The joy of bidets
- 8 July 2014
- From the section Magazine
When you live in a foreign country and delight in cultural differences, there can come a time when you discover that, in some tiny way, you're beginning to adopt them yourself.
It's usually something innocuous, like developing a taste for salt liquorice or taking your tea with mint instead of milk. But mine? Well, it's not exactly a deep, dark secret - more of a low-level luxury.
I have a passion for the bidet.
Whether you pronounce it the English way, to rhyme with D-Day, or the French way, as they do here, I've developed a dependence on it - just like a proper Italian. It's something akin to our universal dependence on the mobile phone: "How did I ever manage without one?"
When I go back to the UK, I actually miss my bidet! Nowadays you can, of course, get those handy flushable wet wipes but, to my now spoilt derriere, that's like craving hot roast potatoes and being forced to make do with a packet of crisps. Any Italians reading this will probably be nodding with vigorous empathy, shouting "Precisely!", while the Brits will be pulling a face as if they'd just sniffed rotten eggs.
The thing is, if you've never used one, you can't appreciate its sublime daily convenience. If you think about your kettle and then imagine not having it, that's how people here feel about the bidet. When I was growing up in suburban London, my parents did actually have one. But, as I recall, they used it as a sort of "loo-side table" - a handy perch for a book or a spare toilet roll. Italians, on the other hand, use their bidets constantly.
Although invented, named, then largely abandoned by the French, they've become a symbol of Italian hygiene supremacy. There's even a building law stating that every home must have one.
And it's not just a practical thing, like those mini-hoses by the lavatory, popular in the Middle East, it's a bathroom furnishing in its own right, and it's dedicated to pampering your privates. It has a single mixer tap with a jet you can direct, and the accessories are equally thoughtful.
Italians aren't big on face cloths but beside every bidet you'll find a special little towel exclusively for bottom buffing. You'll also find a bottle of "detergente intimo" - liquid soap that's PH neutral to be gentle on your genitals. You'll never see an aggressive anti-bacterial hand wash sitting on a bidet here. No, not in my bathroom either.
"It may come as a surprise that in French bidet originally meant 'a small horse', 'a nag'," says Edmund Weiner, Deputy Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.
"English travellers on the continent report riding bidets from the 17th to the 19th centuries ('I trotted behind on a little bidet', 1863).
"And of course it's not difficult to see how the word was extended to the bathroom utensil: as Francis Grose put it in 1785: 'A kind of tub, contrived for ladies to wash themselves, for which purpose they bestride it like a little French poney.'"
But having grown up - and survived - without one, I'm always amused by Italian reactions to the absence of bidets elsewhere. When I tell them we don't have them in the UK, after pulling the rotten egg face, they ask me with genuine curiosity, "but how do you get clean down there? Do you shower every time you go?"
I'm also tickled by the horror they experience over improper use of the bidet by foreigners. One of my neighbours went on holiday to Venice with some Dutch friends. To her disgust, she found they'd turned the hotel bathroom bidet into a drinks cooler.
That's not to say that Italians only use the bidet for getting clean "down under" - they're just as likely as weary foreign tourists to soak their feet in it. One Italian friend who has lived in the US for 15 years tells me she misses the bidet every single day. "They're so multifunctional," she enthuses. "They also work for cleaning babies off, for rinsing the floor mop and, in a very busy household like the one I grew up in, with five people and one bathroom, even for peeing in, if the toilet was taken!"
I wonder if some Italian readers are now smiling sheepishly to themselves thinking "Phew! Glad to know I'm not the only one who's ever done that."
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