08/16/2012 07:32 am ET Updated Oct 16, 2012

Travel, Pray, Bidet

Sarah O'Leary is an American writer blindly traversing through Italy, teetering on the brink of sanity. This is one in a series of stories about her experience.

Some rules were made to be broken, others smashed into smithereens. Number four in my travel book is "Don't bathe in a low or moderately priced hotel room tub." But I hadn't been able to take a bath in over two weeks, as was caked with cobble dust and sand and train smell and more anxiety than arguably most people who reside in locked mental health facilities.

I found myself fantasizing over a very clean and extremely long tub in my very small hotel room in Florence in a manner that felt more in keeping with baptism than bubbles. My Italian eroding by the nanosecond, there was no way of knowing if the liquid I poured under the water was bath gel or mouthwash, but I couldn't have cared less. It bubbled. The water was steaming, and I was the happiest person in all of Firenze (and quite possibly the free world) at that very moment.

Some people are shower lovers, some bath people and some are hybrids of varying degrees. I use my bathtub in Los Angeles much like people use trips to the psychologist or the salon or yoga or the corner chair of the local bar. It is my exhale. A 1970s-something oddly shaped yet roomy oval tub surrounded by an overabundance of Correan, my home tub was meant (oh, the irony!) to give a feeling of the ancient Roman baths. But my Florence wading hole was meant to convey a poo-poo platter of black and green tiled noisy faux chic.

Like every bathroom I've been in Italy (except for the public one at the beach that was a hole in the floor surrounded by ceramic places to put your feet and yet surprisingly still required flushing), this one also had a sink, toilet and bidet. (With a trace of guilt, I remember telling a fellow co-ed on my study abroad program in London that the bidet was in fact a water fountain for short people before I stopped her for using it as such. But I digress.)

The bidet in my Florence hotel room seemed extremely clean, as if the staff had just removed the stickers after installing it. Certain that I would have to execute copious amounts of research on the internet to see how to correctly use a bidet and quite certain I wouldn't have the moxie to even if I knew, I considered (as we would say in marketing) "alternate usages."

Suffice it to say my first two weeks in Italy had not been a pleasure cruise. I intimately understand the meaning of nervous laughter, because I hadn't let out as much as one easy "ha" in days. I did five minutes of improvised standup to the American couple at the train station in La Spezia so that I didn't cry on them. I was from a long line of joke rather than deal with negative emotions Irish American Catholics. I needed a laugh that didn't involve nervous energy or unadulterated fear.

From the warmth of the tub, I saw the possibility of emotionally freedom calling to me from the gleaming white bidet. Grazie, Santa Maria!

I carefully considered the bidet's unique offerings. You have the bowl, basically a sink for your undercarriage, a stopping mechanism and a faucet that seemed to point water out rather than down. (I'd yet to turn on a bidet, so wasn't certain of the water dispensation, velocity, etc.) Certainly, it too small for a swimming pool.

The following is an idea for every American family traveling abroad with small children who need to entertain them with an arts and crafts project while in the hotel room:

First, search the room's desk and end tables for hotel stationary. Postcards, envelops, sheets of paper, even non-laminated in-room dining menus will do. Then, go on the Internet and google "How to make paper boats."

Once the kids have created three or four boats, fill the bidet and let the regatta begin. Award prizes for boat building and racing from the candy and €3 sodas in the mini bar. Be sure to film the event and post on Facebook to show all of your American friends what a great time the family is having abroad.

Laughing to the point of tears and hyperventilation at my bidet boat race, I failed to notice the maid's arrival. Covered in bidet water and having soaked the gaudy bathroom tile, she seemed both angry, disgusted and more than a little frightened.

Pointing at the "Do Not Disturb Sign" she retrieved from the inside of the door, she yelled at me in Italian to put it on the door rather than scare her. I don't think she's over yesterday when she walked in to find me naked on the bed, listening to American music in my iPhone with the Italian soccer game on. (I couldn't figure out how to regulate the room's temperature and would have taken off my own skin if it would have cooled me down.) It seems even Italian maids have staunch opinions regarding the beauty of the human form.

I came, I saw, I "bideted." And neither the maid nor I will ever be the same again.