Two weeks ago, for the first time in my life, I had to buy a toilet seat. There’s a small shop round the corner that sells everything you might need for your bathroom so naturally I headed there, thinking that while I was at it I might pick up a new shower curtain and toilet brush too. The word Italians commonly use for toilet seat is ‘ciambella’ which also means doughnut. Not wanting to make a fool of myself I tried to find a more formal, less ridiculous way to explain what I needed to the elderly shopkeeper. He frowned at my ‘the seat for the toilet’ then exclaimed,
‘ah, a doughnut!’ (in Italian though, of course) and went on to ask me what make my toilet is. Hmmm. When we bought our house the bathroom was already there and I had no idea who it was made by. I told him this and he nodded gravely. He said that the only way to get the right toilet seat would be to come back with the make and a photo of the toilet. A photo. When I asked if he might not perhaps have any one-size-fits-all toilet seats he shook his head with a grimace and said that each toilet has its seat and no other would do. If they still make that particular toilet seat, then he could order it and in a couple of weeks it’d be here. What? Couple of weeks?
'And if they don’t make it anymore', I cried, 'will I have to buy a new toilet?'. I trudged home empty handed to my still naked toilet.
Have you ever taken a photo of your toilet? I once took a photo of a toilet in the centre of Florence because it had a large hand-scrawled sign that said, ‘carta for culo’ with an enormous arrow pointing towards the toilet paper. I’ve wanted to photograph plenty of other toilets in Italy, mainly to send the pictures to some kind of governmental health and safety body, but I’m usually to busy holding my breath to start fiddling round with a camera. I cleaned my toilet before taking the photo and then felt even more ludicrous. Show me your best side, I was thinking, that’s it, the camera loves you baby. I took two photos from different angles to be sure of capturing my toilet’s true essence and trotted back to the shop.
This time it was the shopkeeper’s wife, so I had to go through the whole doughnut rigmarole again, but then was able to proudly tell her the make of my toilet and pull out my digital camera and show her the photo.
'Ah, signora', she sighed shaking her head, 'but we need an actual photo of the toilet, we then physically take it to the warehouse and try to match the make, the photo and the toilet seat.' I told her I couldn’t print photos at home and certainly wasn’t going to ask a photographic shop to print a photo of a toilet.
'There must be an easier way than this,' I begged.
'Well', she smiled, 'instead of a photo, you could take a piece of newspaper, place it on top of the toilet and make a cut-out of the shape. That would be as good as a photo', she assured me.
I thanked her very much and left the shop to go and have a cappuccino and calm down. What had started out as a simple shopping expedition was turning into a surrealist nightmare. On the way to the bar I passed another bathroom shop that I’d never noticed before. One last shot, I thought. I came out five minutes later with a very reasonably priced universal toilet seat that I’m thrilled to say fits perfectly.
The whole palaver made me feel exceptionally foreign and stupid. For the umpteenth time I felt as if I was missing the map to understanding how to get things done here. I’m sure Italians don’t get asked to photograph their toilet and I’ve never seen anyone walking down the street with a new toilet seat under their arm like I did when I finally found one. Still, at that point I was too happy to care.