And so it begins...
A meandering reflection on bidets that will eventually lead me into less scatological territory.
Almost 4 weeks into this journey and my most salient observation is that Italians might have the cleanest assholes. Andy rightly pointed out that the French, self-proclaimed inventors of the bidet, should probably take that title, but I am not in France, so I am hereby awarding Italy with the award based on conjecture alone.
According to the World Toilet Association (this is a real non-profit, I shit you not), the first written reference to a bidet first popped up in a French publication in 1710. The word ‘bidet’ is derived from the name of a small type of horse —the “Bidet”—that was bred in the French countryside for farm use as well as riding but has subsequently disappeared. Should you ever wonder how to sit properly on a bidet, simply imagine how you might ride a little Bidet pony and you’ll be good to go.
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This is all convoluted way of saying that I have been waiting for a bathroom with a proper bidet my entire life, and now that we are in Italy, I finally have one. A loving description: The bidet in our apartment sits respectfully in waiting next to the toilet. It’s a simple white porcelain basin designed for a casual sit down, with a delicate faucet that can be adjusted for temperature, pressure and angle. It is the perfect confluence of science and design. There’s even a heated towel rack suspended thoughtfully above it so that the dismount from the morning ritual can be a consistent ‘perfect 10’ of utility and comfort.
Each morning after I use said bidet, I have a good chuckle thinking about the beginning of the pandemic—admittedly not a very funny time—when the bidet users of the world were most definitely feeling superior and also probably profoundly confused by the images of Americans frantically searching for toilet paper amongst the post-apocalyptic carnage of empty grocery store shelves.
They even have bidets in sketchy public toilets, which begs the question: Is it ok to use a bidet in a gross bathroom? How about a gas station or a weird little cafe? This is a question I have yet to answer. Feel free to weigh in.
Before I arrived in this blessed land I had perfected a time-tested method that the other two members of my immediate family chirpily referred to as “Mom’s whore’s bath”. I knew what I was missing and I simply made due with the tools at my disposal. For my 40th birthday Andy lovingly installed a handheld bidet sprayer, knowing that I would be grateful, and that it would also be the kind or grand gesture that has the potential to re-ignite sparks in a long-term partnership.
I imagine that widespread societal use of the bidet instills a specific type of confidence, one that is outwardly manifested in jauntily upturned collars, perfectly tailored shirts, carefully curated sunglasses, sleek sports cars, deceptively simple sauces and a lot of great cinema.
Which brings me to the Venice Film Festival! It turns out that September in Venice is jam-packed with cultural events and very sweaty tourists. The Film Festival arrives at the tail end of the Biennale and takes place on the Lido, a barrier island in the lagoon southeast of Venice. The Lido makes all three of us deliriously happy. Not only is it charming and gorgeous, but you can swim there, and swimming is the fulcrum upon which the contentment of this family balances.
During our first week here we went out to swim at the Lido twice. On our first visit we took a direct vaporetto (that unfortunately only runs during the summer) from Murano and walked to the free beach. We bought some cheap towels, endured about 60 mosquito bites apiece, ate a bunch of cookies, and marveled at how damn good Europeans of all ages, shapes and sizes look in their skimpy swimwear. Again, the confidence. As far as I could tell, I was the only woman in greater Veneto in a one-piece swimsuit. *Since then I’ve seen a few elderly signoras wearing bedazzled one-pieces, but definitely nothing as chaste or austere as my stretched out JCrew one piece with the plunging v that I bought on clearance three years ago. I might as well be wearing a nun’s habit and tunic to the beach.
On our second visit to the Lido we rented bikes to travel further south towards the wilder areas of Malamocco — an ancient little town ringed by community gardens and wetlands— and Alberoni (Cleo melted and rebelled before we made it to the Alberoni). Along the way we happened upon the construction of the Festival stage and the laying out of the red carpet which led to a lot of conjecture about which celebrities we might eventually see around town. Can you imagine rounding the corner of some dark alley in Venice and happening upon Tilda Swinton??? We also swam, ate pasta, and got stung by jellyfish (not Cleo, thankfully).
It turns out that the promise of a movie star sighting is a potent motivator for 2 of the 3 members of our family. As soon as the first stars rolled into Venice, we were able to parlay the possibility of stumbling upon a celebrity into visits to art shows and churches all around town. How to get Cleo to visit San Giorgio to see the Ai Weiwei show? Simply dangle the possibility that Zendaya or Timothee Chalamet might be there as well. To quote Andy, “They are artists. Of course they’ll be at art shows.” They weren’t. However, the largest cat any of us have ever seen was! It had a special cot and it did not disappoint! The Ai Weiwei show was pretty good too.
We never saw any celebrities but we had a week of adventures nonetheless. With the help of Google Translate and a lot of non-verbal gesturing, Andy and I somehow managed to enroll Cleo in school at Foscarini in the Cannaregio neighborhood of Venice. Despite the somewhat patient assistance of the harried registrar who was marooned between what looked like 10 years of yellowing paperwork stacked on top of her desk, we left with a list of the required 13 textbooks (not an exaggeration) and absolutely no idea how to acquire them.
The ordering of the books turned out to be a days-long journey that entailed walking around to various bookstores in Venice humbly inquiring in non-existent Italian about the likelihood of finding the right books. I dragged Cleo around every single neighborhood in Venice, plying her with gelato and fried calamari, only to be met by scoffs, looks of incredulity and general disappointment by all but the last bookstore employee, who instructed us to go to the COOP (a grocery store), to find what we needed.
Exhausted, confused and somewhat defeated, we wandered into the COOP next to the Rialto Bridge, perhaps the busiest grocery store in all of Venice, a tiny space packed to the gills with tourists and cured meats and apparently a little glass booth where you can order books for school. I hopefully thrust the list of books at the first employee I saw, and, by the grace of god, he simply gestured for me to follow him back to the booth (another office space with stacks of paperwork piled to the ceiling) and began the process of entering copious amounts of information into a computer, filling out forms and ordering the books. When I asked him when he thought the books might arrive he replied, “A week? A month? Who knows.” Good enough for me! Cleo and I walked out into the light of day and cheerfully high-fived each other about a dozen times. Success.
In preparation for the start of a the school year, we made a test run of Cleo’s commute from our apartment in Murano to school. Barring the possible physical challenges of navigating between the hordes of selfie-taking tourists blocking narrow sidewalks and bridges or an acqua alta, it should take about 31 minutes. She’ll walk, then hop on the 4.2 vaporetto into Venice, then walk some more, arriving at the enormous wooden doors of her new school.
Today we made the journey for her first day of school together as a family. We huddled next to the school entrance nervously waiting and watching as the sidewalk along the canal filled with excited students and their very attractive families. All of a sudden the entire crowd chaotically rushed to an unmarked door down the canal where apparently they were calling out the names of students to be let in. Clueless, we followed the tide of bodies and pushed our way into the crowd to be close enough to hear when Cleo’s name was called. When it finally was, we quickly hugged her goodbye and walked away. I am not ashamed to say that I felt like throwing up and cried the same fat tears I cried when I dropped her off for the first time at her nanny share when she was 5-months-old.
Andy and I then spent the morning wandering around Venice attempting in vain to find him a new pair of shoes. The whole experience ended up being pretty comical, apparently his feet are too big to fit into any shoes in this city. At 1 pm —the time we thought school ended on the first day— we returned to pick Cleo up. When we arrived we were a little surprised to find the sidewalk next to her school completely empty. Andy poked his head into the vestibule of the school to inquire about what time school actually ended while I walked around the block looking for another door from which she might possibly emerge. When I wandered back, Cleo was standing arms crossed in the vestibule next to Andy, pissed off and mortified, having been pulled from her class for no good reason by her bumbling American parents. Apparently school ends at 5 pm.
Cleo stomped back to class and we returned to Murano, chastened. We drank water, ate popsicles, and re-grouped. We agreed that Cleo choosing to return to class rather than back home with us was a good sign. Andy headed to his friend Roberto’s hot shop to help out for the rest of the day; I packed up my laptop and hopped back onto a vaporetto with about 500 heat-weary tourists, their arms weighed down with bags full of glass clowns hand blown in China.
I am currently writing to you as I wait to pick Cleo up for the second time today. I’m perched on an outdoor couch in a boutique hotel —formerly a convent— trying not to get caught observing all the disaffected teenagers lounging around the courtyard, smoking, flirting and scrolling on their phones. I guess we’re all playing hooky from school.
I hope this newsletter finds you well.
PS: According to Cleo the first day went well. Kids for the most part were kind, her Spanish teacher was terrifying and lunch was absolutely delicious.
Here’s what I’m reading right now. Like all of Miriam Toews’s books, it is wonderful. Give me Mennonite auto-fiction any day.
I just finished this book. I am on the fence about Sally Rooney. Maybe I’m too old? Or maybe I just think all of her characters are self-indulgent little shits? (Except for the two hot ones in the television adaptation of Normal People. They are the exception.)
I also just read this, my first (don’t throw things at me) book by Ursula Le Guin. I liked it!
I am currently watching this. It’s dark and twisted and it has a bunch of amazing Irish actors in it. Definitely recommend.
I no longer have access to HBO, but before we left the states I was really into this docuseries about Anarcho Capitalists (aka: Libertarians in Acapulco). It’s trashy and fascinating and disturbing. The facial hair alone is worth the price of admission.
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Bill, You're writing fills me with such joy. Your a literaral gift.
Belle, I loved reading every word of this and I can't wait to continue to hear all about your adventures! Miss you and love you......and we want to come visit!