Variations on the W.C.

If it is true that learning a new task stimulates blood flow to certain areas of the brain, then foreign travel is possibly one of the best activities to keep our minds sharp. Within hours of leaving the routines of home, we are bombarded with the unfamiliar and forced to learn new tasks. We navigate distant cities, trade in alien currencies, and struggle to communicate in a nonnative tongue. We stand reverently below Leonardo’s Last Supper or gaze in awe at Michelangelo’s David. Then, we must visit the W.C., and this is where real learning begins!

I have never before seen more variations on the water closet than I did on our recent trip to Italy. In many locations, rest rooms were unisex. More common, however, were the separate toilet areas for men and women, joined by a coed hand washing area. Washing hands next to a guy who had just emerged from a door marked “uomini” felt a bit awkward to me. I stuck with the guy’s urinal rule…no talking at the shared sink.

Speaking of sinks, whether they were located inside or outside the W.C., it was always a challenge to turn the water on and off. After several attempts at shaking my hands beneath a spigot, I realized that few sinks had the automatic on/off feature. Some sinks had one faucet; some had two. There were knobs to push, sensors on the wall to wave at, and my personal favorite, the hidden pedal beneath the sink to step on.

The potty structure also proved to be an adventure. Many were just like our old American Standard. This style came with or without the seat. Some cantankerous ones had seats that automatically flipped up when lowered, I supposed an attempt to keep the seat from being sprinkled on. I found this out the hard way when, after lowering the seat, it popped up and slapped my behind. Many commodes were like nursery school potties…seatless and only eight inches tall. I gave silent thanks to my Orange Theory trainer for making me do weighted squats.

The variety of ways to flush the toilet seemed infinite. Few had a lever on the tank, some automatically flushed upon completion of the visit, and some, most distressingly, continued to flush violently for the entire visit. My personal, environmental favorite was the one that gave the choice of a big flush for number two and a small flush for number one. Some had a knob or chain to pull. Others had a hidden pedal on the floor. The toilet in our bathroom in Milan had a faucet handle on the wall behind it…turn left for as long as the water was needed; turn right to stop the flow. One toilet had me stumped for quite a while, until I saw a three-inch diameter black rubber dome down low on the wall. I pressed my foot against it. Voila!

Necessity is the mother of many things, and until one morning in Verona, I had adapted to all these bathroom idiosyncrasies. After finishing my cappuccino and croissant at our favorite little breakfast spot, I decided to visit the W.C. before we headed into the Old Town. The very proper gentleman owner ushered me to an unmarked door, and I stepped inside. There was a sink and a hole in the floor. One ridged, porcelain tile was located on either side of the hole, to prevent slipping I supposed. I hesitated a bit and then thought, “If Italian women can do this, so can I.” But it had been decades since I’d been camping, and as I prepared to squat, I couldn’t decide if I should face the hole or back up to it. How would I aim? Wouldn’t I splash my feet and stain my cute sandals? My neurons were firing like crazy, but no matter how much blood flowed to the learning area of my brain, this was one task that would go unmastered. I stepped on a pedal to flush the unused hole and waved my hand in front of the wall to wash my unsoiled hands. Upon leaving the cubical, I told the owner “grazie,” stopped at our outside table to get the house key from Edmund, and hoofed it three blocks back to our rental. Education, after all, does have its limits!