It’s only fair to say that bathrooms in Italy in private homes are typically immaculate: they approach a standard of almost Germanic cleanliness. Bathrooms in public places, however, are an entirely different matter. With rare exceptions they range from inadequate to thoroughly disgusting. It’s a strange form of cultural schizophrenia.
To entertain ourselves inexpensively, my wife and I sometimes rate the bathrooms when we travel around Italy using a very simple star-award system. The facilities get one star for each of the following: a door that latches shut; a toilet seat; toilet paper; soap and water to wash your hands; a towel or blower to dry your hands. It’s sad to say but five-star toilets are still rarer than hen’s teeth in much of Italy, and one-star toilets abound. In the States these days you’d have to frequent an off-brand gas station in a desolate area to find a two or three-star toilet. In Italy, you’ll find them in elegant cafes, restaurants, museums and theaters. It’s a shocker when you leave the wall-to-wall mirrors and polished wood counters of an elegant bar, descend the marble staircase, and find a bathroom with no toilet seat, no soap and a broken hand dryer. The elegant clientele ascend the marble staircase drying their hands on their slacks…
We asked Italian friends about the frequent absence of toilet seats, and they helped to fill in the blanks. Apparently, the toilet seats are there originally but, then, they break.
The seats break because people stand on them. People stand on them because they are not kept clean enough to sit on. Eventually, after being broken repeatedly, they are no longer replaced for one of two reasons. Either the proprietors decide there’s no point in continuing the cycle, so they consign their toilet to the ranks of the seatless. Or, they try without luck to find a replacement seat and eventually abandon the quest.
Referring to his native France, Charles de Gaulle once asked: ‘How would you propose to govern a nation with 246 varieties of cheeses?’ One might equally ask about Italy how anyone can propose to maintain a bathroom in a land with 246 varieties of toilet seats. Home Depot in the States, as best as I can recall, had two sizes of seats to choose from: regular and extended. The same type of do-it-yourself supply store in Siena, Mr. Brico, although one-tenth the size of Home Depot, offers at least 50 different sizes and shapes arrayed along the length of a store wall. The seats differ in length, in width, in the sweep of the curves, in the distance between the bolt holes: the list goes on.
When it came time for us to replace our toilet seat, I walked boldly into the hardware store, made an educated guess at the size we needed, brought it home, and saw immediately that I wasn’t even close. Suitably chastened, this time I took careful measurements of the width and depth of the bolt holes, as well as the length and breadth of the seat itself. Returning to the hardware store, I measured a dozen seats at the store that looked about right, but I still couldn’t find anything that matched precisely. But I figured that as long as the bolt holes were spaced correctly and the bolts were long enough, any other variance wouldn’t pose a major problem. Sure enough, after squirming around on my back with a wrench for about a half-hour, I managed to get the old seat off and put the new seat on. It was almost right: the inner curve of the seat at its widest point was broader than our bowl, so about a half-inch of porcelain was visible below. The front had a bit of an overhang where it didn’t follow the curve, but that mattered even less. Given my low standards of acceptability in all matters of household maintenance, and inspired by a former President, I was able to pat myself on the back and say, ‘Mission accomplished!’
In the aftermath I’ve had occasion in quiet moments to ponder the mysteries of toilet seat curvatures. I realized that to get things really right, you would need to specify the various algorithms that describe the curves of the seat. Since I only got as far as trigonometry in high school, the task was simply beyond my talents. I doubt that the talented art school students who go on to specialize in toilet design ever consider the issue of replacement specification from this perspective.
Until that day comes, Italians will remain at the mercy of art majors with a passion for sculpture who channel their frustrated energies into a plethora of beautiful, dysfunctional bathroom fixture designs. And tourists will continue to wonder why the damn toilet seats are almost always missing!