I am not one to make broad generalizations about anything, much less the topic of masculinity, since it is so fraught with anxiety, for men. But it seems to be a truth universally accepted that a true sense of manhood begins with plumbing, and I don’t mean that metaphorically. Somehow, the proper containment and flow of water is the appropriate domain for anyone struggling in our culture to become what is called “a man.” If you can master plumbing, you are finally worth something. I felt an important bonding, just two days ago, when our landlord and neighbor, Giuliano, responded to a request on our part to fix a faucet.
Giuliano, in his early sixties, is the owner’s son, and lives next door in a two-room portion of the spacious 1920’s era apartment long ago subdivided to give him some privacy. He has a separate entrance, and we see him maybe once a week. He is lank, though only a bit taller than I, always courteous but more: congenial, chatty, amusing; he laughs at my jokes. Since his mother is English and father Italian, he has since birth been bilingual—even trilingual at an early age when he developed, for a spell, his own childhood language. Now retired, he taught mime, or rather stage presence, to actors—some of whom he delights in seeing on TV—and you can tell in his normal positioning of his feet that he has the poise of a relaxed fencer in his stance. He seems very comfortable just standing while in conversation.
When we first walked through the apartment upon our arrival, we stood agape at its simplicity of design and layout and yet the elegance and sun-drenching of the splendidly tall windows and entries to our two balconies. But we didn’t try the faucets, and one, the bathroom sink, did not have the little nozzle you find at the end of the faucet. When, the next morning, we attempted our ritual tooth-brushing after breakfast, we found the faucet stream spraying out every which way into the sink. It created an irregular, multi-directional flow, something you could live with, but on the other hand, why not mention this to Giuliano?
“Well, there’s a lot of chalk in the water,” he said looking at the stream. And I instantly knew what he was getting at. Roman water is conducted, still by ancient acqueduct systems (though mostly the underground variety), from sources in the hills that are full of calcite. What Giuliano referred to as “chalk,” which for Americans connotes what we used to use to write on blackboards, is what we are more likely to call limestone, resulting in what you might call “hard” water. In fact, Roman water—or at least what you get out of the faucet in the environs of the neighborhood of Trieste in which live—is clear, colorless, and pleasant to taste, not at all “chalky.” Nevertheless, the chalk is there, and you can see it building up on fountains in the city, such as the one at the foot of the Campidoglio, in the Piazza D’Aracoelli.
At any rate, the chalk also builds up in the little wire meshing located inside the nozzle at the end of the faucet used to catch particles in the water. And eventually, if that mesh is not periodically attended to, the faucet might clog. A previous tenant, it seems, had removed a formerly clogged nozzle altogether—it was gone—and what remained in our bathroom was a completely un-nozzled faucet; hence the many directions our chalky Roman water would spew.
I believe myself to be a master plumber since the age of twelve when I first grasped the mysteries of the tank, its odd floating ball, and why you need to jiggle the handle. I knew early on how to fix a running toilet. By my twenties, I was unscrewing drains to rescue items and unclog pipes. Of course, my plumbing manhood does not extend into walls or down into the basement or outdoors to sewers. I remain untested in those areas, but I am handy inside the house. And I knew that we needed a new nozzle. I also knew that I could remedy the situation, if only I knew where to find a hardware store in Rome, or even find the right word for such a negozio. Two days into our five month stay in Rome, I did not have the language skills to explain what was needed, and I was apprehensive about this entire matter. Italian toilets don’t have tanks behind the seat; the tank is elevated high up on the wall, the flush handle, in our apartment, is a button on the wall, and I knew that I was no longer in the land of normal plumbing. And if so, how would I begin to fix the nozzle on the bathroom sink faucet, or what Giuliano (half-Brit) calls the “tap.”
But Giuliano was also flummoxed. Turns out that the nozzle was not gone; it was still on the faucet; only the little mesh insert had been removed. Worse still, none of Giuliano’s metric wrenches seemed to fit the nozzle, which now needed to be removed. Plus, the nozzle itself had encrustations of chalk hidden where the nozzle screws on to the faucet. Giuliano worked on the encrustations with a small screwdriver while I rattled off alternative solutions: a vise grip? an adjustable wrench? a new faucet? Giuliano entertained them all. But we both knew that even if we got the nozzle off, we would have to replace the mesh. He was certain that the faucet model was no longer in existence, but somewhere, we knew, there was a negozio that sold spare parts of ancient faucets, and Giuliano got on the case.
The following day he arrived with a couple optional mesh inserts that we hoped would fit this modern-looking though already out-moded faucet. Still, the task of removing the chalked-up nozzle remained. Much strength and torque is required to perform this delicate, manly maneuver; too much strength and you twist the faucet and new springs of water might come gushing forth. We both knew—though did not say it—that the wrong move would make things much much worse. The nozzle would not budge; apparently the chalk build-up had begun to metamorphose into marble. As Giuliano continued to chip and carve at the residue in the dim and intimate lighting of the bathroom, I suggested that in America—negli stati uniti—we have a magic spray called WD40. He knew it, though it does not exist in Italia, or least not in his toolkit; but he had a can of something else: “Laser” it is called. Of course, WD40 (which I believe is aerated oil, gasoline, and deodorant) is a solvent to loosen up rust and silence squeaky doors. It’s not for dissolving limestone. But whatever its “Laser” equivalent in Italy is, Giuliano ran off to get his can.
We sprayed, and Giuliano, as if speaking for the Ages, said, “And, now we must wait.” He departed for his rooms, and forty minutes later, I took the funky adjustable wrench / vise gripe he had left behind, squeezed the nozzle gently, applied a certain amount of easeful torque, and it moved, and moved again. I ran to Giuliano’s door and yelled, “Success.” And he returned, and the rest is routine. Suffice it say the chalk is gone, the mesh inserted, the nozzle back on, and we smiled as we shook hands, both of us feeling a mutual self-regard. In this plumbing feat, we both—the Italian and American—had conquered Rome.