(Please note: First, excuse my posting of a less-than-delicate subject. Also, forgive me for heading the post with the photo I took of a mural in the H&M here in Bologna. I just could not stand the idea of having the photo of a toilet (below) flashing from my Facebook page forever. Finally, I'll begin this post with another one of those "If you know me. . . " stories because, without it, this whole thing might not make sense.)
My mother, God rest her sweet soul, turned me into a public-restroom germaphobe very early. Mom had an older sister who lived in Buffalo, New York, and every summer our family would drive up to visit for a few days. Undoubtedly, we would have to make a pit stop at one of the thruway rest stops.
"Don't touch anything," she'd hiss. "Don't let your backside or legs touch the toilet."
"Why?" I remember asking one time.
"You'll get germs," she said. "You'll get sick." I hated germs. I hated being sick. I suddenly didn't have to go anymore.
During college, I lived in Mexico for a summer semester. By that time, I was a little better. A little (emphasizing the little part), but not much. Like an alcoholic who cannot stay away from drink, I relapsed on the first visit to a restroom there.
I'm not sure how much you know about Mexico, but the older, underground plumbing cannot handle toilet paper. Therefore, there are signs in restrooms and hotels all over the country (and in the older houses) that one should deposit his/her TP in the can/box next to the throne. (No lie. Read about it here.)
That did me in. I absolutely refuse to use public restrooms unless I have no other choice and face a bit of an emergency.
"Where is the restroom?" I asked the waitress.
She pointed to the stairs. "At the top of the steps, you'll find it on the right."
Fair enough. I opened the door and walked into a room that had two sinks and two stalls with floor-to-ceiling doors. "Ciao," a woman standing at one of the sinks said to me. I nodded to her, glanced in the open stall (Photo above). I am quite naive (or utterly stupid), I guess, but the seat-less toilet stunned me. I had to document it, so I walked in and closed the door so I could take the photo.
I heard the door of the next stall open, and someone turned on the water in the sink. I looked unsuccessfully for a button or handle because, even though I had not had emergency, the person out there didn't know that. I didn't want her to think I was a barbarian who didn't flush. I could not figure the stupid thing out, so I waited a few seconds for the water to stop, counted to 10 to give her time to leave the restroom, opened the door, and walked out into a MAN who was still standing at the sink and trying to clean something from his shirt.
I inhaled sharply. Germaphobia kept me from passing out right there. How in the name of God did I walk into the wrong restroom? But, I thought, when I walked in, there was another woman in there. What the heck was the man doing in there?
"Excuse me," I said and tried to nonchalantly wash my hands and face. I walked out of the restroom and looked, for the first time, at the door. There was a woman on the door, but there was also a man. A unisex restroom?
Annette laughed when I told her.
"Yes, there are some here and in other countries," she explained. "In Switzerland, they are separate."
"I'm going to Switzerland then," I sighed.
I've been to Italy five times, and today was the first time I'd ever been in a public restroom here.
It is also my last.