If in doubt, flush the coat hook

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GUIDEBOOKS to countries often omit some of the most basic pointers to a national culture, without which a visitor might be lost. Very few guidebooks to Britain, for instance, contain any detailed explanation of the class system, which keeps the place not going. I have never met a guide to France that explained the French sense of taste, nor one that did the same for German humour. And I have recently spent two weeks in northern Italy totally unprepared for something even more fundamental: the national Italian sport of concealing the flushing mechanism of their lavatories, and challenging the visitor to find it.

So here, for any first-time visitor to Italy, or possibly any Italian who has lived there for ever and still not mastered the Italian flush, are the fruits of my research.

1. To alert you to the sport of flush-finding there is an air of playfulness present in Italian lavatories and not present in those of other countries. I am not talking about the fanciful pictures of Signore and Signori which adorn the doors, and which belie the image of the Italians as an artistic race. I am thinking of the fact that the light switch is usually outside the door. It must be quite fun for Italians to watch foreigners go in, flounder around in the dark for a while, then put one hand out to switch on the light. (Practically, it is also a very good way of finding out if someone is inside. You just switch the light off. If a shriek emerges, it is


2. Most people coming from Britain automatically look for one of two trigger mechanisms in the flushing field: a dangling chain or a protruding handle. There are no chains in Italy. There are some handles, and it is always worth trying these, though very often they just activate some invisible ventilator. What most often activates the flush is a little panel set cunningly into the top of the water cabinet, which you press down to release the water inside. This is rarely seen in Britain and unrecognisable to us, which is presumably why the Italians chose it.

3. However, on most Italian lavatories this little panel is not connected to anything and it just wobbles up and down like a tooth about to come out. What you do now is look at the floor. Yes, look at the floor. There is a good chance that down there there is a round black stud that you are meant to stand on to initiate flushing. Try it. It may

be a door stud, or worse, but the odds are that it is what you are looking for, especially if there

is a notice on the wall that portrays a foot standing on a black blob.

4. If the floor and the back wall have nothing worth pressing, pulling or stepping on, have a look at the side walls. In my hotel bathroom in Bellagio, the flushing trigger was where a coat hook or hat rack would normally be - head-height, looking ready for you to hang things on. In fact, I thought it was a coat hook to begin with - I hung a shirt on it our first night and got the shock of my life when the loo flushed.

5. When you come to wash your hands, be ready for other shocks. There is a new invention now widely available in Italy, which I have never seen in Britain, called the electronic tap. It works on the same principle as the advanced warm-air hand dryer, except that it wets, not dries, you. You just put your hand under the tap and the

water comes out. When you take your hand away, it stops. The idea, presumably, is that you can never leave the tap running.

6. It takes about a week to get used to the electronic tap. Then one day you confidently put your hands under an electronic tap - and nothing happens. No water appears. Oh, of course, you think to yourself, this must be an old-fashioned tap, one you have to turn. But you can find nothing to turn, press or push. You stand there like a scarecrow, panic rising. It is only then that you notice there is a black stud on the floor below the basin. Of course] You tread on it with your foot, gratefully. And the lavatory flushes. Italy 3, You nil.

7. This supremacy may well explain the air of national pride found in Italian lavatories and not evident in British ones. This is not entirely intangible. I think it is traceable to the colours on the Italian flag, which are exactly the same as the ones that flash past your eyes when you turn a lock from occupato to libero - red, white, green.

Coming soon: Italian driving - what are the rules?