The Bidet as Metaphor for Healthcare Reform

On trips to the United States, I often find myself detailing the differences between life in the New World and the Old. I’m often asked what I miss most about Italy, and I dutifully list such obvious amenities as cheap, strong coffee, excellent olive oil and bread you can sink your teeth into. Sometimes I veer off on a tangent and mention less obvious things like well-dressed people in public spaces, hugging (and being hugged by) people you hardly know, and the generally invasive nature of Italian social life. In America, I would never dare to embrace even my closest friends, let alone peck them on the cheek; in Italy, it’s de rigueur.

Which brings me to my new favorite topic: anal hygiene. Or, more specifically, the bidet. Americans don’t just hate the bidet, they hate the very idea of the bidet. Say the word out loud and faces sneer up pathologically, as if there were something repulsive about keeping your money maker spanking clean. In America you can talk about anal sex at dinner with your in-laws, but the bidet is branded taboo by even the staunchest liberal conversationalist.

Why do American noses point skyward at the mere mention of this eclectic cleaning device? My mother (yes, her again) expressed skepticism when I suggested that Americans didn’t know what they were missing. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation:

“You take a dump and wipe yourself with half a roll of Charmin, then diligently wash your hands and Purell them to boot, all the while forgetting that the poop-producing orifice is still unclean. I bet if people actually thought it through they’d come around. In a decade there will probably be a bidet in every new American house. All it needs is a proper sales pitch.”

“I don’t feel unclean,” she said. “Besides, how do you pull your underwear up if you’re all wet down there? I hate wetness. I have to feel dry. That’s a definite setback.”

“But you have a towel. You dry yourself with a little personal towel, then pull your pants up. It’s quite uncomplicated,” I replied confidently.

“All those little towels! What about a public bathroom? How the hell could they have such a thing in a public bathroom? And a woman my age, in my physical condition–how could somebody in my shape pull off a balancing act like that? What, you hover over it while water squirts up into you? And if you fall? How embarassing! Then they find you passed out with a toilet nozzle in your tuches? What will people think? The whole thing is crazy.”

“It’s really not a problem, but I can see your point. You wouldn’t have to use it,” I reassured her. “We still have toilet paper in Europe. It’s not either-or.” I was beginning to equivocate.

“Never. Not in a million years in this country will you see a bidet, except maybe in the houses of the rich, who can’t say no to tchotchkes.”

It was beginning to sound like universal health care. I could already envision the protests, the angry town halls, the Joe Sixpacks and hockey moms stirring up a grassroots revolution on behalf of Big TP. “Don’t take our toilet paper away! The bidet is un-American! The government can’t tell us how to clean our asses!!”

It would never work. Americans are too patriotic.

I decided to take an informal poll of American friends who live or have lived in bidet-freindly countries. One friend suggested to me that Americans just don’t feel comfortable touching themselves “down there.” Another boasted that Americans take showers “like crazy,” as if Europeans bathed once a week in a public bath house (implying the dire necessity of the bidet.) A third responded with an aw-shucksy anecdote: the first time her nephew eyed a bidet, he inquired what a second toilet was doing in the bathroom. Wasn’t one enough?

The bidet, contrary to prejudice, is not a substitute for the shower. It is not a replacement for full-body hygiene. It is used by women and men alike to clean the nether parts when they’re dirty, and finish the job that toilet paper starts. Rumor has it the Japanese–among the world’s biggest bidet maniacs–have largely dispensed with the latter all together. Walking around has never felt so nice. Not to mention sex.

Think about it: it’s a discreet way of communicating with your partner. Instead of awkward interrogations of the “Are you clean?” variety, you just know they are. Someone who washes after every trip to the can cannot be anything else–and if they are, do you really want to be sharing an intimate moment together?

On my recent trip, however, I noticed a slight ripple of change, a tiny snippet in Newsweek arguing that the bidet is not only essential for combating “fecal contamination” (yuck!) but also in terms of green:

“Tossing all the TP in America would save 15 million trees, 17.3 terawatts of electricity, and more than 473 billion gallons of water annually; the environmental impact of bidets is minimal in comparison.”

Which would be good news for everyone, except maybe Big TP.

Published in The American

Ignorance Is No Longer Bliss

Dont be a pill, dude.
Don't be a pill.

Living in Italy, I don’t get the opportunity to watch American television much. I don’t even have Sky, which would enable me to watch hundreds of channels. Until a week or two ago, I lived a quiet life with four–count ’em!–channels: one in black & white, three in color and MTV (which doesn’t count because it’s all reality shows), and most of them owned by Berlusconi. So one might say I was living in the woods.

Now, after a week in the US watching faith channels and Fox News, I’ve finally seen something interesting.Today I watched the entirety of President Obama’s townhall speech on the healthcare (or health insurance) reform bill. I had seen the Obama-with-greasepaint-mustache posters, the swastikas, and I’ve even written about Obama-bashing here. I hadn’t been following this healthcare business closely because, well, I live in Europe. That happens. Anyway, it’s unavoidable now, so when I actually listened to Obama field questions from the public I was surprised at the elegance of his vision.

I know such praise will draw hellfire from the usual quarters, but this was my gut instinct. Here’s how it appears to me, an American who has set foot in this country for the first time since Barack Obama took oath in January, and whose approval rating is supposedly falling like hail fire over Egypt.

Let me briefly preface these observations by stating that I have never taken much of an interest in such debates; nevertheless, I’ve held numerous jobs in the United States, and never have I had a healthcare plan (except for a brief period when I was a member of the auto workers’ union, but don’t ask me how that happened). In Italy I am for the first time a beneficiary of “universal health care.” It is not a dream plan, but I can see a doctor when I need to. What Obama proposed sounds better than what I have in Italy, which is better than what many Americans have in America. Something is wrong in that equation.

Of course, I understand that there is a lot of fine-tuning to be done. Nothing is exactly as it appears, and there may be huge difficulties in funding such a program. And people will probably always fall through the cracks. But let me write what I heard Obama say, and not the pundits:

1. All Americans are entitled to healthcare. No exceptions.

2. If you like your existing healthcare program, you may keep it. The government will not force you to switch to theirs.

3. Wasted money–billions and billions of dollars–will be rerouted in order to finance such a program. These are dollars presently being squandered subsidizing insurance companies, not enriching care for their patients.

4. Everyone will be able to choose the healthcare plan they feel is best. Prices will most likely go down due to a public option.

5. The elderly will not be murdered wholesale by a shadow euthanasia plan.

None of this is highbrow stuff. I did not go and look anything up afterward. Let’s make believe I was an average Joey Bag-o’-Doughnuts in attendance. This is what I would’ve taken away from the encounter.

So the question remains: what is so explosive about all this? Why shouldn’t all Americans have health insurance? It sounds like a dumb question, but I can’t seem to get a straight answer so far.