Thursday, March 8, 2012

Tackling Italian bathrooms mysteries

Friday, March 9
I’ve been here long enough now that I feel confident enough to get down and dirty and take on some questions that have bewildered people about Italy for many years—bathrooms. Thirteen years ago, Lucy and I were traveling in Italy with friends Dick and Bo. It was my second time in Italy and the first trip for the others, and the first night in our hotel, Dick posed a perplexing question: “What’s with those cords that hang from the walls in all the bathrooms?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “but don’t pull on it.”

“I already did,” Dick said. “Nothing happened.”

Wise traveler that I am now, I understand that these cords are required by Italian building codes so that people can summon help if they slip on the bathroom floor. And if you’ve ever taken a shower in an old Italian hotel or hostel, you will recognize the need for the emergency pull cord, since in some cases the shower is simply a showerhead and a drain in the middle of the bathroom floor. If there is a curtain, it usually does not extend high enough or low enough to prevent water from splashing all over the bathroom, making it look like the aftermath of a thunderstorm. Bathroom floors are made of smooth tiles that become slippery when wet, increasing the likelihood that you will need the pull cord when you crack your head on the bidet.

Bidet, left. Toilet, right.
Speaking of the bidet, this is also a curious item required by building codes. Since I have pledged to “get to the bottom” of the bathroom situation for my loyal readers, I must explain that bidets are made just for that purpose, to clean one’s bottom when a person doesn’t have time for a complete shower, or doesn’t want to moisten half the bathroom and take the risk of having to use the emergency pull cord.

This photo, which I obtained from a fellow blogger, shows a pull cord in his hotel. The hotel staff was obviously tired of rushing in on curious naked Americans, so they put up a little "ALARM" sign.
Now this brings us back to the cord which Dick pulled. What if he had indeed damaged himself in the bathroom and his last hope of rescue lay in the emergency cord? Why did no one come to his aid? The likely answer is that hotel employees have more important things to do than to go charging into the bathrooms of curious Americans who can’t resist pulling on cords to see what will happen. My source for this information is James Martin of the travel blog Wandering Italy, who has polled a number of travelers on Twitter to gain the wisdom of shared experiences.

James writes: “I have to admit I’ve pulled a few cords in my lifetime, by mistake or with a purpose, and never has a single event taken place which can be attributed to those actions. So, what’s supposed to happen, I’m told, is that someone in a position high enough to have keys to your room hears some alarm emitted from the ol’ master panel, rushes in, helps you up from where you’ve fallen, and takes the appropriate secondary action of getting medical help. While Italian law mandates such cords, there seems to be a general consensus among twitterati that there is no law to mandate further action resulting from pulling those cords. I imagine hotel employees quickly come to the conclusion that tourists don’t fall in bathrooms, but rather take inordinate pleasure in pulling any string they find dangling from bathroom walls. So they ignore the constant buzz from their master panel. Or turn it off.”

But apparently not always, James explains. He cites a twitter from Erica (@moscerina): “I pulled one by accident at FCO and machine-gun holding carabinieri came into the women’s bathroom to find me.” The difference here is that FCO is not a hotel, it is Rome’s main airport, and it is has carabinieri wandering around with nothing else to do. James adds: “Carabinieri don’t have guests to welcome and toilets to clean. Thus they’re free to break down barriers with their manly gun thingies any time they hear the buzzer.”

A further online search does reveal a case where the hotel staff did respond to an alarm. Shannon, from Keys, Florida, writes that her husband was in the bathroom washing his underwear when it happened: “I am lying in bed listening to my man scrub away, and in the background I hear an alarm going off. Soon a knock on the door and a man yelling were we ok. I said yes and thought he was so strange. I am still hearing the alarm. I walk in to check on my sweetie and there he was using the emergency pull cord to hang his voluminous laundry. Apparently when ‘MacGuyver’ was rigging his laundry line and hanging his delicates, he ended up alerting the whole hotel. I just about passed out laughing.”

But enough with the secondary sources. Now I go straight to our agriturismo host, Luca, to ask about the pull cord in our very own bathroom. What will happen, I ask, if I pull the cord? Will it set off an alarm in his office? Not that it would do much good, since Luca is only in his office about an hour a day. And if he did happen to hear it, what would he do?

The cord in my bathroom will only sound my doorbell, he says, because my apartment is not for handicapped guests. My alarm would only be able to notify Lucy if I fell down, but that seems kind of strange. Our apartment only has a bathroom, bedroom and kitchen/living room, and I can easily just call Lucy with my voice. I can just picture it now. I slip, hurt my back and pull the cord, calling for help at the same time. Lucy says, “I can’t come right now, Paul. Someone’s at the door.”

The rooms for handicapped guests are wired so that an alarm will sound in Luca’s office if someone pulls the cord, but the alarm is not turned on unless he has a handicapped guest, which is rare. So back to my room I go to try it out, but there is nothing but a clicking sound when I pull. I tell Luca. He is surprised but does not seem too concerned, since he realizes there is little use for such an alarm.

In any event, everything else about our bathroom in Casolare dei Fiori is first rate. It is new, shiny clean and everything else works perfectly. The shower has tile walls and a plastic door that keeps all water inside. While the showers I’ve experienced in cheap Italian hotels usually have a low flow and tepid water, we enjoy a heavy volume of hot water with seemingly unlimited volume. The shower is truly one of the reasons we decided to return to this place, so I’m not about to complain about a pull cord that I will never need.


  1. Thanks so much for the research Paul. I've been wondering about that pull cord for 13 years! Actually, it's hard to believe that it was really that long ago, that we were touring Italy w/ you guys. So much fun, and such good memories! Enjoy your time! Dick & Bo

  2. Ha, very funny! I'm traveling in Italy with my daughters, and we've seen those in both our hotels so far. It's now our 4th day. My daughter was just pulling on the cord and asked me what it was for, so I looked it up and found your blog.

    Exactly at the moment when I read "these cords are required by Italian building codes so that people can summon help if they slip on the bathroom floor" - I got a call from the front desk! "Sir, we received your emergency call from the bathroom and we want to make sure - Is everything ok?" It was pretty funny! I explained my daughter pulled it on accident, and thanks for calling.

    Your blog is correct, and at least in some hotels, including the Sheraton in Rome, it works sometimes. Thanks!

  3. Thanks for the info. We wondered about the cord in our rooms the past week. Your story made us laugh so hard, a trip to the loo was required!

  4. Omg, thanks for the info. My husband and I have now pulled the cords in 4 hotels hoping to start the bathroom lights/fan. Glad no one came from the front desk!

  5. I'm Paul and Lucy's sister and I was fortunate enough to visit them at the Casolare and stay in the adjoining unit. My shower was of the simpler tyle that Paul described--two tiled walls in a corner and a tiled floor that sloped inward to a drain. Not enclosed and the water did splash quite far. I learned early not to have anything I wanted kept dry anywhere near the shower. Lucy had invited me to use theirs, but I was wanting the experience of the ordinary one. Having had several hospital stays, I knew what the string was for. In the hospital it was clearly labeled.
    I would recommend the Casolare dei Fiore to anyone who would prefer a country rather than city sojourn in Italy. The accommodations are very nice and the people are wonderful.

  6. That is hilarious. I also pulled the cord. I didn't know if it would summon a marching band or what but I couldn't resist my American curiosity!

  7. I pulled the cord because I thought maybe it would turn on the bathroom fan (there was, what looked like a fan fixture on the ceiling next to the cord). But instead of the fan, I heard buzzing, so I turned it off. I figured it was some kind of alarm system. Luckily no one tried to come rescue me.

  8. My question - and what brought me to this blog is: Once the alarm is activated, can it be turned off from inside the hotel room/ bathroom. I, like many others, pulled the string, thinking it was another light switch. When the alarm came on I called the front desk. The manager told me he'd give me 5 minutes to figure out how to turn it off and after 5 minutes, I couldn't figure it out so he turned it off remotely.

  9. I'm sitting here reading your blog and I am full on belly laughing!! Thank you for this very amusing telling of your travels in Italy, and most especiallu the spot on attitides of the Italian natives.


Comments welcome.