Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Excuse me, where is the garboli ?

About 22 years ago our family went to live in England. We were thrilled. We landed at Heathrow on a Friday and by Sunday we were exploring local castles, churches and ruins.

My husband, a one-time history major, was fascinated by castles. Since he was an avid reader and had already traveled extensively, he was quite knowledgeable. He carefully explained the history as well as the reasoning behind the way castles had been built. He introduced us to terms such as moat, keep and....garboli. But I’m ahead of myself.

Our children were 10, 8 and 5 years of age. If my memory is correct, Orford Castle in Suffolk was their first castle. They loved it, especially since they could move freely and not have to listen to a tedious tour guide. One of the first questions they asked us (their tedious parents) about living in a castle concerned a subject children are often interested in. How, they wondered, had people gone to the bathroom? Their father pointed out a seat-like structure and solemnly intoned, “This was a toilet. It was called a garboli.” He pronounced it GAR-BO-LEE.

Ahhhh. A garboli. After much giggling, the kids began to enlighten other newcomers to castle life, mainly family members and close friends who came to visit us in our new home. Even I took pride in pointing out the garboli, though I confess that I did wonder why English toilets had such an Italian-sounding name.

A couple of years after our initial visit to Orford, I was perusing a guidebook on castles. It contained many diagrams and terms. Suddenly something caught my eye: “Medieval toilets were called garderobes.”

What? I immediately called it to my husband’s attention, exclaiming, “Listen to this! This book says toilets were called garderobes. What about garbolis?”

My husband-and-father-of-my-children merely shrugged. “Oh well,” he answered, “garderobe, garboli, what’s the difference?”

What’s the difference? WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE? So what if we’d been authoritatively telling people about “garbolis” for two years!

Though we amended our toilet vocabulary, the term garboli was not lost to history. No, even today some of our relatives-- and their friends with whom they shared this story-- use it. “Where is Howard? Oh, he went to the garboli.” or “Do you need to use the garboli before we leave?”

The gospel of garboli has spread throughout the land! Or maybe it's more accurately called...bathroom humor.

And to think I’d wondered if the word was Italian! It wasn’t. It was ours.

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