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È Così, Life Next to a Public Bathroom

Our blogger round-table discussions are back, and the COSI team is tackling a subject that might seem strange to most, the concept of  ‘the bathroom’ in Italy. Personally I thought what better way to beat the ‘rientro’ (return to work blues) by chatting about something we use every single day, but never talk about. Unless you’ve visited the Venice train station’s bathroom with two steps and a hole (we’ve all been there- I first saw this in China).  Ironically when I tell people where I live in Florence, I am proud to say what area of town I live in ‘the oltrarno’ or ‘other side of the river’.  But if I wanted to keep it 100% real, I say that I live right in front of a public bathroom, where tourists pay 1 euro to relieve themselves, next to a piazza that is synonymous with a woman’s body part, piazza della passera.

The other day I was walking home with Nico and our dog Ginger when some girl’s stopped us to ask for directions to piazza della passera, since we were headed home I told them to just follow us. Chatting with the girl about visiting Florence, she mentioned that when she asked other people where ‘piazza della passera’ was, they often got a giggle – well naturally!

The amount of times I’ve gently explained why this is so, could be counted on twenty hands and some change. On the flip side, living in this area means that I often get a window on what life by a public bathroom is like. I see weary tourists sitting on the sidewalk next to the bathroom, taking five minutes to wipe their brow and change their camera battery. I see street performers stroll down via dello sprone playing music and asking for money from the tourists waiting for the bathroom, I see it all. I give people directions, I furiously search through my purse for my keys as 10 people look on, I’ve almost called an ambulance. My dog sometimes pees in front of the public bathroom. I consider it somewhat of a second home and have a fond relationship with the people who work there.

 

One thing I find fascinating is different culture’s approach to talking about well, using the bathroom. I find Italy a country very open to talking about what goes down in the most private of places. While you may never know the secrets of a long-standing family feud, you likely will know how your Italian friend digested a meal. In order to best sell a packet of cookies here, add a photo of the intestinal tract. In the USA I definitely saw more “poop-shyness”, people who would ‘hold it in’ for hours as to not use a public toilet, some definite phobias.

I recently read a wonderful article from The Atlantic titled “The Private Lives of Public Bathrooms – How psychology, gender roles, and design explain the distinctive way we behave in the world’s stalls’ . Apparently as recent at the 1800’s, the notion of privacy in the bathroom was a new concept at best. They mention a special exhibit that blurred the lines between public and private by  Italian artist Monica Bonvicini’s 2003 sculpture “Don’t Miss a Sec”—a usable public toilet encased in one-way glass installed outside London’s Tate Britain gallery. Passersby could not see in, but the person using the toilet could see out. I would be game for it (maybe) but it did have me thinking.

The article also touches on what happens when we separate bathrooms by gender and what it means about us. Via the article “This shines a light on what it means for men and women to be exclusively in the company of their own sex,” “For women this is often liberating; for men it’s often anxiety-inducing.” I could see that in a world where no man I know giggles and grabs their friend’s hand to accompany them to the bathroom for a private chat. Seriously, you have to read this article!

Inside Monica Bonvicini’s “Don’t Miss a Sec.”(Sticky Nicky/flickr)

A few year’s ago I thought about writing a post about where you can go to the bathroom in Florence without paying a dime. Technically anyone can walk into a bar or restaurant and ask to use the facilities though I know it’s awkward to do so without buying anything, I normally get a coffee. I always recommend that people try this at places with outdoor seating which makes it easier to seem like you actually ate or drank at the restaurant. Trust me, it works! Always and I mean always, carry a packet of tissues with you in Italy since toilet paper in bathrooms can be optional. Plus you will understand why many of us ‘locals’ tend not to wear really flat sandals after you’ve visited a few of the busiest latrines.

There are a few places, like the Mcdonalds at the train station, or department stores like la Rinascente in Piazza della Repubblica and Coin which have bathrooms, often hidden on the top floors. But the last few times I have gone, they have been filthier than that of student pub Lion’s fountain, where I have seen some truly horrible scenes. Not quite like the movie Trainspotting but close. I’m not sure what happens in these bathrooms, toilet paper strewn everywhere, a stench that can stick your clothes all day, it can be pretty bad and makes spending a euro for a clean place to go, well worth it.

Enough about toilets, it’s your turn. What has been your experience on how different cultures see ‘using the bathroom’?


 

See what my COSI counterparts have to say on the subjects of Toilets, a fun way to start September with a little ‘dare I say it’ Potty humor..

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16 Comment

  1. Reply
    Marcello
    03.09.2014 at 14:50

    I guess the major difference between us Italians and many of our fellow westerners comes down to the use of the famous bidet. Most of Italians seem to think that it’s something you can’t do without, while the rest of Europe seems to be oblivious of its existence. Personally, it doesn’t bother me much that I don’t have it in my flat. It bothers me more that certain countries, like the UK, seem OK with the bathroom being teeny tiny, having the carpet on the floor and separate rooms for the toilet and the tub.

    PS. In Italian passera is also the name of a fish, so who knows? maybe it’s not what you think it means…although Florentine humour doesn’t shy away from naming bodily parts ! 😀

  2. Reply
    Misty
    03.09.2014 at 20:15

    Great post as usual Georgette! Really funny. “Always and I mean always, carry a packet of tissues with you in Italy since toilet paper in bathrooms can be optional. Plus you will understand why many of us ‘locals’ tend not to wear really flat sandals after you’ve visited a few of the busiest latrines.” No truer words have been written.

    1. Reply
      GirlInFlorence
      04.09.2014 at 8:46

      lol I’ve been really waiting for an opportunity to say that, no longer do I traipse around Florence in shoes that barely skkim the pee-filled streets. That along with learning Italian will make you feel ‘one with the culture’ like no other

  3. Reply
    caro
    04.09.2014 at 15:55

    what I am curious about is why in American toilets are referred to as bathrooms, you aren’t bathing in there!!! In Britain and think I am safe in saying the rest of Europe, a loo/toilet is called exactly that. Any ideas? Could it be what you were referring to brilliantly as poop-shyness?
    Great blog.

    1. Reply
      GirlInFlorence
      04.09.2014 at 18:03

      That is an absolute great point, I have no idea when the term ‘bathroom’ became normal. Fair enough, in the USA people also use the world ‘toilets’ or ‘wc’ pretty liberally as well. Or in Texas ‘outhouse’ (luckily this is fading).. The ‘poop shyness’ is the ability to somehow never talk about anything in the bathroom, some couples never share bathrooms and there is a general ‘don’t need to chat about that part of life’ mentality, I feel much more at home in Italy, bring on the digestion conversations. Thanks so much for checking out the blog and for taking the time to comment, much appreciated!

  4. Reply
    Helen
    04.09.2014 at 16:55

    Georgette, great article! I have a question for you, just out of curiosity really. Have they upgraded the loo in Caffe’ degli Artigiani yet? I have a lasting memory of a “hole in the floor” there…

    1. Reply
      GirlInFlorence
      04.09.2014 at 18:00

      Thanks Helen! Last time I used the bathroom there it was a normal seat, I think they finally got the hint that the ‘hole’ was scaring clientele away ;-). At least I hope that’s the case!

  5. Reply
    Laura
    24.10.2014 at 23:02

    Hi Georgette, I’ve become addicted to your blog and am reading every post right to the beginning.

    I would like to find a housing situation in Florence and wondered if you might be able to advise me. I am a writer and am taking a friend’s Florentine apartment for 3 months starting Dec. 3. While I am there, I would like to find an affordable studio or one bedroom apartment for a yearly lease, or, better yet, find some simpatico women or men and live in a large house or communal apartment.

    It seems like I am only going to be able to live in Florence for 6 months of the year, on 3 month visitor stays. I don’t plan to work in Florence for money. Just writing. I am an older single woman.

    Thanks and I sure would be grateful for any tips.

    Keep writing your great blog! I am following you!

    1. Reply
      GirlInFlorence
      25.10.2014 at 16:05

      Hello Laura! Thank you so much for reading and following my blog. It’s my passion and knowing that people find it useful motivates me to keep it up. As for your question you can definitely look at The Florentine’s classifieds, or firenze kijiji or bakeka. For shared apartments I prefer easystanza.it *more legitimate. This will give you a good start on the apartment search and try and google translate through your browser if you look at Italian only websites. I’m sure you can find something 🙂

  6. Reply
    Ms Virginia USA
    05.10.2015 at 3:44

    My spouse and I are visiting Italy for two weeks, beginning in one week. We are freaking out about the bathroom situation there! I have a weak, tiny bladder and we both have bad arthritis in our knees. We could not use a hole in the floor because we cannot squat. I do have a plastic item made for women to urinate with while standing up so after reading this article, I’m going to pack that in my suitcase!! I will also (now that I’ve read this article and the comments) pack some toilet paper/tissues! I have also read that many in Italy pee in the streets! Is that true? We will be traveling with a guide/Perillo Tours. I don’t know…maybe they have a toilet on their bus? Thanks for any further suggestions!!! …..Freaking Out and Spoiled in the USA……

    1. Reply
      GirlInFlorence
      11.10.2015 at 21:18

      Ciao, I wouldn’t worry as I have not spotted as many ‘hole’ type toilets, you should be fine finding a decent loo ;-). Always bring tissues with you and regarding Italians peeing in the streets, well I certainly don’t they do so more than anyone else, anywhere so you should be fine.

  7. Reply
    Metina
    24.05.2016 at 9:02

    I hope the girl stop saying that word because it means woman’t private part in slang. Sorry to have to tell you this but do tell the girl lol.

  8. Reply
    Diana
    01.12.2016 at 1:18

    It is not that taboo in Germany, but also not a popular topic. I experienced a toilet through elementary school which yo just used if it was really necessary and was quiet happy with the toilet I had from grade 5 to 12; Pay 10 cents and have a clean one. I experienced public toilets at many places and think it belongs to where you are ifs it’s good or bad. I would never use The public ones in San Gimignano again-it was much more filthy than the construction site toilets I had to use at excavations in the UK an Germany- but the one at Piazza San Pietro in Rome was totally ok.
    Since I travel really often and spend many hours in trains tissues are always in my backpack -just in case there is Jo toilet paper, it doesn’t matter in which country I am. Having no toilet paper is the worst that can happen 😀

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