Moreover, I was rarely surprised by Italian unknown customs anymore. There remained, however, a few facets of Italian life to which I had yet to fully conform. The first of these unaccepted aspects was the tragic and always unfair cappuccino rule.
Any “real” Italian will tell you that cappuccino and café latte are only breakfast drinks. That is, once you have lunch, it is no longer socially acceptable to drink cappuccino. I’m not completely sure from where such a rule originated, although I have heard that it is widely accepted that the milk is hard on the stomach in the afternoon. I rarely paid this warning much heed–zero heed, really; in fact, I frequently consumed foamed, frothed milk after the clock struck noon. I was a regular cappuccino criminal and I felt like the dairy version of the McDonalds ham-burglar.
I also had a difficult time wrapping my head around the hands-off-the-produce rule. Overwhelmed and by the colorful fruits and fresh vegetables available in Bologna, I was habitually over zealous at fruit stands and open markets; my roaming hands constantly earned dirty looks, a chorus of “non toccare signorina,” and even a few light smacks on my wrist.
In the supermarket itself, I usually forgot to wear the one-use, disposable plastic glove that was required to inspect, select and bag my fruit. After a series of stern conversations with both employees and fellow shoppers, I became so paranoid of being kicked out of the Coop that I started my own rule: once the hand-bag-thingamijig went on, it didn’t come off until I was home. It made for many smirks during the checkout process.
Last but not least, I refused to adopt regular usage of the bidet. The toilet’s European cousin seemed superfluous, and at times, downright violating to me. (The water shoots where?) Lucky for me, my lack of bidet etiquette didn’t garner the same kind of social judgment that my cappuccino addiction and fruit molesting did. The bidet, like all things bathroom related, was private.
Or so I thought.
I had been living in Italy for about 4 months before I made my first trip da sola to visit my mother’s cousin, Pina. Since Pina had moved away from Puglia to the northern city of Alessandria in the Piedmont region, I barely knew her. She was happily waiting for me at the station, and although I had met her only once at a family wedding in New York, I instantly felt relaxed around her. Pina was 60 years old, donned a pair of coke-bottle eye glasses, and had a crop of short, curly, sandy hair. She was the sort of woman who could fill any awkward silence with a funny anecdote, a joke about a priest, and if all else failed, stream of conscious.
It was quite late by the time we arrived at her apartment. We shared a quick snack of bread, cheese, cured meats, and wine, before getting ready for bed. As I unpacked, Pina laid out a set of fuzzy and worn blue pajama—the kind with the feet things—as well as hand, bath, and bidet towels—all blue. She explained that she purposely matched my towels to my pajamas so that I wouldn’t confuse or mix up my towels with her floral, pink ones.
“Thank you for all of this, but I packed my own pajamas.”
“You did? Let me see.”
I held up a pair of yoga pants and a black Wellesley College Equestrian Club t-shirt. I wasn’t a member, but the shirt read, “Save a horse, ride a cowboy” and I just had to have it.
Pina was quiet while we she gave my garments a once over. She pursed her lips, and then said, “They aren’t blue. You’ll have to wear mine.” I found this absurd, but happily obliged.
The next day we took a day trip to Genoa with Pina’s daughters. It was sunny and bright, and I gorged myself on linguini with pesto sauce—a specialty of the area. That evening, as I was crawling into bed, clad once again in the ill-fitting blue jammies, Pina emerged from the bathroom with a very concerned look on her face.
“Daniela, can I see you in the bathroom?”
“Ah, si certo.”
Confused, I shuffled across down the short hall toward the bagno; the apartment was quiet except for the sound of my footsie pajamas against the parquet floor.
Pina stood at the door to the bathroom, with a towel in her hand. A blue bidet towel to be exact.
“Daniela, I noticed that this towel is still dry and unused. Are you using the bidet? Is there a problem?”
She checked my towel? With her hands? What if I had used it?
“No, you are not using the bidet? Or no, there is no problem?”
“Both? There isn’t a problem. But I’m not using the bidet.”
“MA PERCHE?!? Don’t you want to be clean?”
As she hung the towel on a nearby hook, a myriad of emotions crossed Pina’s face—shock, confusion, disgust—and she made no attempt to hide any of them. She adjusted her glasses before pressing her palms together—as if she was mid-prayer—and then she shook them toward me.
“Ahhhh yes. I do want to be clean. I love being clean. In fact, I am clean. But…listen, in America, we don’t have bidets. So…I don’t need it.”
I smile. I’ve spoken the truth. And the truth shall set you free. So why do I feel like a criminal?
“I know you don’t have them, Daniela, and that is a shame…truly. Grazie a Dio, we have them! Why wouldn’t you seize the opportunity…to be clean!?” When she says the word clean, she fist pumps.
I wanted to scream, “I AM CLEAN! I AM VERY CLEAN! I SHOWER DAILY!!”
But the voice of my mother was in my head telling me that I am a guest and I must bite my tongue. So I swallowed the protest with a big gulp. I didn’t know what else to say so I just stood there in my ridiculous blue bodysuit, and kept my eyes glued at the floor. I clenched my jaw as sweat starts to break out on my upper lip. Pina mistook my inner battle for self-control for something else.
“Ahhhhh, I see. I see. I see. You don’t know HOW to use it! Of course, I will show you! Come in, come in!” She walked deeper into the bathroom and gestures for me to follow. Then her hand moved to the top of the zipper on her own pink pajamas bodysuit.
“No, no, no, no….not necessary…no no. I know how it is done.” The words flew out of me before I can stop them. My hands shot out in front of me; I crouched down a bit and took a defensive stance.
Pina must have sensed my embarrassment. She paused and her hand hovered over the zipper. “Are you sure? Let me at least show you how the bidet works!” She was nearly gleeful—seemingly delighted to be teaching the young American girl a thing or two about hygiene. She didn’t end up removing her pink bodysuit, but walked over to the bidet and straddled it. She tucked her bottom under, and pushed her pelvis out so that her back is flat. Pina never actually turned the faucet on, but instead used both hands to gesture and mimic the current of the water as it would have originated from the spout and flowed through her legs. Then, hovering over the would-be toilet, she bounced a bit, turned to me, smiled and said, “Fai cosi! Do you see? Do you understand? It is so simple! And so nice!” She’s laughing a bit. I’m not sure why, but I join in.
“Haha! Yes! I see! I understand! Thank you! That is…so helpful! And so….clean? Hahahaha!”
She gave a nod of approval and stepped away from the bidet. “Allora, do you need to use the bathroom before we go to sleep?”
I suspected the correct answer in this situation was yes, and so even though nature was not calling, I gave an affirmative head nod. Pina continued smiling as she exits the bathroom. Before closing the door shut behind her, she said, “in bocca al lupo!”
Once I was alone, I rolled my shoulders and cracked my neck. I approached the bidet…now something of an arch nemesis. It was taunting me—this piece of plumbing. I turned the faucet on and the water of the bidet rushed out with such a force that I literally jumped back. I stared at the steady stream and thought, No! Not today. Out of pure stubbornness, mixed with a dash of apprehension, I didn’t use it. Instead I shut the darn thing off, walked over to the sink, splashed water on my face, and immediately dried it on my previously unused bidet towel.
I paused and questioned the authenticity of the scene I was setting. Was the towel wet enough? Was it appropriately wrinkled? I looked toward the neighboring hook that held Pina’s pink towel for inspiration. I took my blue towel off the rack completely and threw it up and down a few times—as if I am a professional pizza maker. I got a little cocky and tossed it under one of my legs, catching it with my other hand. I then rewashed my hands and face and dried off with the same towel, silently praying that I had reached just the right level of supposed moisture and wrinkle. Satisfied, I hung up the towel and then shuffled back down to my room and closed the door.
I woke up the next morning to the smell of strong espresso. Pina and I crossed paths at the entrance to the bathroom. She gave me a big smile and said, “Brava!” I assumed she was congratulating me on my apparent, inaugural bidet use. I freshened up in the bathroom and tossed the bidet towel around a bit before joining Pina for colazione.
As we sipped cafe latte and munched on pastries, I explained to Pina my confusion around the cappuccino rule. She giggled throughout my diatribe before finally saying, “you know Daniela, today…let’s be criminals. After we go to il mercato, let’s order cappuccino!”
I smiled because apparently, delinquency runs in the family.