When in Rome

When in Rome, ape the locals.
Or go native.
Or at least try to act like you know your way around.
This is not difficult, especially for Filipino tourists visiting the Eternal City for the very first time.
Filipinos, after all, are to cultural adaptation as the Chinese are to producing pirated DVDs. And just like illegally-copied video discs, the said Filipino trait remains unfettered by regional restrictions.
But then again, this trait — as far as Rome goes — appears to be irrelevant.
Romans are still likely to be irritated whenever strangers interrupt their routines by asking them for directions.
Just like sharp-tongued New Yorkers, Romans have perhaps nurtured a dislike for tourists, simply because their city has too many of them, Filipinos or otherwise.
Besides clogging buses and trains, these visitors delay pedestrian traffic by reading street signs, studying maps, and posing for pictures.
How does it feel like to live in a city absolutely swamped with visiting foreigners?
I barely have an idea.
I live in a city notorious for being the Philippines’ squatter capital and I’m pretty sure that that’s not a top tourist attraction.

This picture was taken in Rome after being awed by the Fiat 500.

This picture was taken in Rome after being awed by the Fiat 500.

What I do know is that for the first half of 2006, approximately six million people visited Rome. The Philippines — which is 60 times larger than Rome — only had 2.8 million visitors during the same year.
So what does this mean?
There is a shortage of Romans patient enough to give directions to the next bus stop while there is a surplus of Filipinos — at least 30 to a tourist — all too willing to answer any questions under the sun, proud of their abilities to communicate using broken English, complemented by various hand and facial gestures.
This discrepancy posed a problem for my wife and I when we were about to leave Rome and the bus we needed to catch was running late.
If we missed the bus to the train station, it might take awhile before we could board a train to the airport. A later train to the airport might mean a delayed connection to Paris, compromising the last stop of our European adventure.
We had become so desperate that we considered taking a cab. The idea was quickly dismissed when I learned that it might cost me an arm, a leg, and my other organs, unsavory and otherwise.
Why was the bus late?
I didn’t know but I was tasked to find out.
Armed with my poor English speaking skills and my atrocious Italian, I ambled to the station attendant and asked when was the bus arriving.
She answered me in broken English and then she shooed me off.
Was this racism?
Were my questions being dismissed outright because I wasn’t white? Was I making a fool of myself because I didn’t know how to speak their language properly? Was I being treated unfairly because I was overweight and therefore used more soap than thin people?
I didn’t know.
But I found out soon enough.
As I sat beside my wife in the waiting area, I saw various other tourists — some of whom spoke in English — getting the same treatment that I got. They asked the same set of questions that I asked but they were summarily dismissed, like appeals of lawyers with losing court cases.
Not long after, the bus arrived, making us consider the incident with some measure of fondness. (We did catch the plane to Paris, after all).
My wife and I loved Rome — we still do — despite having stayed for less than a week. And no bus station attendant, no matter how ill-tempered, was about to ruin that memory for us.

(This piece was written after a trip to Europe in 2007. It was finished more than a year later when a temporary alcohol shortage prompted me to do something else on a Saturday night. It was also published in GMANews.TV)

Toilet Training

There are two ways of doing just about anything in this world: You can either do it yourself or you can hire someone else to do it for you.

The same principle applies to fixing toilets: You either get a wrench or call the plumber.

Weaker beings – those afraid of pain, daunted by physical labor, and threatened by sewage – are expected to pursue the latter option, especially when faced with faulty toilets.

This is not unnatural.

After all, the possibility of encountering sewage brings out the worst in humankind. Whether in amounts both big and small, in forms both raw and processed, no one wants to see it, smell it, touch it, let alone find themselves tasting it, accidentally or otherwise.

Which probably explains why the toilet – despite its usefulness – has always been kept out of sight in most buildings and establishments. Very few individuals are comfortable with being reminded of what these facilities represent.

For better or for worse, I consider myself one of them. Thanks to a voracious appetite, a weak stomach, and a superhuman resistance to constipation, I remain awed by a technological marvel that swallows virtually anything that can fit in its receptacle. And as someone who has used restrooms in more than 15 cities around the world, I have become familiar with all sorts of knobs, buttons, and yes, pedals used for flushing toilets.

In Kuala Lumpur, I almost took a shower while testing a handheld bidet that could have been better used as a water cannon against protesters in Mendiola.

Just last year, I nearly fell into Parisian sewers, courtesy of a slippery squat toilet 10 times the size of my ass. And twice in my life, I have been caught using the facilities, so to speak, while the plane I was on was busy making a rough landing at Ninoy Aquino International.

All these experiences, I believe, were sufficient to prepare myself for fixing a faulty toilet on our apartment’s first floor.

The problem seemed simple enough.

All I had to do was to stop water from coming into the tank once it was filled to the brim. However, complex issues came into play. The mechanism, already old and rusted, needed replacement.

To do so required taking the whole thing apart, a plan that involved using tools, many of which were either misplaced or left unreturned by well-meaning friends.

In short, I had to abandon the project altogether and shut off the water flow to the tank.

Now, instead of pushing a handle to flush, you had to turn on the faucet, and wait for facial hair to grow until the pail was full of water.

Not that I actually bother to do that.

There was still a perfectly functioning restroom on the second floor.

While I now have to run up the stairs every time I need to go, huffing and puffing to beat the deadline, I at least have the convenience of a flush toilet. On top of the fact that I need the exercise anyway.


Shown are toilets and urinals, as the case may be, at (from left clockwise) the Malpensa Airport in Milan; the Villa Melzi in Bellagio, Italy; the Il Papiro store in Florence, Italy; the Pearl Continental Hotel in Bhurban, Pakistan; and the Corcoran Museum in Washington, DC. These pictures just go to show you that I’ve got a world-traveled class.

The Locked Restroom Mystery

C. in Milano

THE police officer didn’t understand the word “trapped.”
“What is trapped?” he asked me, giving me a slightly amused look, gesturing with his hands, which were wide apart, as if emphasizing a point in a high school declamation contest.
“Trapped,” I said, nodding, returning his gaze. “What indeed is trapped?”
I looked at the pigeons in the square, thinking how easy their lives were.
Every single day without fail, these birds got by on leftover pieces of bread people fed them.
Meanwhile, here I was, at Italy’s famous Piazza del Duomo, grappling with a quandary rarely experienced by anyone, both in Manila and Milan. No, I wasn’t hungry. Nor did I have to go to great lengths to get my next meal—it would come from my wife who held our cash and planned our no-frills vacation.
Despite the privilege of being in Europe, I still felt that the pigeons were luckier than me.
After all, as I was contemplating the various synonyms of the word “trapped,” my wife was locked inside a nearby restroom trying in vain to get out. So how do I tell a carabinieri in very simple English that my wife was trapped inside a cubicle with a jammed lock?
I was stumped.
But only temporarily.
After all, I was an English major.
And this was my one chance in a million to prove to everyone that a Bachelor of Arts degree—or at least the one that I had—was useful in real life.
It was very easy. All I had to do was to process the knowledge I gained in college and put them to good use. Except that I had extended my stay in college because I was always drunk and/or sleepy, which, by the way, explains why I also dropped my basic Italian language class.
Had I known that ditching Italian would prove crucial some fifteen years or so after college, I would have completely aced it, just like the time I got a 1.0 after taking a Philosophy course the second time around.
But then again, as the Romans say, praemunitos, praemunitas, a phrase which I occasionally use to show that I understood Latin. I don’t.
Which explains why I didn’t rely on my tertiary education when my wife called out my name the minute she discovered that she was locked in.
Like all neanderthals who mistakenly consider themselves heroes, I rushed into the ladies’ room, knowing that I was venturing into unknown and dangerous territory.
Fortunately, it was still early in the morning and the area wasn’t congested.
Of the three women using the facilities, only two were able to exit their cubicles with ease. None of them happened to be my wife.
To justify my existence inside the ladies’ restroom—and to avert any attack from formidable Italian women armed with thick leather handbags and stilletoes—I went to the cubicle in question and assisted my wife with the lock.
After a few minutes of fiddling with it, I gave up and told her that I would be back with someone to help us.
This now brings us back to my original quandary.
“Trapped,” I told the carabinieri. “My wife is in the restroom and she can’t open the door.”
Restraining his smile, the officer agreed to accompany me.
However, when we arrived at the scene, my wife had already escaped the clutches of the stubborn door lock. How she did it, I will never know. After all, she was the acclaimed poet in our family and I was just the useless English major.
“Grazie,” I told the police officer as he left, grateful that I didn’t have a hangover the day the professor told us how to express thanks in Italian.

Photo above shows a cheerful Conchitina R. Cruz posing at a statue located at the Piazza del Duomo, unaware of the dangerous consequences that would befall her while inside a Vittorio Emanuele restroom a week later.