Mark Twain called it “so grand, so solemn, so vast!” Henry James thought less of it: “A structure not supremely interesting, not logical . . . but grandly curious.” John Ruskin thought even less of it: a cathedral that steals “from every style in the world, and every style spoiled.” Oscar Wilde was just plain blunt, calling it “monstrous.”
But my first glimpse of the Duomo di Milano, the fourth largest cathedral in the world, gladdened my heart, my first thought being, This place must have a bathroom!
In stumbling off the train in Milan and wandering aimlessly through the city, I had forgotten the Golden Rule of Tourism: never be too far from a bathroom. I had no guidebook, no map, no book of familiar Italian phrases, e.g., “Where in god’s name can I find a bathroom!” And my hand gestures and exaggerated pee-pee dance simply weren’t working. People scattered in the way all people scatter when faced with a madman approaching them.
How did I ever get in this situation?
Well, I had decided on a whim to take a day trip from Lake Lugano, Switzerland, to Milan, with a goal to add Italy to my country list at little cost. I could get there by 9:30 in the morning and be back in Lake Lugano in time to meet a friend for dinner at an outdoor restaurant, whereupon I would regale her with stories of my Milan adventure. But after wandering the city for an hour or so, and consuming a few cups of coffee—acquired at great effort with hand gestures—my adventure was turning quickly to misadventure. Only the Duomo could save me now.
Of course, getting to the bathrooms of the Duomo proved harder than I had expected. It wasn’t simply a matter of dancing up the steps, through the doors, and into a bathroom. The problem was, the entrance was guarded by soldiers with automatic weapons, soldiers who already seemed agitated by my approach. I started up the steps, a cliché of pigeons wheeling overhead, each with their own bathroom emergency.
Steady, I thought. Pull yourself together!
With great effort, I was able to do just that. I’m sure I looked like a man about to explode, but a calm man, a confident man, and certainly a man unworthy of gunfire. And so they let me pass, to my great and lengthy relief.
Later that evening, as I sat with Candace, sipping wine, I told her all about the Duomo, particularly its ornate bathroom fixtures. And then I looked past her, past all the tables and all the people, some lifting glasses to toast something remarkable, some wildly gesticulating to make a point, some sitting demurely, demitasse poised, past all of them, through the window to the bar where waiters scurried to pick up drink orders, past the bar, to a warmly glowing light above a doorway, a beacon to all men in search of a bathroom.
“Excuse me,” I said. “I’ll be right back.”