The Rest of the Story

Ponte Sant'Angelo, Rome, Italy

How do you say, “I’m about to urinate on your floor” in Italian?

I was living and studying photography in Italy at the time this photo was taken, but that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to tell you about one of my favorite things, perhaps even something of a lifelong obsession: I want to talk about justifiable misunderstandings.

I love it when two rational people, both with valid and logical reasons, are talking about two completely different things. I love it even more when this is allowed to go on way longer than you’d think possible.

Someone had arranged something of a special treat for us in Italy, certainly a delight for anyone such as myself, who was dying to see how real Italians decorated their homes. We had been invited to drop in on a somewhat wealthy Italian family, have some afternoon tea, and see their beautiful home.

This might be hard to believe, but this little tea outing interested me about 1,000,000 times more than visiting YET ANOTHER Italian art museum. Ever since I was a little boy, and right on into adulthood, my mother and I have been going on home tours. I don’t know if this is specific to only certain geographic areas, or if all gay sons know about this, but it’s where you pay a small ticket price and then get to wander around six to ten fabulous homes for an afternoon. It’s like being able to break into the homes of fancy people, whom you may or may not know, and steal their decorating ideas. And without them calling the police.

I love everything about this, and some of my best design ideas have been sparked by interesting things I’ve encountered on home tours.

For our upcoming tea gathering, I had so many things I wanted to ask this Italian woman. The lady of the house and I were going to have such a fabulous time together, and I had already started organizing my thoughts. What did she think of the late 90s trend of appropriating Italian heritage in fake and gaudy ways, and incorporating them into McMansions? Was she even aware that this was a trend that was happening in America, that everyone wanted their house to look like some kind of shrunken Italian villa from Tuscany? Has she ever been to Tuscany? Any chance that maybe they are inversely, ironically, obsessed with creating little slices of tacky Americana in their villas? Like… maybe filling their backyards to capacity with a giant hulking trampoline that no one ever uses?

Oh! And what does she think of Italian leather furniture, or does she just call it leather furniture? I had so many questions, and as I was writing them all down, one of my professors saw me and paused. “This list is a great idea, Ryan, but remember, English is not this woman’s first language. I consider her a friend, and her emails are always in near perfect English, but when we speak on the phone, I’ve noticed that sometimes she has difficulty translating and understanding things in real time.”

My professor was looking over my shoulder, at my sprawling list. “Some of your questions are… complex,” she grimaced. “I’d suggest you do yourself a favor and take the time to translate them all into Italian before we arrive. Here, you can borrow my phrase book.”

I told her thank you, that translating my thoughts ahead of time was probably a good idea. I already had my own phrase book, and so I’d get right on this!

I attempted to translate as best I could the majority of what I wanted to ask. I suspected that some words like "McMansion” wouldn’t even need translating. Plus, I’d had many years of “Mime and Movement” classes at Arts Magnet, so in a pinch, I figured I could always just resort to elaborate pantomime to express some of my more complicated ideas.

If I stood really straight and rigid like an architectural pillar, and made a somber face, who wouldn’t get that I was a plain Doric column? But then if I switched my face to something more expressive and playful, obviously now I’m the more ornate Corinthian column, and I think that if this woman has even the slightest knowledge about classic Greek and Roman architecture, she’ll be able to pick up on what I’m doing. I wasn’t too worried.

I can’t tell you exactly where this woman lived, nor could I even point to on a map. All I know is that it was very, very, far away from where we were staying and even our seasoned Italian bus driver got lost several times trying to find it. While getting conversationally lost is amusing to me, getting physically lost is a nightmare. Since our Italian bus driver couldn’t seem to go more than twenty minutes without an espresso, we had of course stopped multiple times along the way for coffee. By the time we arrived, every single person on that bus had to pee (or worse) in the most urgent, excruciating way. Myself included.

I had to use the bathroom so badly that all my previous plans to discuss decorating and architecture with this woman had gone out the window, and for the last hour of the bus ride, I had focused solely on trying to figure out the best way to bypass all pleasantries and immediately ask to use her restroom. I figured that upon our arrival, at least a small amount of initial talking would be expected and unavoidable. But I had been concentrating on crafting a few strategic Italian sentences that would allow us to politely blow through all of that as quickly as humanly possible, and beeline straight towards her toilet. Having to pee is something I think we all know how to mime.

That was before we got lost. By the time we eventually arrived, a full hour (and yet another espresso stop) later than expected, I was about to pee my pantaloni. (That’s pants in Italian, in case you couldn’t guess). I had decided that with the right face and right dance of urgency, even the pleasantries could probably be bypassed. Maybe my professor could even call ahead, and tell her to clear a direct path from her door to the quickest restroom? If I hadn't been so busy protesting that we were stopping, yet again, for espresso, I could have just peed at the last coffee shop we went to. Why didn’t I do that?!

When we arrived, the woman graciously received us at the entryway, and I told her how excited I was to talk interior design with her, but only after being shown to her restroom. I explained that we all needed to visit it, first thing, if that wasn’t too much to ask. “Oh, I have been told about you,” she said knowingly.

Huh. So maybe my professor had called ahead after all and warned her about the toilet urgency. But suddenly my professor was nowhere to be found (I would later learn she stepped away to take a phone call) and so this is where things starting becoming weird.

After I mentioned using her restroom, the woman immediately looked taken aback, almost offended. The warm and gracious smile from just seconds ago had disappeared, and instead she looked betrayed, almost suspicious.

“Did your professor put you up to this? I specifically told her that was the one room I would like to keep private, the one room that would be off limits. But we shall see. I will think about it while we explore the rest of the house.”

She called a maid over, talked quietly to her in Italian, dismissed her, and then we were off. Not to the bathroom, apparently, but to start the tour of this enormous house. What had just happened? Was my urgent face not desperate enough? Did I need to break out the pant-pee miming after all?

My confusion escalated when not too long after our tour began, we all found ourselves in a guest bathroom. Huh. The woman did not seem to treat it as “The Forbidden Room,” nor did she behave as if she had capitulated to my request and was presenting me with a place to pee. No, she was just ready to move on unceremoniously to the next room of the house. This is great, I’m thinking— if everyone would just follow her and get the f*ck out of here, I could lag behind. If it turned out to be inappropriate, I could just apologize, AFTER I’VE PEED. I figured better to apologize for using her off-limits bathroom than to pee on the floor of her fair-game kitchen. But then it occurred to me, “Hold on, Ma’am, does this work?”

“Does what work?”

“The restroom.”

“Yes, yes, we will get there, but not yet! Keep your pants on!”

Well, there goes that, it’s like she read my mind. Was it that obvious that I was about to take off my pants? Does she also know I’m thinking about just peeing on her kitchen floor if she doesn’t hurry up and show me to a bathroom?

This cruel Italian woman continued leading us through her gigantic house and eventually up a set of stairs. Because that’s what you want to do when you have to pee, climb a flight of stairs. The woman led us down a hallway and then finally stopped in front of a set of enormous double doors, announcing, “Well, here we are!”

My heart sank, these ornate Italian doors were clearly not doors to a bathroom. If anything, it looked like we’d arrived at her…

At that moment, our professor rounded the corner, snapping her phone shut, and rejoined the group.

“Sorry about that! So, I’m assuming everyone has had a chance to visit the restroom?”

“Marsha!” The Italian woman beamed. “You are just in time! We were just about to enter it now. I see you’re just as mischievous as ever, putting this young man up to the task of getting me to show you my private quarters! You devil! But no worries, I made sure to go extra slow through the rest of the house, so Angelonia would have time to prepare it for all of you. Well, enough fuss, let’s enter, shall we?”

And with that she flung open the enormous double doors with a flourish and announced, “Here it is, my Room of Rest, my restroom!”

This was her bedroom.

There was a gigantic canopy bed with all sorts of fabric cascading down from the ceiling, there was a dresser the size of a small car, multiple giant windows, a wardrobe…. it was fabulous, but of course there was no toilet. Why would there be? This was not a restroom, this was her bedroom, her Room of Rest, which I realized was exactly what I had somehow mistranslated and been saying in Italian the whole time. She thought that since we arrived, we were all hell-bent, for some unknown reason, on seeing her private bedroom.

It is possible this was all my fault. My translation of “restroom,” rather than “toilet” might have perhaps been a tad too literal.

Our professor looked horrified. “Do you mean to tell me that none of you have gone to the toilet yet?”

In unison we all screamed out, “No!”

At that point, our professor sprang into action as utter pandemonium broke out. Every person in the group started talking all at once about how badly, desperately, and urgently they needed to use the bathroom. Our professor started dividing people into groups and shoving them in different directions, towards different bathrooms. I didn’t need to be shown anywhere, I’d made a mental map of where every single toilet was in that entire f*cking house. I made a quick adjustment in my trajectory as I saw the Italian woman starting to lead a few people in the direction I was planning to go, and I instead started racing towards a toilet I hoped no one had noticed. All my gym time was about to pay off, I knew I could easily bound down stairs three at a time and be there before anyone else even knew what I was doing. I was, quite literally, looking out for #1! (Har har).

Maybe it was my guilt at having possibly caused all this confusion in the first place, but I had a sudden altruistic urge to help my fellow classmates. Even though I was overwhelmed with that familiar feeling your body gives you when it knows a toilet is finally nearby and peeing is imminent, but I turned selflessly back to yell up the stairs at the Italian woman and her pain-faced little group of would-be urinators one last time.

“Ma’am, just to be clear, in case you heard someone say “bathroom,” you do know that they aren’t all looking for a Room with a Bath, right? No one needs to bathe, you understand, they need a TOILET.”

And with that, to avoid any more confusion or misunderstanding, I’m sure I mimed something pretty crass with my hand. It was involuntary and not my best work— it was no Doric column— but we’d had enough misunderstandings for one day. Let’s put all confusion to bed. What? Too soon? Okay, I’ll give it a…rest.

“Signora, possiamo per favore visitare la stanza dove riposa?”


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