The joys of practical home maintenance

Robert Heylmun
September 8, 2005

If you rent an apartment here, one of the things you will quickly discover is the Italian mode of home electricity.  You’ll probably want to plug in your computer right away or charge up your cell phone.  You’ll find that you need to buy an adapter that will allow the flat-bladed American electrical plug connectors to be put into the round Italian ones.  But before you plug anything in, you need to read that little notice on the back of your particular appliance that you never paid any attention to before.  It will tell you the limits of your appliance’s voltage.  The first thing you need to know about Italian electricity is that it runs on 220 volts as opposed to the American system which runs on 110.

 

Aha! You’ll need a converter!  Yes, and that’s different from an adapter.  You see, if your appliance tells you on its little label that it can be used on 220 volt systems, all you need to buy is an adapter.  If on the other hand, it can be used only on 110 volt systems, you need to buy a converter.  Is this getting too complicated?

 

Let’s say that you’ve checked out your computer thing-a-ma-bob and it says it runs happily on either 110 or 220 and you’ve arrived at the hardware store, ready to triumphantly purchase your adapter.  Staring back at you from a wall of hanging bubble packs is a bewildering array of adapters and you confidently think these are here to provide a charming choice of styles.  You choose one that goes with your décor, confident and smiling and dumb, and you pay for the thing and head for home.

 

It’s then that you learn another thing about Italian electrics.  There are, as far as I know, countless kinds of plugs.

 

Some feature their round metal things in a larger diameter than others; some have their prongs farther apart than others; some have three prongs which won’t fit into your two-holed wall socket (if this happens, you need yet another adapter).  Invariably, you will have purchased the one with the wrong prongs for whatever your wall stubbornly calls for.  Off you go to the hardware store for another go at this. 

 

This time you have brought a diagram of your wall socket, having outwitted the system at last.  That’s when you find out that the electrical system at your charming 18th century flat is so outdated that nothing in the store will fit it and you’ll have to go to a proper electrical shop, usually across the city, to find such outdated fittings as you need to plug in your brand new computer.  Checking your street map, off you go to Luigi’s Elettrico and try your luck there.   It’s lunch-time, of course, and he’s closed until 3:30.  You might as well go have a bowl of pasta yourself; you’ve earned it.

 

At 3:45 Luigi returns from his own bowl of pasta, and, thankfully, he has just what you need, and you are once again feeling good about having accomplished the simple task of plugging in your computer.  And it works!  Miracolo!

 

The next thing you notice is that you need to plug in the printer as well and there is only one wall socket with one set of little holes.  What to do?  Not another trip around town!  Maybe not this time.  Back to Luigi’s for a corda lunga (extension cord) that will fit into the adapter that fits into your wall that’s behind the desk that’s by the wall that sits in the house that Jack built.  Behold, he has one for only 20 euros, but it has multiple sets of holes for at least four more plugs!  Jackpot.  

 

You’ll find that the new extension cords with which you want to connect your computer equipment and the like have plenty of holes all right, but that the sets of holes are too close together to accommodate the big, clumsy-looking plugs that the genius of modern technology has attached to various electronics.  That means that their mere size takes up two sets of holes.  You’ll need to reserve the last set of holes for yet another strip so you can continue plugging in things.

 

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that there would be more electrical fires here than anywhere else but that doesn’t seem to be the case.  And when I’ve talked to other people about this jerry-rigged wiring system, they nod solemnly and say they have done the same thing.  That includes Italians who have lived here since electricity began.

 

So, as I write this, I’m all plugged in and more savvy about how to proceed to my next project, absolutely confident that connecting to the internet will be a breeze.

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