‘Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges!’ In a childhood flashback, I picture my younger brother quoting the Blazing Saddles version of this phrase, using a ridiculous Mexican accent. For some reason, I would always respond ‘Your pants are ugly,’ and then he would say, ‘What? They cover my nuts, don’t they.’ I am not sure how this inane ritual got started or what various forms of popular culture we were mashing together. I am quite certain, however, that if I called him right now he would remember his lines and take pleasure in repeating them.
Why am I blathering on about embarrassing exchanges that occurred almost 30 years ago? Blame the guard at the Bibliotheque nationale, who is treating me like a child, measuring my purse and shaking his head as he tells me that it is one inch larger than the regulations permit. Forced to ride three giant escalators in a lengthy return to check it at the reception area, I sigh in an annoyed manner, mostly because the same purse had passed inspection the day before. Don’t get me wrong, for as indicated above, I like pointless rituals. In fact I am happy to follow the irrational rules of another culture, as long as they are consistently applied. And when I mutter ‘this place is a fucking prison,’ I am no longer angry about the Fascist guard. I am simply commenting on the Fascist national library architecture that surrounds me, controlling my movements while rigidly separating me from the outdoor garden, its plants held in place with balls and chains. [Aside: as usual, I am not making this shit up].
Prison/library at the Francois Mitterand site in Paris.
Chained plants in the prison yard.
You can check in any time you like—as long as you have original copies of the appropriate official documents—but you can never leave.
The French love bureaucracy, especially letter-head forms filled with effusive signatures, but they’ve got nothing on the Italians. While meeting with a local art historian in Cortona, he openly discussed the lingering remains of Fascism in a way that I found both alarming and refreshing. Unlike some cultures, Italians do not disguise shameful aspects of their history, but openly acknowledge them. Consider the Mussolini sports stadium in Rome, which is utterly Fascist in design, featuring numerous sculptures of muscular male bodies that encourage the assumed link between chiseled flesh and right wing beliefs as well as stupidity.
Stadio Olympico di Roma, 1933
I won’t bore you with tales of handing over my passport at Italian hotels, and having it photocopied before being granted access to the computer lab. Instead, I will bore you with a discussion of some of the hygiene regulations that I have been encountering during my travels. After I had lunch with a scholar who grew up in the United States but is now married to an Italian man and living in Florence, she sent me a helpful list of Italian rules of cleanliness, and I reproduce some of them below, with my commentary.
1) It is considered good hygiene to use a bidet especially after bowel movements, intercourse and during one’s menstrual cycle, with a special soap called ‘intimo.’ Many Italians feel that the English and Americans are not very clean people because they do not have bidets. [Not to be defensive, but we do shower regularly, and also use an exotic, rare item otherwise known as a ‘wash cloth.’].
2) Men should also use a bidet after sexual intercourse to wash the glans penis. Drying is important afterwards as most men are not circumcised in Italy. [But men do not clean their butts after using the toilet? Please forgive il mio confuzione cerebrale; I am a big fan of bidets but feel that they should be gender neutral instead of mainly aimed at lady bits].
Versailles bidet. Nice.
3) Bidets are helpful to wash one’s feet in the summer time too before going bed. [Yes we are finally moving on to the crucial theme of this post and I sense your excitement].
4) Going barefoot in the home is a taboo. Going barefoot out in public is against the law, and you can imagine that Italians think the person who does so is barbaric.
How fascinating! I have learned that these foot-covering regulations are related to the idea that cold and filth can enter the body through the bottoms of the feet, causing illness. They are also practical, protecting feet from contracting funghi. So feet are vulnerable, dangerous zones of potential contagion in Italy. How do you like them apples? Personally, I like them, and have been taking note of people’s footwear or lack thereof. Please note the flagrant law-breaker recently seen outside the Ara Pacis Museum in Rome. Not to worry, for she was quickly arrested and taken away. Rightfully so.
Dirty tourist makes me barf in my mouth.
While I am happy to follow the foot-shame-disease-route rules, I still need to increase my ability to read directions. For instance, after clogging the bathroom sink in my Parisian apartment—unfortunately, my long lady head-hair falls out in ridiculous amounts—I headed to the Fran Prix, paying a few Euro for the French version of ‘liquid plumber.’ Without glancing at the wordy label, I poured some of the contents of the plastic bottle into the watery sink.
Much to my shock, a huge brown cloud appeared, as if Severus Snape had cast a spell on my lavabo. A loud crack and then some gurgling noises filled the narrow, tiled bathroom as the sink immediately drained. ‘Good god,’ I said aloud, ‘what is in this crazy shit?’ A closer look revealed the contents, as you will see below.
Yep. Sulphuric acid. Good thing I was wearing flip flops.