I am a neophyte when it comes to the Italian language. I am trying however, and this past summer I actually managed to help someone buy a washing machine entirely in Italian complete with discussion on the benefits of the single washer/dryer machine over the separated washer and dryer, the advantages of a higher velocity spin and the superiority of the German machine over the Italian one. Surprised the hell out of me!
As an Italian language learner, I collect words the way some people will collect a fine wine. I will find a word in Italian that fascinates me and I will savour that word, rolling it over my tongue, getting the flavour of it, until I own it and only then can I use it in everyday speech.
Gabinetto is one of those words. I learned this one from my husband who grew up using as a kid. Try saying it…. gabinetto. Gaaaa binnn etttttoooooo. It just kind of rolls off your tongue. For those of you who speak Italian, you are probably giggling or rolling your eyes at my fascination with this word. For those of you who don’t speak Italian, this very smooth and romantic sounding word does not have a particularly smooth or romantic sound in English. What does it mean? Well, not to put too fine a point on it, it means toilet.
What got me thinking about toilets? Well, one of my favourite bloggers on all things Italian, an Englishman who calls himself Pecora Nera (black sheep) and who is married to a long suffering Italian woman whom he calls Mrs. Sensible just posted about Turkish toilets in Italy. It was a very interesting post and I recommend you read it. In fact, I may just reblog it here after I have posted this chronicle. Personally, I have never seen a Turkish toilet in Italy – although I certainly came across many similar ones in Japan. I suspect they may be more common in northern Italy rather than in the deep south that is Sicily, although if I am wrong, please let me know.
I have, believe it or not, often thought about public toilets in Sicily and they were a constant source of conversation topics when my husband and my daughter and I first travelled together to Italy back in 2010. What was so interesting about a toilet, you may ask? Well, here are my top ten topics of toilet conversation (how is that for alliteration?).
Number One (And the pun is completely intended!)
For some reason, public toilets in Italy frequently are senza (without) toilet seats. Actually, I have read that it is because no self-respecting Italian with a normal amount of hygienic concern would ever sit on a public toilet, therefore no need to shell out the extra euros for a toilet seat. I don’t know if this is true or not, but it may be. In any case, this is an issue for someone like me who has knee issues, depending on the height of the toilet seat. What to do? Well, I also have a normal amount of hygienic concern so I have been known to take a wad of toilet tissue, put a dollop of liquid soap on it and actually wash the porcelain rim before carefully placing my derriere on the gabinetto. Sometimes, however, there is no soap, so I have laid out the toilet tissue along the edge of the porcelain so that there is a “barrier” between my pristine bottom and the toilet’s edge. (Please note that I am being a little sarcastic here – I don’t really believe that my bottom is particularly pristine – just kinda normally clean. I know, too much information.)
Number Two (And the pun continues…)
Toilet Paper Part 1
One day, I was in a public toilet that had a little sign that had been translated into English. “Please do not put paper in toilet.” What? Don’t put paper in the toilet? What are you supposed to do with it? Looking around, I noticed a small garbage can next to the toilet filled with toilet tissue. Ewwww. Was my first reaction. But then, as I got to know Sicily and it’s plumbing and water issues better, it began to make much more sense. I come from the West Coast of Canada where the oldest still-standing house was built in 1852. Most buildings here are 50 years old or less and therefore have plumbing that is similarly aged. The pipes are big and the plumbing is up to code. In Sicily, many many buildings are 100 years old or more and the pipes are tiny and plumbing code is, even today, a bit spotty. I’m being kind here – in older buildings, plumbing code is just non-existent. Canada also has more fresh water than any other country. In fact, Nick just read that we have more lakes in Canada than the whole rest of the world combined! So, very few water volume issues. Sicily, on the other hand, at least in our corner of Sicily, has an average rainfall in the summer of 0. Yup, you read it. No rain all summer for the most part. This means that the extra water needed to flush big wads of toilet paper just aren’t available. So, paper in many places, goes in the garbage not in the toilet. I will say, however, that I think if your deposit is, how shall I say it, not just liquid, no one expects that toilet tissue to go anywhere but in the toilet. This leads me to top ten #3
Flushing the Toilet
In Canada, the variety of flushers on a toilet is very narrow. The tank sits at the back of the toilet, the flusher is either a handle on the side of the tank or a button, or two buttons on the top. On very new and fancy public toilets, there might be sensors that flush as soon as you stand. In Italy, the variety of ways to flush the toilet seems to be endless. There are, of course, the flushers that are the same as in Canada. But then, some toilets have tanks that are way above the head of the user and the flusher is actually a string with a handle that you pull. Sometimes I have seen a foot pedal on the floor next to the toilet bowl or a button on the wall. This summer, I came across a button on the wall that had to be pushed before you could depress the lever on the top of the toilet tank. And then, every now and then, I will come across one that stumps me. This summer, I used a public toilet in a bar at a big festa. There was a line up before and after me. After I finished – just peeing thank goodness – I looked for the flusher. No button, handle or lever on the tank. No pedal on the floor. No button on the wall that I could see. What to do? I couldn’t stay in there forever as there was a long line outside waiting, so I did the only thing I could do. I left without flushing. The woman after me, as I stood washing my hands, started into the little toilet “room”, did a double take and stopped to give me a very dirty look. Then she reached up and flipped a switch that I had assumed was the light switch. Toilet flushed. That was a new one on me.
Toilet Paper Part 2
Now, toilet paper, in my mind, is a fairly basic necessity when one is using a toilet. In Italy, however, I have regularly come across public toilets with no toilet paper and no sign that there ever was toilet paper. Not a stray square on the floor. No empty cardboard tube. In fact, the toilet paper holder may be dusty and extremely unused looking! Carrying a little package of tissues is fairly important. I came across this same issue when I lived in Japan where NO public toilets have paper. The solution? Businesses often pay young women to stand at train stations and hand out small tissue packages with their company’s advertising on the outside. Problem solved. Which leads me to my fifth comment.
Most women in North America, I would venture to say, have had the experience of being in a toilet stall and realizing there was no paper. No problem. Just check for feet in the next stall and ask the woman there to pass you a bit of paper. We are all sisters. We’ve all been there. (I understand men are more reluctant to do this). In Italy, many public toilets are stand alones. One room that often contains not only the toilet but the sink as well. No understanding woman in the next stall to ask. However, when there are a number of stalls, many I have visited, go right to the floor. There is no space underneath the separating wall so there is no way to check for feet. In some ways, I applaud this privacy but it does make it difficult to say: “Mi scusi. Mi puoi passare un po ‘di carta igienica?”
The whole pay toilet thing came as a huge shock to me. I remember pay toilets being outlawed in British Columbia when I was probably under ten years old and I hadn’t seen a pay toilet since then. Pay toilets still exist in Europe, including in Italy. Train stations, in particular, will have pay toilets with an attendant who is there to make sure you can get the change you need to enter, which is a good thing, because sometimes the cost of a toilet is a very odd number indeed. I was just in Palermo Central Station last Wednesday after a two hour bus ride from Cianciana. My teeth were swimming, as they say, and I made a bee-line for the big WC sign. When I got there, I discovered that the cost was 80 centesimi. I had in my wallet lots of €1, €2 and 50 centesimi coins and one little 20 centesimi coin but not a single 10 centesimi coin! The attendant took pity on my poor desperate face and let me in for 70. Some public toilets are the ridiculous price of 75 centesimi. Not ridiculous because it is expensive, but ridiculous because no one ever seems to have the 5 centesimi coin in their purse or pocket! The only place I have ever gotten 5 centesimi is in the grocery store and rarely at that. Another place I have had to pay, and pay dearly, is at the beach. One of our favourite beaches is Eraclea Minoa. There are several entrances to that beach with numerous bars and no public toilets. Even though, as I understand it, Italian law says that no commercial establishment can refuse someone the right to use the toilet, customer or no, this isn’t always the practice. At the bar near the entrance we often use to Minoa, there is a sign on the door to the washroom: €3 to use the washroom if you are not a customer. I generally go in and buy a bottle of water for €1 and then ask for the key. This leads us to…
The advantage of pay toilets is that they are usually kept clean and stocked. I have seen, however a huge range of hygiene in public toilets in Italy from absolutely shiny and pristine to so disgusting I crossed my legs and waddled off to look for another toilet. I will say, however, that my experience is that public toilets in Italy are generally cleaner than public toilets in North America, particularly gas station toilets, which, I think, goes back to the Italian concern for personal hygiene. This, of course, leads us to…
I think bidets deserve a whole post unto themselves and I may write one. Occasionally I will see a bidet in a bar or restaurant. This is usually because the place was a home at one time and they haven’t bothered to remove the bidet. All hotels and B&Bs must have a bidet. For North Americans and Brits, this may be surprising but it is the norm for continental Europeans. The first time I saw a bidet I had no clue what it was for and even when I discovered its purpose, I had to look up on Youtube how to use one. Okay, I know you European types out there are reading this going, “Are you kidding? Isn’t it obvious?” Well, now that I know, yes.
Like the flush issue, public toilet sinks have a wide variety of ways to turn the water off and on. There are, of course, the normal taps with handles for hot and cold. Note here, just because a handle indicates the water is either hot or cold doesn’t mean it will be. Old buildings (our house included) will sometimes have hot where the cold is and cold where the hot should be. Sometimes you can turn the water on by pressing a lever on the floor. Sometimes you will be lucky and there will be a modern sensor and you don’t have to do anything but wave your hands under the tap. There may or may not be soap so a little bottle of liquid soap tucked into your purse along with the tissues is not a bad idea. And gentlemen of North America, Italian men often carry their “murse (man-purse)” with them. There will be question about your masculinity if you carry one in Italy. Finally, again, there may or may not be paper towels or a hot (warm) air dryer so carrying a little hanky in your purse or murse is a good idea.
Best Places To Find a Toilet You Can Use
Public toilets, as in not in a commercial site, are few and far between in Italy. The best places to find a toilet are:
- bars – if you are in a small town, this is your best bet. You may have to buy something but a caffe’ is usually less than a euro and well worth the expense if you really need a washroom;
- train stations and bus stations;
- department stores and large hotels – if you are in a city, you can usually use these for free…but not always. If they have an attendant, you are expected to tip;
- libraries and museums;
- big chain fast food joints – again, these are mostly in the larger cities. You won’t find a McDonalds in a little Sicilian village;
- churches – you have to ask and it is kind of expected that you will leave a few coins in the donation box.
A final note. As some of you may know, Nick and I let out our house through Airbnb. Sometime in the next few months, we will be having the bathroom on our first floor ripped out, old stained tub removed and lovely new shower installed. Can’t wait to see it! This won’t be preventing us from renting the house, however, so if you feel like a Sicilian holiday, please let us know!