(Don’t) Drink the Water

Recently, on the Expats in Italy forum, a woman living near Florence wrote to say that she’d been vomiting all day after having consumed nothing but the local tap water. What could be wrong? While a plurality of replies confirmed that the stomach flu has been making the rounds this month (indeed, G had an intestinal bug just last week), other possible culprits ranged from pregnancy to an ulcer to…tap water.

When we lived in Alabama, the local water department would send out an annual water quality report to reassure all residents that their tap water was safe to drink. The report included all sorts of figures and graphs delineating chemical levels and micro-organisms. Until receiving this report, it had never occurred to me that the tap water might not be safe, so seeing all those statistics only worried me. What percentage of chemical x really is okay in my water? And just because Alabama says it’s a-okay at this level, do I want chemical x in my water at all?

We switched to bottled water.

When we first arrived in Trento, having bottled water with us at the hostel was a priority. We didn’t know what quality water was pouring from the tap, and in any case our daughter’s infant formula needed to be mixed with purified water. Within a few weeks, though, as I began to get acquainted with a few local moms, they were quick to volunteer that not only is the local tap water excellent, they mix their baby bottles with it.

I soon noticed, too, that while locals often ordered sparkling water at restaurants, there was just as likely to be a pitcher of tap water filling their glasses. Thus, one of our first restaurant vocabulary lessons, from the kind waiter at Locanda al Cavaliere, was acqua del rubinetto (I’ve since learned that you can also request acqua alla spina, which is easier for me to remember, being closely related to birra alla spina, another important drink order).

When I attempted to use my new vocabulary during a weekend visit to Venice, however, the waiter laughed long and loud. He pointed at the canal, “That is tap water. You want to drink that? It’ll kill you.” I explained that I lived in Trento, and everyone there drinks the tap water. He was not impressed. Maybe Trento’s water is that good, but Venice isn’t so lucky and I should not, it seems, have unintentionally rubbed it in:  we had horrible service for the rest of the meal.

Trentino’s tap water is a source of local pride for good reason. The source is pure alpine snow run-off. The water that flows from our kitchen sink is the same water found bottled at the store and the same water that runs through the public fountains from March to November.

Public fountains, oh how I love you! These vital fixtures are found along every square and tucked within neighborhoods. They aren’t the ornamental or statuary fountains found in large piazzas, which often have a small plaque warning acqua non potabile. Look instead for a smaller fountain along the perimeter. Sometimes it’s just a spigot pouring into a stone basin. In small town squares or between neighborhoods, though, it’s likely a full marble trough with worn iron supports beneath the faucet where a bucket would have collected water for cooking, cleaning, or watering one’s animals.

In the summer, I loved to stop at the public fountains to splash water on my face or let it run down my back:  mini air-conditioners on our walks around the city. There’s no need for bottled water here. I keep a reusable bottle in my bag to fill at these fountains, where the water is always ice-cold.

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About JGR

I'm a writer and college instructor traveling the world with my husband and two young daughters. After eight moves in eleven years, in 2014 we decided to plant new roots in Fort Collins, Colorado. Time to buy bicycles and teach the girls how to ride!
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