Friday, October 16, 2009

Beehives in disguise

It's been such a long time since a Daily Collision update that the possibility of accounting for what's transpired in the past few weeks seems a little daunting. There's so much to say that it's a little paralyzing. I had a great visit with my sister and her family. I took my written comp exams. I attended Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, Italy. And finally, just yesterday, took my oral exam.Two moments strike me as particularly memorable, and their contrast is maybe illustrative of where I find myself in the world today. On the one hand, I feel remarkably capable. I worked so hard for years, focused my time and efforts on my studies, and feel like I've made a big accomplishment. On the other hand, I've still got so much to learn, and I'm maybe not quite equipped for the real world. At least the world of international bathroom protocols. Oh yes, I should also preface this by mentioning/warning that it's a story about me going to the bathroom. Turn away now if you feel that that's not the kind of story for you.

On the whole, the silent film festival in Italy was a dream come true. I was part of a group of young people selected to attend the festival, to encourage, foster, and cultivate our love of the silent cinema so that we can carry on the preservation and scholarly investigations of the generation before us. Awesome. Although it was extremely fun, and I met a lot of wonderful people and saw some great films, the festival's schedule was taxing. 14-16 hours of film screenings a day plus mandatory workshops and lectures about elements of preservation and restoration. Interesting, enriching, and exhausting. One day, frantically dashing from one meeting to another, I stopped to use the bathroom. Someone was in the ladies' room, so my roommate suggested that I use the single-occupancy handicapped facility. No biggie.

At this point, I'll pause to explain my anxieties about public bathrooms in general, and public bathrooms in Europe specifically. I've just never liked them. For me, they're disconcerting in virtually every way. My "life goal" in my high school yearbook was to overcome my fear of public restrooms. Whatever progress I'd made until last week was undone in a heartbeat. As for the unnerving qualities of European bathrooms, travelers will have observed the subtle variety of flushing mechanisms on toilets in different places. As a youngster, I was potty trained while my family was on the go vacationing and working around Western Europe. This meant lots of inconsistencies and surprises when it came to restroom facilities. My mother reports that I was unnerved by the array of flushers we encountered along the way. Some were buttons (located in different places, on the wall, on the toilet, wherever). Some were pull chains. Some were automatic. Some (in poor rest area facilities) didn't really flush so much as gurgle. To help me overcome my discomfort, my mother instituted an informal game which we called "collect the flushers," for which we simply made a mental note of the type of flusher we encountered, and where it was (i.e., a pull chain in Liechtenstein! Exciting!) My fear of encountering unfamilar apparatuses was thus transformed into an enthusiastic quest to find as many varieties as possible and categorize them in my mind. Mom, thanks for being so awesome and imaginative when faced with such a weird kid.

So back to last week, to the handicapped restroom in Northern Italy. I dash in, and immediately discover that I'm not quite sure I understand how the lock on the door works. I test it out once, it opens with ease. This is bad news for a single-occupancy facility that opens out onto a public area. But I've got to go, so I just take the risk. After I go, I realize that I don't know how the toilet flushes. There's a button-like panel on the top of the toilet, and a pull chain dangles nearby. I pull the chain, and instead of a flush, a loud, steady buzzing sound is produced. Instead of flushing the toilet, I've triggered an alarm that indicates "a handicapped person is having an emergency in the bathroom." I press on the panel on the toilet in a last-ditch (unsuccessful) effort to expunge my urine from the bowl before a woman bursts into the bathroom (remember--it was unlocked). She exclaims some things in Italian and then is embarrassed when she does not find a handicapped person on the pot, but me standing awkwardly by the sink with a panicked look on my face. I explain that I can't find the flusher, and also, that I don't know how to make the alarm stop. She is confused. Luckily for her (unluckily for me) her three male colleagues promptly arrive. They eventually shut off the alarm. When I explain that I still need to flush the toilet, they just usher me out and tell me in Italian not to do anything. Ever again. So here I am: traveling internationally and engaging in complex conversations. Yet incapable of correctly using the bathroom.

Contrast this with story number two. This one is brief, but I've got to mention it because for me, it's worth remembering. Yesterday, I had my oral exam. My five member committee asked me how my trip to Italy was (I said great, and obviously omitted the tale of the handicapped bathroom). And then they asked me challenging questions for the next two hours. The questions weren't easy, and they were meant to be wrestled with, but even though they were difficult, I never felt a feeling of antagonism. It felt educational in the best sense of the word. A little uncomfortable, but really illuminating. When we were done talking they sent me into the hall, where I sweated it out for five minutes until they called me back and the chair cheerfully informed me that I'd passed. Oh hooray! Now it's onward to my dissertation. Just for today, I feel like I can achieve anything. Quite possibly even my fear of public restrooms.


Holly said...

...i think i can, i think i can, i stink in the can....good for you and hoorah on the orals...but i was taken aback for a moment when you began the second paragraph with 'here's story number two'...i thought since paragraph one was about "number one"...i was going to read about your "number two"...thank you for NOT writing about that!! :)

Jill said...

Everything about this post is delightful. Loved the bathroom in Italy story and the history of your bathroom experiences in childhood. I had no idea your life goal was to overcome your fear of public restrooms. My mom should join you. She has a pathalogical fear herself.

I'm also very happy that you passed your oral exams. Congratulations my friend!

Stacia said...

Remember that time in high school you went 4 days without using the restroom on a debate trip? I still think about that story often.

burntretina said...

You're not alone in that first story, as one pillar of comedy has felt obliged to commit pretty much exactly the scene you described to sitcom history:

la_sale_bete said...

Thank you for sharing this wonderful clip. It's good to know that I'm not the only one who's experienced or imagined this horrifying situation.