Sharp Monica

An honest voice in Italian paradise.

Firenze: Laundry: Cultural Concessions / Biancheria: Concessioni Culturali


Next to food, public transportation, and public offices like the post office or the immigration office, laundry is an intense cultural filter.

As an American who has lived in Europe multiple times, in different countries (Spain, France, Italy), the early years in particular posed interesting new challenges.

In Spain (1993), a free washing machine in the basement of my residencia, and the right to hang my clothes to dry on a very linty clothesline hung over a damp floor in a persistent Galician twilight. Alternatively, I could schlep those wet clothes up five stories and hang them haphazardly around my tiny room on hangers and at the head and foot of my iron bed, hoping I did not annoy my roommate Berta, who returned to Santiago each Sunday evening and carefully put away all the clean laundry her mother had done for her at home in Lugo.

Something like this. Now, doesn’t that smell fresh?
Yes, if you think prison smells fresh.

In France (1995-1996), a washing machine also in the basement cost money, but my Spanish friends taught me to engage it free of charge by means of a knife and manual dexterity.
“Monica?” Elardio asked me. “Tu sabes que es un truco? Pues esto es un truco de verdad que nos ayuda.” Do you know what a trick is? Well, this is a real trick that helps us.
The other nationalities did not seem to be aware of the Spanish Knife Trick, furtively and quickly deployed by myself and the impecunious Spaniards. It also seemed to be slowly breaking the plastic around the dial.

I remember my English friend Jane exclaiming happily, in her French dorm room, “I just love the smell of fresh washing!” I also brought my own wet laundry upstairs to my room to enjoy its sweet fragrance while it dried on hangers hung about the nine square meters. That year also I had brought a travel clothesline from the US with integrated clips, and strung it up on my wall. It made a fine exhibit of those bright satin American string bikini undies from Victoria’s Secret, and their knockoffs (standard in the mid-nineties), causing youthful blushes and grins when my English male friends stopped in for a visit.

Italy in 2005 saw Jason and me doing a lot of shared laundry duty, in our Florentine apartment up in Le Cure at street level. The washer was about the size of a 7-11 Big Gulp cup, and was situated next to our gas stove. The grime from passing motorini floated in and visibly attached to the lighter clothes hung on the winged rack if we were not careful.

In Arezzo in 2012-2013, incredibly, we had a washer and a dryer in our apartment, generously sized and very efficient. A dryer, people. I recall many administrative conversations in meetings back in Oklahoma on campus, where my study abroad counterparts debated the need for clothes dryers for the outbound American students. The American students demanded clothes dryers. We who had spent significant time in Europe scoffed at this.

All of Italy air dries, we laughed. They seriously want clothes dryers, those energy drains? Yes. 
Yes, they did. And yet a dryer was present in our faculty apartment. At first, on principle, I refrained from using the clothes dryer, since our  upstairs loft in warmer months was easily 90F. But as the light receded, and the months got colder and darker, I was glad for its hot, huffing maw.

As an American, I had always had a clothes dryer. I had grown up with a mother who was well-schooled in Finnish thrift and the value of the outdoors, and who hung our clothes outside on the line as often as she could, especially when I was younger, to let them bake their way into sweet freshness in the free heat provided by the sun. Even in college I paid for wash and dry. I would not have dreamed of bringing wet clothes home to hang about and dry. It’s just not done.

In our Oklahoma home more recently, we were the proud owners of an LG washer/dryer pair that looked like they could centrifuge plasma. The LG washer used three gallons of water per load, or something like that, and was direct-drive, which meant we washed clothes for about two dollars a month, or something like that. The LG dryer, on the other hand, cost a pretty penny to run, but also had settings such as “Anti-Allergen,” which ensured that laundry was tumble-dried at a medical grade, issuing forth microbe- and pest- and dander-free scorched sheets and pillows one month when we had a pet-based bedding/flea scare. I often slipped in a dryer sheet, particularly in the winter months, to prevent the sock millefeuille.

I dreaded taking our huge loads of laundry from the dryer to the living room at the other end of the house to fold them. Sure, they were dry, and also hot, a fact appreciated by our cat. But they tangled together like a ball of worms in an Amazon flood, and the way they came out required an almost academic inspection, re-identification, and cataloguing of items. I hung laundry to dry often in our side yard until we had kids, at which point just getting out of the house seemed to be impossible.

One time in Spain in 1993, at the urging of Berta, I used a container of fabric softener on my clothes. An early purchase, misunderstood to have been laundry detergent, it had remained on my small bookshelf for months.
“You should use that,” Berta said sometime in late spring, motioning at the container.
I poured the entire container into a load of darks, all my Gap jeans and ribbed cotton turtlenecks. When those clothes emerged from the washer, they smelled good. But when they dried, oh my god. It was like wearing silken Kleenex made out of fairy wings. Suddenly the rough seams of my jeans now seemed to caress my skin from the inside out, my t-shirts draping gracefully over my shoulders, my whole outfit as perfumed as a Silk Road concubine.

I never purchased liquid fabric softener in the US. In addition to my firm moral arguments against such excess, and the relative merits of scratchy clothes (feel crisp, fresh, seem really clean, hold their shape, and on and on) I always read that the wax would plug up the holes in our washer, rendering it inefficient, or worse, useless. A nonfunctional washer is not an option with a baby. We used those fabric softener sheets, which I recently read are the most chemically toxic item you can buy for household use.

Her smile says fabric softener, but her clothes say crisp moral high ground.

In Firenze, we have a smallish washer tucked into a utility closet, and again a winged drying rack. I am appreciating ever more the value of the drying rack, as the clothes come off it half-folded and easy to organize. It
‘s actually no slower than taking a hot load of dried laundry to inspect and fold for half an hour. Our washer is effective. With the right detergent, it gets our clothes really clean on its two-hour wash cycle.

Laundry corner.

But the day before yesterday, I washed a load of darks with at least one, perhaps two, used pieces of errant facial tissue. Victor has been sick; everyone has runny noses. I am the only one who stuffs dirty laundry into the washer. There are reasons for this I can cover later.

Calamity. My favorite black t-shirt from Cos now looked like my favorite type of cake (white coconut cake layered with coconut frosting, with more coconut flakes adhered to all sides.) This was not good.

I looked up remedies. These American websites! Their recommendations were preposterous.
Lint roll everything. 
Use Static Guard (TM). 
White distilled vinegar. 
Add baking soda to your washing machine, when it is full of water, but before you add clothes. 
None of these options were possible, given my retail product access and hardware configuration. But then I saw, use fabric softener. I can do that! I thought. But we didn’t have any, of course, because fabric softener is for the weak, or the whores of Samarkand.

I messaged our downstairs neighbor. Cassidy, an affable American, arrived about three minutes later with an almost-finished bottle of fabric softener advertising a “fresh blueberry and lavender” scent. My nose and hands began to twitch at the memory of such excess. I promptly washed the load again, since I was home with Eleanor, who was clearly 0% sick.

Success! Coconut Kleenex bits vamoosed. The black t-shirts were black, the Kleenex was gone, all was right with the world. 

I told Jason at lunch, “We need to put fabric softener on our regular shopping list.” I felt a tiny bit like I had crossed over to the dark side. Fabric softener to me seems to be such a first-world product. Do we really need it? My bootstrappy inner American says no. My external European says yes – and maybe my nascent internal Italian too.

Also, our house smelled fantastic, like a field of sun-warmed lavender and ripening blueberries.

One for you, Mom. Sequim.
Also known as, our apartment’s olfactory twin.

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2 Responses

  1. You do not mention the static electricity that comes from using a dryer without a dryer sheet, fabric softener, or one of those knobby ball things to prevent static, My little knobby thing looks like a white hedgehog. Really cute and effective.

  2. But ah! The sock millefeuille? The teasing apart and cataloging of the Amazon worm ball of laundry? I did used to use the knobby things but they sounded like tennis balls and seemed to not work!

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