Monday, November 28, 2011

For Your Entertainment: Laundry Woes

I have a story. It's a little old at this point; it's from a series of posts I wrote ages ago, before my vacances in October, and didn't manage to post because my internet situation is and has been ridiculous. But here it is anyway.

I still believe that no single seemingly mundane thing will make an American hate life in another country more or faster than doing laundry. And if I thought that the whole process seemed unnecessarily strange and confusing in Ireland, well, now it's a new learning curve and it's in a different language!

I don't really like doing laundry anyway. In the winter, sometimes if I can time it right, I like having warm sheets and/or warm pajamas at night. And sometimes I get into the domesticity zone and feel all “Look at me, I'm a grown-up!”, washing my own clothes and folding them nicely. But that's mostly only when I'm either really bored or avoiding doing something else that's probably more important. Mostly, I don't like laundry. It's time-consuming and expensive and involves carrying stuff up and down stairs multiple times.

Anyway. You may recall that I was befuddled by the detergent aisle in Ireland; now imagine that same nightmare with everything in French, when I didn't even understand it in English. I stood there reading packages just long enough to find something that specifically said it was safe for both whites and colors, and decided that would have to do. Now recall that I live in a school building, where there's not even a kitchen, let alone a washer and dryer as far as I'm aware. So off to the laundromat I go. Fortunately, there's one just a few blocks away, in the neighborhood where my bank and the bakery I usually go to are. It may or may not be the best or the cheapest in town, but I don't really care to lug my dirty clothes all over the city to find out.

I decided that rather than dragging my laundry bag around town, it would be less awkward to stuff all my clothes into my backpacking pack. I'm not actually sure that's true, but at least it's easy to carry. (I have since observed that French people all carry their clothes to the laundromat in a big canvas shopping bag, so perhaps it's time to invest in one of those. Then again, French people also bring their things to the laundromat, start the washing machine, and then leave and come back later to dry/collect their clothes. The American in me is just not comfortable with leaving my things unattended in a public place like that, even if it is just dirty clothes in a running washer.)

The first time I went, there was no one else there, which made me really glad, because not only did I not have to interact with anyone, there was no one there to see me staring at the instruction signs for minutes trying to figure out what I was supposed to do and in what order. Even more fortunately, it turned out to be less confusing than I anticipated, although I still don't understand this whole thing where different settings are associated with specific temperatures. In America, the dial says hot, warm, and cold. No numbers. I wouldn't know what temperature I want even if the Celsius scale made sense to me.

Also, my detergent tablets (more expensive than a box of washing powder but also much simpler for the girl who has never used detergent in powder form before) turned out to be incredibly fragile and I crumbled half of one all over the top of the washer trying to get it out of its wrapper. That would have been a lot less embarrassing had the owner not come in to do some cleaning while I was sitting there waiting, and had it not been REALLY obvious, since I was the only person there, that I was responsible for that particular mess.

I guess now that I'm telling it, it doesn't really sound as stressful as it seemed, the first time. It's just frustrating how something that seems so basic can become so complicated in a different place (Next up: buying a medicated face wash. HAHAHA... no.). And then I was thinking about how when I was in Belize, I COULD have lugged my dirty, smelly archaeology clothes into town to find a laundromat and let everyone stare at the gringa whose man-pants were getting the washing machine full of mud, but I also had other options. I could pay a small fortune to the proprietor of the lodge where we were staying to have my laundry done by some unfortunate maid and returned to me the next day... or I could grab a buddy with a tin of camping soap and head for the river. I've come to think that “developed” countries are overdeveloped in many ways, including that we've forgotten how to do things simply and that sometimes the simple (not necessarily the easy) solution is the most satisfying.

Unfortunately, it would probably not be socially acceptable to hand-scrub my jeans in the Penfeld. And here, it's a much longer walk to the river than to the laundromat.

But that brings me to the part where things really did get frustrating, and where I had some of the same problem when I washed in the river in Belize: how to dry wet clothes without a dryer, in a humid place. 

Dryers are not really a thing in Europe. They exist, but they're not necessarily a standard part of the clothes-washing process and not everyone has one even if they do have a washer. Laundromats have them, but they're expensive to use, and you don't pay for a full cycle. You pay for blocks of a few minutes at a time (at my laundromat, fifty cents for six minutes). I thought, okay, I'll dry my stuff a little bit, just enough so it won't be dripping in my backpack, and then I'll take it home and hang it up like the French do.

Except this is Brittany, and it was October, and everything is cold and damp all the time, even if it's a sunny day. And the heat wasn't on in my building yet at the time, and I have to hang things inside because of where I live. Do you know how long it takes wet clothes to air-dry in this environment? A long-ass time. Meanwhile, my room, as I may have mentioned once or twice, is very small, and there is very little in it that is sturdy enough to support a loaded clothesline that is also high enough off the ground for that clothesline to be practical. Space becomes very limited once there's a mostly waist-high clothesline running in multiple directions and more clothes are draped over every available surface. Plus, it can create whole new problems: wrapping part of the clothesline around the toaster oven door handle turned out to be a bad idea when the chair (to which the clothesline was also attached) shifted, which pulled the door open, which knocked over a [fortunately empty] olive oil bottle, which of course broke. No, “broke” does not do the situation justice; it shattered. I've never heard such a noise as breaking glass echoing on tile, and I had no idea just how much glass was in a less-than-1-liter bottle. And I couldn't get a broom and clean it up, because I couldn't maneuver through the forest of damp clothes, so I just had to wear shoes all the time until everything was dry enough to put away. During which time I also could not use the sink very effectively, because it was blocked by hanging clothes, or my desk, because the chair was being used as both a clothesline anchor point (which required it to be in the middle of the room) and a drying rack. 
The moral of the story is that air-drying is all well and good if you have more than one room in which to live, or at least a room big enough to hold a clothesline out of the way of your normal activities. And if it's warm enough and dry enough in that room for things to actually dry—the first time I did laundry, when I had the clothes-forest and no heat, most of it hung for over two days and was still damp when the heat finally came on and dried it out at last.

I have a slightly better clothesline strategy now, and the heater is a big help. But I admit I also run the dryer a little longer than I did that first day. I decided that even if humidity wasn't a bitch, I don't have the space to go around rejecting modern conveniences entirely just because I can.

Anyway, laundry sucks, and I want to go back to the jungle. The end.

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