My love affair with Nutella was one for the ages. I don’t recall when we first met, I only know that we were always drawn to one another. It wasn’t until I was studying abroad in Bologna, though, that we took our relationship to the next level. I’m not sure if my senses were just heightened or if the Nutella in Italy simply tasted better, but either way, our love grew stronger with each passing day. The chocolate and hazelnut combination somehow seemed richer and deeper as I spread it on cookies in my little studentato. I could find a way to work Nutella into nearly every meal and I had no shame in doing so; in fact, I took pride in that ability. This, after all, was love.
So when my cousin Pina suggested we visit the Chocolate Festival in Torino, I was thrilled at what seemed like a birthright adventure, since the city was allegedly responsible for the original pairing of chocolate and hazelnut. During the Napoleonic wars, there was a trade embargo that limited the city’s supply of chocolate. In order to stretch the supply, many chocolatiers began mixing hazelnuts into their recipes. And with that, boom: my lover was born.
And right about now you are wondering if I really knew these factoids in 2003, years before the dawn of Wikipedia. Yes, I did. Really and truly. Because when you are in a serious relationship, it is important to learn about your partner. Therefore, given the depths of my commitment, when Pina told me we were going to visit Torino and attend CioccolaTO, the annual chocolate festival, I could barely contain my excitement.
I had been staying with my 60-year-old cousin Pina for a few days already when we made the journey to the chocolate Mecca. We had gotten off to a rocky start over my bidet use (or lack thereof), but once I realized I simply had to fake it by wetting my towel, we had been getting along beautifully.
For our 60-minute road trip, we were joined by Pina’s daughter Mara and her boyfriend Mauro. Upon arriving at the festival, Pina insisted that our first stop be a café so that we could sample the warm drink for which Torino is famous, un bicerin. Pina explained that the drink was a mix of hot chocolate, espresso and milk. Let’s be honest, she had me at ‘hot chocolate’. We hopped from café to café, sampling the various drinks and desserts. Three stops later, I was hopped up on caffeine, my blood sugar was spiked higher than the leaning tower of Pisa, and nature was calling; I excused myself to find the café’s bagno.
There was a short line outside of the W/C, but it moved quickly. While waiting, I hummed along to the Gigi D’Alessio song that was streaming in from the café’s sound system. When it was my turn, I walked in and locked the door behind me. As I turned and faced the small, tiled room, my nose was hit with a dank smell I associated only with port-a-potties and nursing homes. I immediately realized why: there was no toilet or plumbing in this room, merely a hole in the ground.
Yes. A hole. In the ground. With two indents on either side indicating “your feet go here.” Using my Sherlockian powers of deduction, I gathered that I was just supposed to pop a squat and call it day.
Except I couldn’t. I had hurt my knee in Italy a few weeks earlier and the injury was far from healed. In fact, my joint was still so weak and sore that I was taking elevators whenever possible and had to pass on a trip to Cinqueterre. I knew my knee would never support me, and since falling into the little hole of horrors was NOT an option, I simply washed my hands and returned to my family, bladder still full to the brim.
“Tutto a posto?” asked Pina.
No. Everything was most definitely not a posto.
I discreetly explained the conundrum to Pina and ask if we could head to another café in hopes of finding a real toilet. Of course, Pina found my plight hysterical and immediately broadcasted my tale of woe to Maura, Mauro and every other patron sitting at the bar.
A few doors down, we headed into another café and while my cousins sampled chocolates and pastries, I bee-lined it to the bathroom. No line, no waiting, no problem, until boom. Big problem. Another hole. This one boasting an even larger circumference than the last.
Was this real life?
Once again, I rejoined my family with a dejected look on my face and a shrug of my shoulders.
Pina, as I already had come to learn, was notoriously brazen. Case in point: earlier that week, she volunteered to give me a demonstration on how to use a bidet. Not surprisingly, she wanted to help me again.
“Daniela, come with me to the bathroom. I have a trick I use when I have to use the hole. You watch me go and then you can do the same. Va bene?”
She was serious, of course.
I loved this woman. She was my family; she cared about me and wanted to help me. That said, I knew beyond a shadow of doubt that I did not want to see her “trick.” That is something I could live without.
Of course, like most 20-something college girls, I had been in the bathroom with my friends before at bars and house parties. It was one thing when I cut the line, joined a friend, and averted my eyes while she did her business, all the while gossiping on and on about what our frenemy had the gall to wear to the party.
It was another thing entirely to watch your 60-year-old cousin pop a squat and show you her pee trick. Yea. No thanks. I’m all set.
“Ahhhh, no, no … thank you, but it is okay. I’ll wait. I’m sure we will find a toilet soon.”
A half hour later, we made yet another detour into an osteria for a glass of wine. Well, everyone else ordered a glass of wine. I’d given up liquids for the time being. I crossed myself, said a prayer to Saint Anthony that I would find what I lost (a toilet) and headed to the door marked with a decidedly female figure on the front.
And in that moment, all of my prayers were answered. Standing before me was a gorgeous, gleaming white toilet and matching bidet. I have never been so happy to see plumbing in all my life. I did a little jig and then took care of business.
Upon rejoining my family, I was introduced to a young, handsome man named Giuseppe, who had befriended my cousin Pina. We chatted for a bit, and he asked to take me for dinner. Turned out, he was the heir to the Nutella fortune. And then I found 5 Euro in my pocket. And then Toto Cutugno walked into the bar and held an impromptu concert, in which he invited me up to the stage to sing a duet of “Solo Noi” with him. We harmonized together perfectly.
Well … that’s how it could have gone. But it didn’t.
In reality, I entered that third bathroom and was faced, once again, with my arch nemesis: the hole.
My eyes began to well up and I let out a string of curses ranging from English to Italian. In the middle of my rant, there was a loud knock on the door.
“Daniela? Sono Pina. Is everything okay? Is there a toilet?”
I unlocked the door to speak to her face to face. “No … ancora c’e un buco.”
“Okay, okay … I have an idea. Let’s practice squatting here on solid ground. We don’t even know if your knee can handle it! Pratichiamo!” She pushed me back into the bathroom and locked the door. “Andiamo. Fai cosi!”
And just like that, Pina stepped her feet hip distance apart and squatted down low on the tile floor. She gave me a big smile and motioned for me to join her. “Dai, dai!” I gingerly tried to meet her, inching down lower and lower, but my knee buckled at the last minute and I toppled forward onto the tile floor.
I didn’t even want to think about the nastiness on the floor of that public restroom. So I didn’t. I picked myself up and hobbled over to the sink to wash my hands.
“Ah okay, va bene … un’altra idea: I’ll hold you up while you pee. I’m stronger than I look. Andiamo.”
She came up behind me while I was washing my hands and in an effort to demonstrate her strength, she put an arm under each of my armpit and tried to lift me. “Vedi? I will hold you like this while you go pee pee!” And with that, she pushed me back toward the hole.
“No, no, no, no … .You can’t do that. I can’t do that. I could fall. Into the hole!” I gestured helplessly to the hole of horrors.
Pina looked mildly insulted. “Well, if you don’t trust me, I’ll get Maura to help. We’ll both hold you up so you don’t fall. One of us on each side.”
Sweet baby Jesus in heaven, was she serious? Mortification wasn’t a strong enough word to begin to describe the feeling that had taken hold in my chest.
“No, no, I’m okay. Really. I’ll wait. I’m fine to wait. Non ti preoccupare.”
I was lying of course. I was anything but fine. I couldn’t think of anything except that my bladder was about to burst. Can people die of a burst bladder, I wondered? Well, we were about to find out.
Pina must have sensed I was lying because she decided to call it a day. The walk back to the car was quiet.
In an effort to distract myself from the growing pressure in my abdomen, I sat in the car and forced myself to think about anything other than my need to relieve myself.
I thought about the paper I was writing on Berlusconi for my political science class; I still hadn’t figured out how he got reelected.
I tried to remember all the words to “L’Italiano,” musing that I finally figured out why Maria’s eyes were filled with melancholy (it had to be the holes).
I started trying to alphabetize the U.S. state capitals. I got as far as Des Moines (is that even a real place?) when my thoughts were interrupted by the radio. Mauro had put in a CD and turned up the volume. “Mi Scappa la Pipi, Papa” blared through the speaker. I wanted to laugh, but I didn’t. I was afraid I would pee myself.