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Adventures in Laundry in Paris

October 30, 2018

When I rented this apartment, I was thrilled that there was a washer in the kitchen, which is where lots of French people have their washers. I still don't know why. 

 

Gazing at its shiny plastic-encrusted door, I entertained visions of whistling La Marsellaise while I did my laundry, hanging it on the racks in the bathroom because French people do not believe in dryers. I do not know the why of this either, but it is as absolute as the sun coming up tomorrow. 

 

With visions of clean laundry dancing in my head, I opened the door to the washer. Oh the horror! My tender nostrils were singed by a smell so strong it settled on the countertops, staked a claim, started its own government, as its first official act, stained the air a color between influenza and cat vomit.

 

My watering eyes finished telling me the story; mold of every different stripe, plaid, and paisley, mold so strong it had hopped the boundary of life forms and enrolled in French classes at the Sorbonne and become fluent, mold that yelled out at me from the depths of the washer, "Close the door, putrid human! We are King and Queen of Moldom and you will never do your laundry in our cylindrical domain!" (But in French. My French being novice-level, all I understood was, "You'll never do laundry here.")

 

I congratulated the King and Queen of Moldom on their masterful command of French and closed the door of the washer forever, dropped the curtain on my blissful laundry-day dream, and closed my eyes. With a sigh I thought back to the one of the many times I had recently forced myself to overcome one of the Thousands of Fears™ of living in a new country. 

 

I'd been staying in a hotel because when people tell you that finding a place to live in Paris is hard, that is no joke, friends. It's hard and time-consuming and I was living in a hotel and needed clean clothes, because it had been very warm out and I had noticed, on the metro, that I couldn't tell whether it was me or someone else. But it was not pleasant. 

 

I asked the clerk at the front desk where I could do laundry and he pointed me down the street. There were a Thousand Things I was afraid to do, and one of them I was navigating a laundromat in French.

 

I walked past the place three days in a row, stalking it, creeping up on it, my wardrobe getting riper with each passing day, until I could stand myself no longer and I ventured in. It was even more terrifying up close than it had been from across the street. 

 

For one thing, it was tiny. I am accustomed to American laundromats that are like our wide open plains, big as the sky and full of potential. This laundromat the size of a walk-in closet. Against the back wall were four dryers, stacked, and to the left of the doorway were three washers, side by side. There were a couple of metal boxes on the right-hand wall, but I ignored them, because my terror at not knowing how to do this, this French-laundromat thing, was causing my hair and brain and ears to buzz and fall off. 

 

I didn't know how to French laundromat and I didn't know where to get the information. My eyes searched the walls for signs in English like the lost-at-sea would search the horizon for signs of a ship, but nothing. Well not nothing, but nothing in English. The French signs seemed to be trying to warn me not to put {something something} into the washers and not to put {something else} into the dryers, which, duh. Also there were lots of other signs which were unintelligible to me. 

 

There was a slender, bony, wooden bench in the window, on which was perched a slender, bony, ancient man with an elaborate beard, his legs folded around each other, and whose body, over-dressed in brown wool, curled like a vine around his crossword puzzle book, held an inch from his squinting eyes.

 

He allowed me the dignity of my confusion and did not look up. 

 

I put my clothes in a washer, any washer, like a laundry boss, so as to not be mortified by my ignorance of the workings of French clothes-cleaning appliances. Once that was done, I looked for the slots, you know, the slots into which you put the money. There were none. I interrogated the top, bottom and even the sides of the machines. No place to put money. Why? I was sweating, embarrassed and hoped that the little man in the corner wouldn't notice me. I just couldn't stand being seen as stupid, yet again. I could have cried. 

 

I looked around the walk-in closet laundromat. There was a metal machine that had a big soap ad on it, and a machine that looked like the machines that give change in the US, except that it had four padlocks on it, but no explanation as to how to do laundry. It was then that I noticed that none of the machines was running. 

 

The little man, the man who was a brittle winter leaf, wasn't in the laundromat to do laundry. His clothes, though worn through to the nap in places, and worn through to daylight in others, were wrinkle-free, perfectly tailored to his wispy frame, and clean. He engaged the crossword with a pen, making confident marks every now and then. A very smart man, I thought, as a diversion from my public mortification. 

 

And back to reality. My clothes were not getting any cleaner, and I was not getting any less sweaty. Confuffled, there I stunk in my confusion and anger at myself for not speaking the language. There was probably a clue on those signs on the walls, but I wouldn't know. And my phone, still on my T-Mobile SIM card, wasn't connecting to anything, let alone Google Translate.

 

I looked at the change machine again, and somehow divined that I should put my change into the change machine, and then it dawned on me to use the little keypad to enter the number of my machine, lucky 14! And having done so, emboldened, I strode over to my machine and waited for the magic. Which did not begin, because my money had rolled out of the machine. I did it again, and again, and because I am stubborn like that, you guessed it, again. And each time, the machine politely returned my money. 

 

I stood at the recalcitrant washing machine number 14, was it broken, should I switch machines? I heaved a big sigh from the depths of my soul, and looked at him.

 

Had I remembered to say, "Bonjour," when I entered the laundromat? Had it become reflexive? Or had I just forgotten? It would have been rude had I not. Because I now realized that if I was ever going to get out of this alive, I'd need his help. I smiled at him, like an American dork. 

 

He jumped up and began explaining it all to me, maybe even the meaning of life, but I missed it, because it was in French, and when I was clearly too stupid to understand him, he pressed the buttons for me, his hands like the roots of trees.

 

Here is how to French Laundromat;

 

Put clothes in washer. Put soap in tray. Close machine door.

Note machine number.

Enter machine number on keypad on change-machine thingie. Hit the hashtag button. Put money. 

Magic begins, and your washer, all the way across the laundromat, begins its marvelous watery dance with your clothes. 

 

I wanted to sit after the Ordeal. For a person of such diminutive dimensions, he had managed to Occupy the Bench in a commanding fashion, lining up several paper grocery bags which had been stuffed into plastic grocery bags for durability, which were stuffed into some other type of plasticky woven sack, and which were brimming over with oranges, which he commenced eating in his tidy fashion.

 

Seeing he wasn't going to make room on his bench, I teetered on the tile window-ledge until my sit-bones felt like they were coming through my skin. 

 

"Je peu?" I asked, and he obliged and moved a bag to the floor. "Vous-ete trés gentil," I said.

 

As I sat down, I noticed them. Sitting there, on the bench, his glasses; huge clear plastic frames, yellowed with age, holding lenses thick as toast.

 

He squinted into his crossword puzzle, put it down, pulled out another orange, and peeled it, its sweet fragrance filling the air. After one bite, he resumed working on his puzzle as I puzzled over why he wasn't wearing his glasses. 

 

Not wanting to be nosy, but not able to help myself either, I glanced at the squares he was filling in. Each letter was perfect, drawn as though it were the face of a long-ago lover, and for a lover of words, that might have been true, his hand steady and slow. Each letter was the same size and centered in its box.

 

I was overcome with the ache to speak with him, to ask him about himself, to know this fellow-traveler and lover of words. Who was this man, in whose hands the crossword became a work of art? I wanted to ask him. What had he done? What were his favorite words, and why? What books did he love? Where had he traveled? Where would he like to go? I burned with curiosity and shame and anger at myself for not being able to connect with this marvelous, mysterious human. 

 

Was he happy to fold himself into into human origami at the tiny laundromat, eating his oranges and performing his minor calligraphic and intellectual miracles for no one but himself? Where were his people? Was he hungry? Lonely?

 

Two young women opened the door and moved past me. Their heads bowed in kindness, in deference, they stood in front of him, and spoke to him softly. I surmised they were asking him if he needed any help, and he demurred in his polite way. 

 

The fragrance of oranges filled the air again as the door closed behind them.

 

I put my clothes into the dryer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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