Fishing for the answer to Italy's shower curtain mystery

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The Independent Online
You learn the strangest things by moving house. Like the enigma of the non-existent Italian shower curtain. Or the even deeper enigma of the non-existent Italian furniture. Or, most bizarrely, the finer points of fish-gutting in a public fountain. So many piercing insights into utter trivia. And we've only moved a few hundred yards down the street.

Broadly speaking, there are two ways of finding a flat in Rome. The first is called pot luck, and involves stumbling upon some kindly dowager who would be awfully obliged if you would be so kind as to sit in her panoramic attic with extensive roof terraces for a couple of years, all for the price of a couple of cappuccinos a day.

The other, more usual, route involves linking up with a series of louche middlemen with greased-back hair and mobile phones, and looking at a lot of expensive rat hovels with no visible signs of running water. "Ah, you wanted windows in your flat," exclaimed one particularly unsavoury character. "Well of course some people are a bit fussy, aren't they?"

The more places we looked at the more peculiarities we noticed about Roman households. Like their addiction to two or even three bathrooms, even if this means the kitchen is scarcely big enough to strain a pot of pasta and the living room is pushed halfway into the passage. Why? I'm all in favour of cleanliness, but I really don't see why two people living together can't share their washing facilities.

We never did get a convincing answer to that one. But we did find out why there isn't a single shower curtain to be found. Apparently there's no such thing as a ready-made shower curtain, so the only way to have one is to buy the material, cut it to size, make the loops and stick the whole thing on a specially cut metal bar. Since nobody can be bothered with all that hassle, Rome ends up with a lot of wet bathroom floors.

The shower curtain problem nicely illustrates a broader issue: the lack of a proper consumer culture for household items. There are a few furniture megastores in the suburbs that do endless promotions on local teleshopping channels. But for even a hint of good taste one is obliged to do the rounds of endless small designer shops and artisans' studios.

The process is actually rather pleasant, if time-consuming, involving several visits, oodles of small talk and gallons of coffee.

We had vaguely entertained the notion of buying some antique Italian furniture, until we discovered that there isn't any on the market except for ferociously expensive stuff dating back to the 16th century, and most of that is probably fake. For reasons no doubt connected to the Romans' historic inability to produce anything of value except by nabbing it from elsewhere, all the furniture on offer comes from France, or Denmark, or eastern Europe - scooping up bargains in Romania is particularly trendy among antiquarians at the moment.

As luck would have it, we were moving from one street full of furniture makers to another full of antique dealers, so we didn't have to look very far. Two years of idle chitchat in the street paid off handsomely as we acquired not only a beautiful handmade bookcase at a knockdown price, but also three trout and a magnificent pike straight out of Lake Bracciano, all courtesy of our fishing-crazy furniture maker friend Franco.

And here came the greatest challenge to our street cred in the neighbourhood. I didn't fancy spilling pike guts all over our brand-new kitchen, so I had to clean out the monster in the nearest fountain and try to look as though I had been gutting fish all my life.

What I do know is that living in a tight-knit urban community is an art that requires constant refining. Assiduous readers of this column might remember how I got around the tortuous rules for heavy rubbish removal last time we moved by bribing two delivery men to take away our empty boxes. This time around, I went one better. I made friends with the head of the local garbage office and got him to clear away our boxes for nothing more than a cup of coffee and a shot of grappa at the nearest bar. I would have offered him a slice of freshly gutted pike, but strangely he wasn't interested.