On my first couple of trips to Italy, the thing that most impressed me was the incredible variety of ways Italians had developed to flush toilets. In fact, right now I’m trying to remember something – anything – else that impressed me as much as toilet flushers, and I just can’t come up with whatever was in 2nd place. Perhaps it was gorgeous cathedrals or the incredible countryside…..I can’t remember precisely. But I know for sure that toilet flushers were #1.
I was used to the little handle that could be either on the side or the front of the tank, and I did actually find a few of those in Italy. But then they had ones where you depress part of the edge of the tank top to start the water flowing. There were tank tops that had a metal piece on the top. Just to keep you on your toes, some of these worked by pushing in on the metal piece, while with others, you had to pull the piece up. Some toilets had their tanks hung on the wall above your head. There might be a chain hanging down for you to pull, or perhaps a little piece of metal coming from the bottom that you push up to start the flushing process.
Italians like to hide their tanks behind the wall – something I don’t quite understand, considering how many rubber flappers I’ve had to replace in my life. If one of theirs goes, it looks to me like they’re going to have dismantle the wall to get to it. These toilets often have a metal protrusion from the wall that you must press – after you find it. Most of the time these will be right behind the toilet, which certainly makes sense – but I’ve also seen them on the opposite side of the room.
Sometimes there is a flat plate on the wall that you have to push. Usually this looks different from the actual wall material, but I’ve seen some that are camouflaged to look exactly like the wall. I agree that it’s nice from a decorating standpoint, but does a public bathroom really need to be so tastefully decorated that you can’t figure out how to flush the toilet?
A lot of times, these “plates” will have 2 parts – one smaller than the other – and this really does make sense, because they control the amount of water used. If a man pees in the toilet, there’s no reason to use a lot of water, so he would push the smaller plate. For anything that needs toilet paper, you push the larger. At least at this point I have seen no evidence that Italians have gotten into the way-too-low-flow toilets we have here. I just heard the ones in the US are going to go from 1.6 gallons to 1.2. I’m just not sure how low-flow toilets can come under the heading of a “water saving device” if you then have to flush them numerous times. But I was talking about Italian toilets….not ours…..
The flusher that made the most sense to me — particularly now that everyone is in the “don’t touch anything or you might get Ebola” mode – was the knob on the floor that you stepped on. Unfortunately, I’ve only seen a few of them, and none recently. If anything went wrong, I guess they’d have to dismantle not only the wall, but also the floor, so ultimately it probably wasn’t terribly cost effective.
In case you think I’m just rambling….there is a story connected to all of this. On my second trip to Italy in 1990, we were with Lou in his favorite town of Pitigliano. He has many good friends there – 2 of them being Marella (with the skin to die for) and (her Marcello Mastroianni-looking husband) Euro. In order for you to get the proper mental picture, it is important to mention that Euro – like every other Italian back then — smoked. But he smoked in a way that made smoking look like just about the coolest thing you could do. People who found smoking disgusting wanted to start after seeing Euro smoke.
There were perhaps 6 of us together and I was going on about how it seemed to me that all of the creative genius Italians had shown for thousands of years was now being channeled instead into coming up with new and more fanciful ways to flush toilets rather than creating incredible masterpieces. Lou was translating my monologue to the others. Euro was slouching back in his chair — smoking — in his best young Marcello Mastroianni pose. When I finally stopped talking, he slowly leaned over and quietly said something for Lou to translate back to me. I have quoted him many, many times since then. He said: “Tell her that if it weren’t for us Italians, you’d still be shitting in the woods.”
And you thought the only things we needed to be eternally grateful to the Italians for were pizza and pasta…..