Saturday, May 1, 2010

Foreign Objects Part I: The Bidet

This is the first in a series of who knows how many (probably one) that highlights everyday objects that one might find here in Italy but not where I come from (or vice versa).

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who suffer from a classical education, and those who suffer from the lack of one. Being a member of the second group, every now and then I pick up a book that looks like it might fill in these kinds of gaps (erm, lacunae?), in some vague and vain attempt to upgrade my quiz level from Blockbusters (I'll have 'p' please, Bob) to University Challenge (Here's your starter for 10). The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton was just such a book, but it had the most unexpected of side-effects. It made me fall in love with a French man. Not De Button himself (who is actually Swiss-born and English-educated) but a certain Michel de Montaigne, an important figure in philosophy of whom I was completely ignorant. Falling in love with a man - and a French one at that - is inconvenient for a married heterosexual father of two. That the chap has been dead for over 400 years makes the whole situation more difficult to resolve - though easier to ignore.

So why did I fall in love with Montaigne? Well for one, because this particular philosopher wrote about farting. He wrote about a great deal more of course, but he considered no subject that was relevant to humans to be out of bounds. On the ceiling of his study, amongst the dozens of other quotes, was a motto from Terence (whoever he is) "Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto": I am a man. I consider nothing that is human alien to me. In writing about every intimate angle of our existence, Montaigne has given us all permission to be fully and unashamedly human, and has freed us from the ugly suspicion that our private lives and thoughts are often beyond the bounds of what is permitted - or worse - what is 'normal'.

And if that wasn't enough, he also gives me the permission to write about that most worrisome of Southern European household fixtures: the bidet. The mere word has enough echoes of titillation and disgust in the Anglo-Saxon world to render it almost taboo. Certainly not a subject for polite conversation. Besides its base function, the main sin of the bidet that it is foreign, and therefore automatically deserving of suspicion. Which brings me straight back to Montaigne.

This was a man who refused to be bound by the narrow confines of nationality. He lived in France but his mind had been influenced from the beginning by the teaching and writings of a host of others from far and wide. "Everyone calls barbarity what he is not accustomed to". For him, the human experience was too vast and too varied to be contained by the laws and morals of any one country. That's not to say that he was a cultural relativist either: Everything could be judged, but should only be judged on its own merits and not one what national borders contained it.

So to my fellow non-Italians, and all other readers who might have acquired a firm though unarticulated mistrust of the bidet, I would like to try to rehabilitate this particular foreign object. Not because it is foreign, but because it is, in and of itself, an item of great and universal value to hairy-arsed humans everywhere.

Consider the problem, and its known solutions.

The problem (and one rather impractical solution) can best be considered through an old joke that I first heard when I was around 10:

A bear is in the woods, doing what bears are famous for doing in the woods, when a rabbit hops by. By way of making conversation, the bear asks the bunny "So. Does the shit stick to your fur when you go for a dump?"
The rabbit, in an understanding tone, answers "Oh yeah man, all the time".
So the bear picks up the rabbit and wipes his ass with it.
I apologise. Not for the crudity but because I'm sure you've heard the joke already.

Where I come from, there is one and only one socially acceptable solution to the above problem (I will spare you another joke about a Kerryman who goes to the city to buy a toilet brush). And we are all the poorer for it. We consider it somewhat louche and Mediterranean to want to transfer, post-poop, from the toilet to the bidet. But we see nothing wrong with scrubbing ritually for minutes, adhering to the long-disproved myth that this will actually result in a clean backside. I am a scientist by both inclination and training and I have a lifetime of control experiments, erm, behind me. I am here to tell you that nothing, but nothing, beats a bidet for that 'fresh feeling'. And all the multi-ply, extra long, fluffy labradors in the world will never change that fact.

So take a lesson from Montaigne, the philosopher who ridiculed the tiny differences in national custom that we like to exalt into profound philosophical divides. He, it must be admitted, knew his shit.

A match made in heaven...

(Somebody's bidet - certainly not mine)

Monday, April 12, 2010

Where was I?

It's been so long since I've blogged here that it's pointless picking up from where I left off. It's been more than eight months since our move to Cagliari, so I'm going to jump straight in and try to give you a feel for the place over the next few posts.

There's something that I've come to understand after years of moving around: it's easy to like a place enough to want to live in it; it's quite another matter liking it enough to want to die there. There's a cemetery not far from where we live, and absurd as it may sound to some, it's a beautiful place to take a walk. They don't bury folks there any more - it's more of a monument than a functional graveyard - but it contains enough generations of cagliaritani to be considered a museum of personal histories.

The trees and tombs form orderly ranks and files stretching away from the main gate, and upwards along the slopes to the right. In the lower terraces, simple plaques set into uniform walls mark the final resting place of most of Bonaria Cemetary's residents. Further up the south-facing slopes, above the tree line and warmed by the year-round sun, mausoleums and miniature chapels hoist important surnames high above the hoi-polloi.

Italy is considered by many to be a nation of individualists, and I think this is more or less correct. The general disdain in which Italians (as a group) hold other Italians (as a group) is evident in everything from the polemic nature of public discourse to the no-prisoners-taken attitude on the roads here. But Italy is also a place where deference to one's social 'superiors' is evident. Titles and positions are not only prominently on display on letterboxes, business cards - and gravestones - but almost piously observed in communications. It's practically an insult to refer to somebody simply as signore (sir) when you know damn well he's a lawyer and should be addressed as avvocato. The titles can get humourously out-of-hand. Onorevole, meaning honourable, is used to refer to members of the lower house of parliament and is used regularly on TV and in public without any irony whatsoever. My personal favourite, which I discovered only recently, is the title accorded to the dean of a university: rettore magnifico - Magnificent Rector. If you write to the head of your university, it is with this absurdity that you must begin your letter.

Deference and individualism might seem like opposites at first glance, but they can co-exist quite easily when you remember that deference only requires the appearance of respect. Geert Hofstede (hat-tip to Dale Wyttenbach) has compiled country-by-country values of something called a Power Distance Index, which attempts to measure the degree to which people at the bottom of the social heap accept and expect that power is not shared equally. In other words, it is an indication of how willingly those with little power accept their lot.

(In fact if I do a comparison between my own native culture in Ireland, and that of Italy, I find that we are not terribly well suited from the point of view of risk aversion or deference to authority.)

I've had countless animated conversations with Italians in general, and Sardinians in particular, about the many and varied problems facing this region and this county. The dynamics of such conversations follow a consistent pattern. My Italian friends begin by slamming complaints on top of each other, books of evidence piled up against the criminal state of affairs here. Then the pace quickens and the anger deepens into a downward spiral that can sometime end up in absurd or paranoid claims about how this is the worst place in the world to live and how it will never change. And then, in the end and when you least expect it, the diatribe pivots on a single word: però. (But. However. All the same.)

"Però ci si sta bene". (It's a nice place to live all the same.)

I don't know if Bonaria Cemetary (Cimitero di Bonaria) appears on any guide books, but if you find yourself in Cagliari and in need of some respite - and a great view of the city - then you could do worse than to spend some time here. Me, I could happily spend an eternity there.