Recently, I helped a friend move back to Florence, Italy. Since she was only returning for four months, she opted to take a very small studio apartment, sight unseen.
"I doubt it will have a bidet," she told me, explaining the landlady had emphasized the petite nature of the apartment.
"Oh, it will have a bidet," I laughed, knowing that 97 percent of all homes in Italy have a bidet, and most public facilities do as well. (I happen to believe 100 percent of Italian homes have a bidet, and 3 percent just didn't answer the survey.)
When we arrived, the landlady's comment was indeed correct. The bathroom was so small that the shower was not enclosed, not even a curtain. There was just a spigot over head, and a drain below. And yet, there it sat... in all its porcelain glory... a bidet.
Mystery #1. The bidet.
Americans have a hard time acknowledging the bidet. Not quite sure how to use it, or exactly why it is even there, they ignore it mostly. The British, however, are out and out embarrassed to even have it in their apartment!
So what is it about the bidet that creates such discomfort to some, and is a common fixture to others? I think it is, like most cultural differences, a matter of interpretation and tradition.
First of all, while the bidet originated in France, the Italians are very germ conscious. Just try touching the produce at a market or fruit stand. If the fruitivendolo doesn't slap your hand, an Italian Grandma will unleash a scolding. Food is not to be shared, even pizza, and houses are disinfected and mopped down on a daily basis. So, it makes sense that they are equally fastidious in their personal hygiene.
No matter that the Americans surmise the bidet is of a sexual nature, and the French think it is something no longer necessary, the Italians can't imagine living without a one. And no, in response to some questions I have heard, it does not replace a daily shower. Rather, it is used 2-3 times a day, besides a shower. Now, I'd say that makes for a society of clean smelling folks!
The first year I lived in Italy, the bidet in my bathroom gathered dust. Now, however, I can't imagine being without it. Whether it serves as a small sink to hand wash delicates, extra counter space to hold make up bags, a great way to shave legs, or its original purpose of cleaning the nether regions, I see it as a useful fixture in my home. Much like the dishwasher or toilet, it doesn't make me giggle or perplex me, it just is.
Mystery #2. The Washing Machine.
Equally mysterious, though not nearly as titillating, is the Italian washing machine. As an American woman and mother, I thought I was an equal match for any washing machine anywhere in the world. Not so. With about 20 different cycle choices from which to choose, I still can't understand a single one of them. Choose any one, and prepare to wait a minimum of 2.5 hours for the cycle to complete. However, the machines produce the cleanest clothes I have ever owned. Because of that, I don't complain. It's environmentally friendlier than its American counterpart, but seems to have no concept of "hurry." In other words, it's perfectly Italian. And, not having a dryer, one becomes very grateful for a machine to do the washing.
Mystery #3. Window Screens.
Lastly, of grave concern to Americans living in Italy, is the lack of window screens. While we like to embrace the vision of the Italian mamma leaning out the window to holler at her children to come in for pasta, the reality here is that we are eaten alive by mosquitoes! Where are the screens?
Like many questions I have asked in Italy, this one is generally met with a shoulder shrug and upward facing palms. In other words, it is what it is. If they do explain, it is generally along the lines of that soon it will be cold, and there won't be any more mosquitoes. That's not really comforting at 2:00 a.m. when one is buzzing in my ear, but, there is no arguing with that logic. Fall does eventually come to Tuscany, changing its colors to gorgeous gold and orange, and erasing the memory of mosquitoes and summer nights that were too hot and humid. And, if I have learned anything in my years in Italy, mysterious or not, it is what it is...