31 May 2014

Dirty Laundry

 There are so many things about living in Italy that can make you feel like you’re living in the middle ages and I’m not just talking about the architecture (ba-dum bum).

When I first moved to Italy, I didn’t have a washing machine. I know. I didn’t just move to the old country, I moved to the last century.

After working 12 to 16 hours a day, every day, in a pub/pizzeria in summer serving ice cold flavored vodka, pizza and cheese burgers and washing piles of  dishes, I’d lay down on the floor with my legs perpendicular against the wall, drink a beer and watch the shooting stars off the balcony before going to sleep knowing that the following day I’d have laundry to do. When you’re sweating half your body weight in a pizza kitchen during the summer in Italy, you always have laundry to do.

I’d haul the laundry into the utility closet that had a sink with the little grooves on the sloped front and wash our stinky clothes, our bath towels, our bedsheets by hand. Then I’d hang them out on the line on the balcony to dry, hoping no birds would fly over them.

My first Italian clothes dryer
It got worse as the weather got colder. I still had to hang everything outside or across some chairs in the living room, but  the house was just as cold and damp as it was on the balcony. Besides having no washing machine, we had no heat. The apartment did have a, um, heating system. It required a fire to burn constantly in the living room fire place. This fire could, in theory, heat up the water running thru the pipes that ran across it which would then carry the hot water thru the apartment to the radiators. As long as you were home all day to make sure the fire was going, you had heat. If you had wood. And we didn’t. After washing, rinsing, wringing, repeating with all our dirty clothes, I’d lug them outside and string ‘em up in the damp mountain air, bundled up so I wouldn’t get hypothermia.

In December of that first year, we moved to a different area and rented a furnished  apartment while we looked for another place that could hold all our furniture. This apartment had a washing machine, but the heating situation was only slightly better than the first place. There was a fireplace, but no pipe system, so unless you were standing directly in front of it, a risk to both you and the furniture as there was no screen on it, you were cold and your clothes still took days to dry outside.

I would put the laundry in the washing machine, wait an hour and a half for it to be done and drape it all over the cold, damp house. Three days, one hour and one half later, the laundry would be done.

I started to notice that I wasn’t the only one wearing my jeans and sweaters many times in a row. Some people, I noticed, wore the same entire outfit for days on end. Med-i-e-val.

When we found the place we’re currently in, I was delighted by several things. It could accommodate all of our furniture. It had gas heat AND a pellet stove (much cheaper than gas). It had a clothesline that was covered and it had a washing machine. It was thirty years old, but it was a washing machine. It took three hours to complete one load of laundry.

Swish, swish. Wait. Swish, swish. Wait.

This is what a 30 yr. old Italian washing machine looks like
The other notable thing about this washing machine is that it just had a dial with numbers. Nothing about temperature. Nothing about speed. Just numbers and lines, like some sort of timer. For laundry.

The first time I used it, I noticed two things. One, there appeared to be steam rising up from it. Two, my very expensive, fancy eggshell-colored underwear bought in my previous life were now a very strange dark grey/purple color from either the lavender scarf that is now half its original size or from the t-shirt with the photo of the Hong Kong skyline that is now a dingy grey. It seems I had boiled my clothes. The Italians thought this was hysterical. The Americana doesn’t know how to use a washing machine. Didn’t I know that I had to push the button that looks like a snowflake for cold water? I thought it was bizarre that my washing machine could heat up the cold water that ran into it. How was I supposed to know?

One day, the machine just stopped. The front loading washing machine just stopped mid-cycle, full of water and clothes and would not move on to the centrifuge/extraction step. Apparently, there was a filter that needed to be cleaned out periodically. Who knew washing machines had filters? Of course, it was located a centimeter off the floor and when opened, water would pour out of the machine.

The detergent dispenser was broken, so I couldn’t put fabric softener in it at the beginning of the wash, and besides, I had to keep checking to see that the filter didn’t need cleaning (swish, swish, wait. wait. wait. swish) or worse, that it had just finally given up and stopped working entirely. I would set the kitchen timer and cross my fingers that I could run upstairs and dump the fabric softener down the dispenser right as the water started to run through before the second rinse. If I did a load of wash, I had to be sure I’d be home for the three hours it took to do it and I had to start it at early enough at night to avoid the high day time energy costs yet early enough to put in the fabric softener before falling asleep. When I took the clothes out, they’d be sopping wet.

I’m not sure why, but after three years, the landlord bought us a new washing machine. I am delighted. It has a dial with words! They’re Italian words, but I get the gist. “Eco 20’” must mean “energy efficient, 20’ water temperature”. It has a “hand wash” cycle. There’s an option to do a “rapido” load in fifteen minutes. It has an LED panel with buttons. One section has hours listed. One has centrifuge speed and one has an iron. I think that last one is like a “fluff” cycle to make ironing easier. I don’t know. I don’t iron. I don’t really care, either. I don’t even care that the instruction booklet is in Italian only or that we couldn’t find an English manual online or even find the brand being sold anywhere but Italy and India. I have a washing machine that goes “swish, wait. swish wait”, that I can set at 8pm to start at 2am and that I can dump my fabric softener in right at the start. It still takes about an hour and a half for a normal load of laundry and I still run the risk of accidentally boiling my clothes if I’m not careful, but at least I’m not scrubbing my sheets in a utility sink and when I take them out, they’re almost dry. Progress.

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