I guess our group of irreverent expats has collectively decided that our recent posts have been a bit too high-brow for our audience. Hence, this week we’re discussing the important topic of lavatory protocols in Italy. Yes, when living or traveling abroad, there’s nothing quite so interesting as other people’s plumbing—apparently.
I’ve actually addressed this vital issue once before in one of my most popular articles which delved into the fascinating history of the ubiquitous bidet. No Italian household is without one. I’ve even seen them in the public restrooms in the lobby of one of Rome’s fancier hotels. This is no joking matter, so please gentle reader, wipe that sixth-grade, bathroom-humor smirk off your face, and pay attention to the wisdom we are about to impart upon you. Your hygiene—and by extension, your reputation—may depend upon it.
Bathrooms in Italy
This is an interesting debate, because there are many public bathrooms in Italy which seem to disregard the innovations of modern plumbing, while the restrooms in most homes are the very height of civility (yes, I’m referring to the aforementioned bidet). But the spotlessly clean, bidet-flaunting private toilets provide little fodder for our ridicule, so let’s focus on the public facilities.
The first thing that an American will notice is the scarcity of public bathrooms in Italy. In the U.S., they’re everywhere, and free for everyone to use as needed. You don’t even have to purchase anything to stop into a restaurant or store, and ask to use their bathroom. Even fancy stores don’t seem to mind. I guess they figure that if you come in to pee, you might accidentally buy a Gucci handbag on your way out. Good marketing, actually, in my opinion. Sell one extra handbag a month, and your entire water/sewer bill is paid for. Sell two or three more and you can even renovate said bathroom.
Consequently, your average American bladder is not trained for Italian society as it relates to available toilets. Ladies in particular are challenged, for reasons that seem unnecessary to highlight. But suffice to say that women with especially weak bladders would be well advised to plan out their day around available bathroom facilities, and don’t be swayed by people who implore you to “stay hydrated” when touring about Rome or Florence. This can only spell disaster, or at the very least, enough discomfort to make you want to skip the view inside the Sistine Chapel in favor of the view inside a lavatory.
Your best bet is to find a coffee bar and purchase a coffee for €1. This strategy is not without risk, however, since: 1) there’s 50% chance that the toilet will be guasto (broken), and; 2) there’s a 90% chance that there will be no toilet paper. Not to mention the fact that coffee is a known diuretic, so it will only increase your need to find another bathroom in the very near future. The take-away here: order the coffee, but don’t drink it. And always carry your own toilet paper.
If you should be lucky enough to locate a functioning toilet when the urge strikes you, then you’ll encounter the second remarkable feature of Italian bathrooms: they have been designed for someone with the physical dimensions of an adolescent gnome. Being a man, it’s easier for me since I can remain vertical while tending to my business. However, being 6’4” and 200 pounds, I usually have to bend, crouch, or otherwise fold myself into an unnatural position just to step into a bathroom. Then I must attempt to further contort myself in such a way that my aim is on the mark, so to speak. I don’t even bother to try closing the door at that point.
In contrast, walk into a public restroom at one of the many chain restaurants in my home state of Florida and you’ll have plenty of space to rollerblade or practice your golf swing. If you happen to encounter 9 other gentlemen while in there (not at all out of the question), you can even play a quick game of pickup basketball or calcetto, provided that someone thought to bring a ball (less likely, but amusing to contemplate).
Finally, IF you happen to find a working bathroom, and IF you’re able to fit through the door without dislocating a joint or two, then you’ll get to enjoy the best part of the experience: the potential to discover any and every type of toilet ever invented throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Not often touted by its tourist board, Italy is a virtual museum of creative plumbing efforts by well-intended but poorly trained designers, who obviously had precious little insight into human anatomy and physiology.
Some intrepid young entrepreneur should develop a touring itinerary of these fascinating discoveries. After all, many tour companies offer food tours, wine tastings, pub crawls—it would seem that bathroom visits would be the next logical evolution on these themes, if you catch my drift.
The most common example of perplexing plumbing is the lamentable “hole” type of toilet, which calls to mind the facilities offered at East Asian prison camps during World War II. The uninspired engineers who designed these commodes evidently couldn’t be bothered to strain their collective imaginations beyond recruiting the forces of gravity alone to do the proverbial dirty work.
You might argue, “OK, but it works!” Well, yes. In the same way that a tree or a lamppost “works” as a urinal.
My favorite ones have “footprints” painted on either side of the hole, as if the proper method of use could possibly be misunderstood, even by the most dense among us. Where else are you supposed to place your feet during this delicate maneuver? I’d love to witness a few examples of someone’s misadventures after attempting an alternate position.
Baby changing tables? Ha!! My wife has developed an uncanny ability to change the baby on her lap aboard a crowded train, while talking on her cell phone and filing her fingernails at the same time. Her greatest feat so far was on the flight from Catania to Milan, containing a spontaneous “explosion” that occurred in our baby’s diaper at 35,000 feet during extreme air turbulence. Everybody else was fastening their seat belts and clinging to their armrests, while Jessica was giving our daughter a bidet in the tiny airplane bathroom. Then again, having lived most of her life in Italy, airplane bathrooms must seem quite spacious to her.
Other Views on Bathroom Humor
Well, that’s all I have to say about the topic, but don’t believe for a moment that this discussion is conclusive. Click over to my friends’ pages and learn about their bathroom misadventures in the Bel Paese:
- ‘Potty Humor‘ – Married to Italy
- ‘The Bidet and how to have a sparkling downtown area‘ – Surviving in Italy
- ‘Life Next to a Public Bathroom‘ – Girl in Florence
- ‘The thighs have it‘ — Englishman in Italy
- The toilet situation in Italy — The Unwilling Expat
“You all are polite and kind, so don’t vomit in the sinks. I ask you cordially and sincerely, vomit in the toilet.”
Well, in Italian it rhymes.