes hear “why some people gotta smell so damn funky?” instead of accepting it as the norm. Walking the streets and using the public transport in bella Firenze is enough to make one gag daily, unfortunately. Although I won’t say it’s always Italians….there are a lot of foul smells from other Europeans as well. Once on a bus I was sat behind a beautiful blonde woman from the east, but had to change seats as every time she lifted her arms to fix her hair I wanted to hurl. Could she not smell herself?, I wondered. I am convinced it’s actually a combo of certain synthetic fabrics and not washing clothes as often as one should in the summer (or winter), and not the actual *person* that particular day. Although one of my 14 year old students often goes off on how his classmates don’t use deodorant yet and smell terribly, so…..there’s that. boh. At least there aren’t assy smells thanks to the bidet. ;-)

        • Ciao Bellavia…don’t worry, this post has no direction! ha, ha…As far as the smells, well I don’t know about Firenze, but after a few years of riding the public transportation almost daily in Rome, I can say that I can count on one hand the number of times that I’ve actually been nauseated by someone’s B.O. So yes, like NY, the random funky smelling person (who probably isn’t even Italian, as you suggested) mixed with all the other odors of a typical big city. But finally, I’m starting to think that there must be some “cultural odors” that are typical to any given society and we loose the ability to detect our native stench…how about THAT for a theory?!? ha, ha…

  14. Love this hilarious post. As an Italian I stopped using the bidet when I was living as an expat and never missed it since then. I think it’s just a question of habit and although Italians are obsessed with hygiene and cleanliness procedures I do not think that the bidet has its merits in here :-)

  15. Enjoyed your post. I’ve enjoyed bidets in various countries, and when living in Moldova a couple of years ago I became the proud renter of a house with three of them. One each in the bathrooms upstairs with the bedrooms, and one in the fabulously appointed guest bathroom off the living room. This bathroom was meant for guests dropping by for a coffee or dinner. It not only had the toilet and mentioned bidet, but also a pisoir as the French so delicately call it. I had no idea what casual visitors would want with a bidet. Here’s a picture if you’re interested to see this fab place: http://wp.me/pWIVP-e3

    • Great picture and again, I have to ask myself, “why is such an excess of plumbing accessories?” Thanks so much for your comments and for sharing your photo…ciao!

  16. I love the bidet! Now that I am used to it I would find it hard to go without one if I ever moved back to Canada. My cat thinks it’s her personal water fountain, haha

    • Ciao! Yes, why is it that cats love bidets so much? Indeed, ours thought it was her litter box for a while…we had to start keeping the door to the bathroom closed. By the way, I love your blog! A great theme and a great back story…not so different than mine, actually. I look forward to following your blog…ciao!

  17. Listen, what you are smelling is the Italian amore d’aglio (love of garlic) and less than enthusiastic use of underarm deodorant, but in general they are truly hygienic. And the public transportation of which you may not use as often at home, as others have mentioned. Sorry for the late weigh-in on this, but I just discovered blogs (I’m an old, but no old guy smell) and I really like this one… thanks Rick!

  18. I’d like to respectfully disagree with both Maria-Victoria and Carmine. The relatively foul body odour one can (but has been, at least in my experience, a very rare occurrence) smell on public transportation is mostly due to too many people jam-packing a bus or a non-air-conditioned Metro car in summer… and the fact that most of those vehicles are old (especially the cars on Metro line B) doesn’t help.

    I find that most of my countrymen are – when it comes to personal hygiene – rather tidy (even though we, unlike some Americans I know, have not turned it into a form of art). As for that “love of garlic” thing: in over twenty years I’ve never witnessed someone smelling like that (mainly because garlic here is only used when frying over low heat; Italian dishes that abound in it are… an American thing!).

    Finally, my two pennies on the bidet: it’s a godsend! Especially after what I call a “difficult mission”! ;-P.

  19. Non sto in disaccordo, as an Italian/american I eat more garlic than most Italians for sure. And to the original point; I jump in the shower after my “missions” ah ah and a bidet would be more handy indeed.

    Oh, I made use of the one in my apartment, I rented in Firenze. I think my next remodel at home will include one. Hopefully my guests at home won’t get confused :)

  20. Arwa Ibrahim says:

    Great artical , I came a cross your wonderful artical while I’m reading la bella figura by Beppe Severgnini .. I’m intersted in Italian culture and I’m learning Italian too .. Thanks.

    • You’re welcome, Arwa. As far as insight (and humor) about the Italian culture, you’re in great hands with Severgnini…I love him, too!

    • Martina says:

      It’s a beautiful thing you’re learning Italian and more about our culture. We are more that pasta and pizza. Italy has many difference from a region to an other. If you want to know something you can ask.
      L’italiano non è una lingua facile. ;)

  21. Martina says:

    In Italy every one has a bidet, we think you can’t clean yourself properly without it and we don’t understand who don’t have it.
    As foreign people think we are strange, we feel the same in reverse.
    Sorry for my english. I hope you understand what I’m trying to say.

    • Ciao Martina! Thanks for your comments. Yes, we should always respect and attempt to understand the culture of our host country. I love learning about Italy, even when it seems “strange” to me…I strive to keep my mind open. (And never worry, your English is perfect!) Rick

  22. This is so damn funny, said by a half brit half italian. The best part is “Again, in the U.K. they tend to postpone these mundane tasks while addressing more important issues like showing up for work on time or operating a functioning government.” Brilliant!

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