Crossing Cultures

We’re waiting to catch a train to Venice, four of us: my husband and I, our son and daughter-in-law. We are excited to be headed to this most romantic of Italian cities and eagerly anticipating its famous pleasures: Piazza San Marco with its grand Basilica; the famous art collections of the Accademia and the Palazzo Ducale; the canals themselves, and all the unexpected treasures that an ancient city can offer. At this point, however, more basic needs concern us. It has been a longish morning to get this far – a walk, a wait, and a bus ride – and right now my daughter-in-law and I are in need of a rest stop. The cashier in the station coffee bar waves the long-handled spoon he’s been using to manage the foamed milk for lattes to direct us outside. I think this might be a little gritty – it’s a small station after all.

I need not have worried. It’s not in the Guide to Landmarks in Umbria, but the public toilet at the railroad station in Orvieto, Italy, is a marvel. The national genius that gave the world Roman roads and Leonardo is here applied with a baffling intensity. Undeterred, indeed concentrated, by the limited scope of a comfort station, Italian creative engineering has produced a facility of such elegance and ingenuity it threatens to overwhelm the sensibilities – and perhaps sense itself.

We find the bathroom beside the tracks, behind and independent of the station building. It’s a silver, bullet-shaped hut, like a mini version of those Airstream RVs that clogged the summer highways at home a few years ago. It doesn’t look like a bathroom, but the small, expectant crowd of men and women is a clue, and a discrete sign, “WC,” makes its identity clear. Seasoned travellers, we watch those ahead of us for indications of to how to proceed. This is, in general, a good and useful strategy, but it can only take you so far. Some things you just have to learn for yourself.

When it’s our turn, we approach the luminous airship and inspect the recessed plate in the side that contains instructions for operating and the mechanism for paying. Fifty cents will buy you three minutes; a euro will buy five. Insert your money… Where? The receptacle for payment looks more like a cup dispenser than something which receives coins. But we figure it out. We have between us no more than fifty cents in change, so my daughter-in-law and I will have to share the allotted three minutes. The coins clink into place and, at first, nothing happens. Oh dear. Then there is a sudden pneumatic wheeze and the entire side of the building slides away to reveal the toilette within. This must be what it feels like to enter a space capsule – where are our helmets and moon boots?

Inside, is a single, largish space containing, we see, all the required equipment – no clutter of interior walls. The toilet is there in front of us, sink to the left, open space – eerily too much open space – all around. It is also spotless – no worries there. Everything inside – walls, ceiling, fixtures – is gleaming stainless steel. I want to put on my sunglasses. We are planted, motionless in its middle, getting our bearings, when the room takes over. With a buzz and a sucking sound, the door slides behind us and snaps closed. Locked in, we’re ready for lift off. Honouring the, sometimes dubious, benefits of age, I get to go first.

This facility is fully automatic; it does everything but pee for you. The toilet seat lowers by the push of a button and, having settled on the rim of the bowl, it does a kind of twisty dance and wraps itself in protective plastic before I can get my hiking pants undone and sit down. When I’m finished, I look around for toilet paper; seeing none, I’m manoeuvring to extract Kleenex from my pocket, when the wall makes a whirring sound and three squares of toilet paper dispense themselves into my groping hand. Of course the flush is automatic, a mighty whoosh that produces enough water to wash away a small animal, and a sudden vacuum that lowers the air pressure in the metallic cell. Good thing I’d already stood up.

I move to Station 2: I need not have worried about how to turn on the water. I am still two feet from the gleaming alcove that contains a polished stainless steel mirror and what seems to be a silver birdbath, when water burbles up from and out of a smooth, somewhat phallic, metal tube leaning with casual elegance into the side of the birdbath/sink. I wet my hands and look for soap; it foams itself into my palm from a small, faintly Grecian, urn affixed to the mirrored wall in front of me. The towel dispenser, all but invisible in the brushed steel wall beside the sink, is a somewhat larger sister of the toilet paper machine. I try not to look surprised, and I do not jump too much, when the wall groans quietly and spits two paper towels at my left ear.

I am, truth to tell, a little worn out from the relentless cleverness of all this gear. It’s a little too Disney – Enjoy your bathroom experience!! – though trying more for sleek moderne than Disney cute. Italian exuberance is endemic, and almost always charming. On occasion, however, it just seems, to a more sedate North American temperament, peculiar.

We are aware, with some anxiety, that we are on the clock, so to speak, in this open concept bathroom. We’ve purchased just three minutes. Not a lot of time for two women to take care of business and complete an international degree in domestic engineering. We finish, we think, just in time.

As my daughter-in-law is drying her hands and locating the discreet, but beautifully designed, slot in the wall for waste paper, I am reading a sign over the door. Posted next to a red emergency light of surprising homeliness, it advises, with courtesy in three languages, that at the end of purchased time the red light will flash; and five minutes after that a siren will sound and the door will open. We remember the attentive crowd outside… Geees.

There is, of course, no plain old door knob or latch and it’s not immediately clear how we get out of here. Perhaps like space travellers, we have to be decanted by someone on the outside. We hope, however, to avoid the siren and the flashing light. Suppressing our nerves and keeping one eye each on that alarming light, we search for whatever device will allow us to exit. After a few moments that lasted an hour, we manage to find the unobtrusive press plate that operates the door. A final hiss of compressed air releases us into the outdoors and the view of the expectant crowd awaiting a turn in the space capsule. As we exit stage right, I feel an unaccountable impulse to bow and wave.

History and architecture, art, culture, language – these are all very well in the way of broadening experiences for travellers. But sometimes, it’s the little things, the everyday things – taking a bus, buying a stamp, having a pee – that bring us into the world of the people whose country we’re visiting: the surprising, various, funny and mysterious world.

My daughter-in-law and I make our way back into the station. Our partners greet us with an inquiry about whether we had found the bathroom okay, and where it is. “Oh yes,” we say airily, waving in the direction of the tracks. “Out there. Take plenty of money.”

Susan Safford teaches English at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. Her work has been read on CBC, and appeared in Descantthe Globe and MailRunner’s WorldWestways Magazine and in the online magazine Cahoots. She is currently absorbed in creative work on the itinerary for a return trip to Italy.

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