ONE OF THE DRAWBACKS drawbacks of traveling in Italy is that bathrooms in public spaces are scarce. You either have to try to sneak into a restaurant’s facility, risking the wrath of the owner, or you search for a public restroom, for which you have to pay.
Even at the Duomo in Siena, after you’ve paid a steep price to enter, if you need to go to the bathroom, you still have to pay.
Sometimes this leads to strange adventures.
Here’s what happened on Friday morning, for instance, at the Siena train station. I was hoping to take the 9:18 train to Florence but I found out that train had been cancelled. The next train was two hours later. No big deal. I was not in a hurry and if I got to Florence too early, chances were my hotel room would not yet be ready.
Having nothing to do, I decided to go sit outside to warm up in the pleasant morning sun.
Soon enough it happened: I started feeling an urge to pee. I looked around and saw a sign for restrooms inside a nearby modern shopping center building. Carrying my suitcase, camera bag and backpack, I walked into the building and followed the signs to blessed relief. The signs led me to a hallway. At the end of the hallway there were three doors, one on each side of the hall, unmarked, and a door in between. It had a sign saying uscita — exit. There were no signs for bathrooms anywhere. The hallway was deserted so there was no one to ask.
So, I decided to go through the marked door, reasoning that the bathrooms were on the other side. When I opened the door, I was outside, on a wide metal stairwell between the building and the hill behind it. There were more exit signs pointing upwards, these ones saying “emergency exit.”
That should have set off some alarm bells and convinced me not to close the door behind me. But that’s exactly what I did. I first went down to the floor below and tried the door there. It was locked so I went back up and tried to open the door I had exited. It too was locked.
What to do? What to do?
First of all, I decided I needn’t panic, at least not yet; I still had about an hour and a half before the train left, and if I missed that one, there’d be more trains to Florence throughout the day.
I decided to knock on the door, hoping somebody inside would hear and open the door. After a few minutes of that, I opted for Plan B: I started pounding on the door.
That didn’t work either.
So, reluctantly I moved on to Plan C. I would climb the stairs to find the promised emergency exit at the top. My fear was that it was one of those doors or gates that set off an alarm when opened. How would I explain to the police or security guards what I was doing?
I say reluctantly because I would have to haul all my stuff up, which together weighed quite a bit.
But haul it up the stairs I did (all the while thanking my daily workouts at the Y this past year). Five flights of stairs. At the top was the promised emergency gate and beyond the gate was a dirt road parallel to the shopping center. I saw an old man walking on the road so I knew it led to somewhere. But to where?
First things first, though: the gate was locked. Fortunately, the fence on either side was not very high, maybe about four and a half feet, and there was a sturdy fence post, which I could hold on to, where the fence met with another fence. So I threw my stuff over the fence and then climbed over. Easy.
I decided to head to the right because otherwise I’d be going uphill, and also I could see a street in the distance. I thought there might be a chance the two would meet.
So I started walking. The morning was still relatively cool but I had on a light jacket on top of a sweater on top of a long-sleeved shirt. Walking in the warm sun and pulling and carrying my stuff soon had me sweating, so I stopped to take off my jacket. I was still too hot but decided to proceed anyway.
Let me tell you that gravel/dirt roads are not good friends to those tiny wheels on rolling suitcases.
After walking about six or seven minutes, I met another man, who was walking his dog. I can’t imagine what he thought, seeing a Mexican with his luggage on such a back road. I asked him if the road led to the street and he said yes. I then tried to explain to him what happened but he didn’t care, he just wanted to get the hell away from me.
Eventually, the road did meet the street and I was able to walk back to the station to await my train. I think I must have walked close to a mile.
But, you know what they say about a silver lining? After I met the man and his dog, I was all alone on that lone country road, a perfect opportunity to step behind a group of trees to relieve myself. And I didn’t have to pay anything! I peed for free!