Spirituality, Travel

Travels in Italy, part 1

Learning New Things

I returned recently from spending two amazing weeks in Italy with my son Adam, his wife Jess and Jess’s mother Jan. We saw great works of art in Rome and Florence, ate delicious pasta, climbed the hills of Cortona, took in the breathtaking views from the tops of the churches in Florence and Siena, and roamed the narrow lanes of Venice.

Overlooking the roofs of Florence from atop the Duomo.

But I want to talk bathrooms.

If you have traveled outside of the United States, you know that facilities differ from country to country. In Brazil last summer, I had to train myself to place my used toilet tissue into the trash can, an action that was especially difficult to remember in the middle of the night.

Italy’s plumbing could handle the toilet tissue but venturing into a public restroom always held challenges.

The first question was exactly how to flush. Italians use a set of two buttons, one large and the other small (after a few days I figured out what the big and little buttons were for). These were sometimes on the wall or on the back of the toilet, and required some searching. One restroom in a small restaurant had an old-fashioned pull string hanging from a tank on the wall. And a couple of the seats required a bit of a balancing act to complete the job.

Gorgeous views in Cortona

Secondly, we quickly learned that public restrooms in Italy are not always free. I found this out on our first day, when we were walking around Rome. We had stopped for a caffe’ and my bladder let me know that I needed to find a restroom.

We came to a familiar sight, McDonald’s, and I decided it was my best bet. I saw the sign for il bagno, restroom, down a flight of stairs. When I got there, I found I needed a coin or proof of purchase for the turnstile to get in. Since it was our first day, I only had paper euros. Back up I went to order something.

Macarons were at the bakery counter, so I decided that would be a nice snack. I waited patiently for the young man behind the counter to acknowledge me. When he finally looked up, he instructed me that I needed to go up to the next level to place my order. (I learned that ordering one place and picking your food up at another is common in Italy.) I made my way up some more stairs and ordered the macarons with my faltering Italian. When I paid for the cookies, I was given the golden ticket — a slip of paper with a barcode for the bathroom!

Paper in hand, I ran down the two flights of stairs to the restroom and then could not get the barcode to work! A nice woman behind me helped me out. I was successful and got macarons as a bonus. After that adventure, we kept a 50-cent coin handy in case we needed it.

At the Uffizi Art Gallery

The third challenge I ran into with the public restrooms was figuring out the hand washing situation. Some had the non-touch faucets we are used to in the United States while others had buttons over the sink or to the side for turning on the water. At one restaurant in Florence, you used a foot pedal for the faucet, similar to what surgeons use to stay sterile in the operating room. On the train bathroom coming from Venice to Rome, I never could find the button for the water and had to just wipe my soapy hands with paper towels.

Some restrooms had a common handwashing area, with male and female stalls opening out from it. I think the American man next to me at the sink at one museum restroom felt as uncomfortable as I did as we washed our hands and checked our hair in the mirror together.  

We laughed about these trivial annoyances, and they were a small price to pay for the wonderful experiences we had during our trip. Everywhere we went the Italian people were friendly and patient, and we managed fine, despite the huge crowds at all the tourist areas.

In a gondola on the canals of Venice

I bring up these silly inconveniences because I think they are an important part of traveling. Being out of my ‘comfort zone’ in these small ways made me more compassionate for those in my community who are from other countries and cultures. I take so many things for granted, like knowing how to weigh my produce in the grocery store or the correct etiquette when buying clothes. And although I tried to think of the right Italian words, not understanding and being able to communicate was sometimes frustrating.

Travel writer Rick Steves sums it up well:

“I travel around the world in a way that tries to open my mind and give me empathy and inspire me to come home and make this world a better place.” – Rick Steves

I was happy to get in my car this week and go to my familiar stores, where I know where each bathroom is located (and which ones are the cleanest). I hope I will be patient with those who may not be in their home turf and show them the same kindness that was shown to me.

3 thoughts on “Travels in Italy, part 1”

  1. Loved reading about your experiences. It brightened my day and enlightened me to be kind to visitors. Thank you


  2. Glad you are home. Your post brings back a memory I hadn’t thought of in years. I remember crawling under the stall doors at the shopping mall when I was a kid in Indiana because I never had a dime to open the stall door. There was always one free stall that didn’t have a lock on it, but most of the time, I didn’t allow time to wait until it was open. I always wondered why they made us pay to use the bathroom and now I wonder when they did away with that practice and why. Thanks for sharing your stories with us. I’m looking forward to hearing more about Italy.


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