I thought I was prepared. I knew that water was not free in restaurants. I was warned not to order a cappuccino after eleven a.m. I made sure to pack Ziplock bags in a variety of sizes, a reusable shopping bag, and a set of customary measuring cups. Italians, I was told, do everything at a slower pace, and I was ready to embrace that. Or so I thought. The truth is, no one can actually prepare an American for this reality permeating every facet of Italian culture. While I enjoy the relaxing two hour meals, I never anticipated the two hour, methodical process of washing and drying my clothes in America would become a forty-eight hour ordeal on the other side of the Atlantic ocean.
I am not exaggerating here. When I return to America, doing laundry might become an enjoyable chore. I know, dear American mothers, the trouble you go through to ensure your family is looking presentable in their best clean clothes. I remember the pain of continually filling hampers, the unceasing cycles of sorting and switching and ironing and folding you endure. Enjoyable? Such a statement hardly seems feasible. What’s the secret to an enjoyable laundering experience? Move to Italy. All of a sudden, doing laundry back in America becomes a breeze.
Every few days, I don my Nike athletic shorts and a color-coordinated quick dry shirt, enduring an hour of stares in the city streets for the sake of a little exercise. When I first came to Italy, I began to conclude that I lived among a whole society of people that do not run. I was wrong. They do run, just not in the streets. Italians go to parks on the outskirts of town and run (if you can call it that) in glamour, without a drop of sweat or an increase in heart rate. It’s miraculous. Okay, there are a few men putting in some genuine effort, but the women might as well be on a runway model. With my waterfall of sweat and clunky Asics, I know I already look like an American on these streets, so I continue on and hope the Italian street chic forgive me. But I digress. I tell you of this taboo practice of mine because from it I amass an impressive pile of sweaty, smelly clothes in need of a thorough washing. I wasn’t a huge fan of doing laundry before I came to Italy, and nothing has changed. So I let them fester, procrastinating the inevitable laundry day until I run out of underwear.
Eventually, I do run out, though, and I must face the first challenge of the laundering process: the washing machine. Italians, while looking twice as fashionable, own about a fourth as many clothes as Americans, and their washing machines reflect this proportion. I want to get through this ordeal as quickly as possible, so I disregard the sorting rule and opt for a single load, throwing everything in at once. It’s only economical and energy efficient, after all. When I must finally face the blasted machine, the possibility of fitting my week’s worth of smelly clothes in the bin my head will hardly fit into is seriously questionable.
An Italian washer machine, though small, is not a complicated mechanism. There is a plug, a spin cycle and power button, and a knob of numerical temperature settings. It doesn’t seem like something that could easily malfunction, but I must have the perfect touch. One time I loaded it up, pressed the on button, and… nothing. I ensured it was plugged in, kept up trial and error for a while, and gave up, reporting a broken washing machine to maintenance. An older man named Paolo stopped by later that afternoon. He hobbled into the six by six foot closet otherwise known as our laundry room and spent all of thirty seconds tinkering before the washer was functioning perfectly. Exasperated, he walked out. I think I heard him mutter, “Americana,” under his breath before facing the three flights of elevator-less stairs outside of my apartment. Apparently, there is a light switch next to the plug that turns the electricity on and off. Well, that’s embarrassing, I thought.
After waiting an hour and fifteen minutes, I open the door, ready to get on with this chore. I pull out a shirt. It is soaked. Not just damp like you expect clothes to be after a normal wash. I’m talking sopping wet. The spin cycle, even though I always make sure I don’t press the button to omit it, is cantankerous. Sometimes it works, other times it leaves my clothes, which at least don’t smell anymore, in a pool of undrained water. Lazy and frustrated, I run the load again, hoping for a different result. Sometimes, they turn out okay. Typically, though they remain drenched. If this is the case, it is necessary to individually ring out every article of overstuffed clothing. Your fingertips will assuredly wrinkle like prunes, and your arms will have no need for dumbbell exercises.
Because the washing machine normally works for my roommates, I have recently developed a hypothesis as to why it has a personal bias against me. I think the spin cycle may be running after all, but the water can’t drain because I have stuffed too many clothes into one load to begin with. I have not been able to test this out yet. The very fact that it has taken seven weeks to realize this is frustrating. Why can’t it just work like a good ol’ large, trusty American washing machine?
On to the dryer. Oh, wait. Italy is indeed a first world country, but due to high electricity costs, the dryer is a rarity, and my apartment certainly doesn’t have one. There was a time not too long ago when I thought the dryer was a loud, bulky lint collector. I have seen the light. Actually, it is a glorious piece of equipment conveniently placed right next to the washer, not only drying your clothes, but making them warm and soft too. While that nonna hanging her sheets out to dry on the balcony does look picturesque, my situation is not quite so appealing. We – my four apartment mates and me – compete for the two seven-foot fold out drying racks to hang clothes on. It’s the only thing in Italy that is not small, almost matching the size of my runt “twin size” bed. Rather than being tucked away in some nice, nonexistent corner, these giants consume the majority of the living room floor. Back in August when the weather was warmer, it wasn’t too bad. Clothes dried overnight. They’re always stiff and starchy feeling, but at least they were dry then. Creeping into the fall, clothes stay out two full days and are still damp. What with the way I procrastinate laundering, the underwear supply really does become critical at this point. I may have substituted my bikini bottoms – or even, I confess, nothing – once or twice.
As for the other loads that did not go through a spin cycle, all I have to show for my great efforts to ring out the water by hand is a large puddle of more water equivalent to the size of the mammoth drying rack. As I mop up the tile floor, I dream of large washing machines and the dryers by their side, relishing the day when doing my laundry will be a pleasurable experience. In the meantime, I will be an American in Italy – running in the streets and waiting for my clothes to dry.