Saturday, March 10, 2012

Staying Clean, a Travelogue

[As John Luc Picard used to say in Star Trek: "Captain's blog, supplemental" ... or something like that.   A week has passed since Misti wrote this, and after struggling with new passwords and other issues caused by the crash of my hard drive, we are just now able to actually get back into our blog and, just perhaps, publish it.   Just perhaps, because as part of the crash I lost iPhoto and, while I had the photos backed up, I must use a different program to try to get them onto the blog. As you read this you might also notice that Misti has set a new standard for writing that cannot be illustrated.  So, I will weave in photos of our recent trip to Reeve and Melanie's ancient house in Arles, France (the Roman mosaic at the top is in the Arles museum).  So imagine a Star Trek episode in which two unrelated realities become intertwined and move along the same timeline.]

March 4 -- Revelation! I’ve figured out why the Viennese and other Europeans smoke and drink so much, sometimes smell of body odor, and refuse to pick up the dog poop from the middle of the sidewalks. Laundry! They’re so tired of the work required to wash and dry their clothes, they smoke and drink to relax, sometimes wear dirty clothes (it can take days for some items to dry), and simply don’t care if the public sidewalks are shitty – let somebody else do it.
Reeve's Neighborhood, Arles

Our laundry saga continues, and, yes, I know this is petty, but missing in an expat’s life are opportunities to vent – which might also explain the lack of dryers.

Three weeks after our washing machine died, I’m boiling laundry in a kettle on the stove, which consists of two small burners and no oven. I’m convinced the kitchen towels have become bacteria breeding grounds and need to be sterilized.

Last week we were enjoying a long overdue visit with Reeve and family, and an American friend suggested we take our laundry along for our children to do in an ironic gesture.  But, since we had only a backpack each, and those backpacks were crowded with as-yet-undelivered Christmas presents, no space remained for dirty laundry.  In addition, Arles is in France. Reeve and family live in a 4-story, 17th century house/art gallery/cave, and while they have a small washer, like us, they have no dryer.

Saint de la rondelle cassée
After we returned, we got the news that the new washing machine would be delivered on Wednesday. Ecstatic hallelujahs burst forth. The machine was deposited right inside the front door, outside the bathroom.  Jim muscled the machine into position and hooked it up, and, just to be sure there was no international installation confusion since the manual was in German, our landlady’s husband came by to check on it. Good to go.

Digression. The complexity of languages here continues to stupefy me. Despite being politically liberal, I mostly agree with the typically conservative “English as an official language”  approach in the U.S.  More on that another time. On the washing machine packaging these words appear: Lavabiancheria, Washing machine, Waschmaschine, Machine a laver, Maquina de lavar roupa, Lavadora, Pralka, Camasir Makinesi, and something that looks like MoIOMINHaa maIHHHaa (my computer can’t handle whatever alphabet it is: Cyrillic? Greek? Phoenician??)

Keir and a French Cat 
Having owned many washing machines, we didn’t anticipate any problems with our inaugural load. Jim put a reasonably small pile of bath towels in the washer and turned it on, and we watched like small children fascinated and delighted. Then, midway through the cycle, during a particularly violent spin, the machine abruptly stopped and so did our breathing.

One common aspect of expat life is loss of status, in our case, from homeowners to renters.

We like our landlady, the defense attorney, and we don’t want to be a nuisance. Writing a note to her about a machine that was broken less than 2 hours after it was installed was, take your pick: humiliating, mortifying, embarrassing, horrifying.  Weeks ago, the furnace broke and we were without heat and hot water for three days; luckily, it was a simple ignition fix. Shortly before that, the faucet in the bathroom sink was continually dripping and despite Jim’s best efforts to fix it, he couldn’t. That required the installation of a new faucet, but because it wasn’t of a typical model, it had to be ordered, which required more communication and more delay. In both cases, Frau P., who has far more pressing matters to attend to such as defending accused murderers, was understanding and helpful.

Melanie, Ocean, Reeve, in Marseille
What we haven’t told her is that the relic of a vacuum cleaner that came with the apartment broke three weeks ago, the shower hose broke when we came back from France, the old toaster oven is working erratically, and some of the windows messed up by the renovators still don’t close. Three of four of those we’ll handle ourselves.

This is a beautiful, renovated, furnished apartment in an old building, things happen. As homeowners ourselves whose renters back in the States have had furnace problems, we understand that things breaking is part of the joy of ownership. It appears, though, that European manufacturers have learned what I considered the American art of planned obsolescence.
Karaoke Bar, "My Way," in French

I just returned from meeting with my friend, Brigitte, an inquisitive, intelligent woman of 27 whom I see every week, ostensibly to practice my German but really just to engage in scintillating conversation in English. She recently earned her MA in British lit and her British English is nearly flawless. Between my observations and questions as a foreigner and her insights and explanations as a native Wiener, we both come to a clearer understanding of this place on the planet.

Arles Street
Ordinarily, I drink green tea or coffee. Today I had a beer because while I was writing earlier, I forgot about the kettle, which I had inexplicably covered.  It boiled over (and over and over) and dark, soapy water was swirling around the kitchen necessitating a quick mopping up with whatever towels were available. Now I have more towels to wash and dry. See? Laundry drives you to drink.

I told Brigitte about our washing machine fiasco and she sympathetically replied: Scheisse, Scheisse. I then asked Brigitte about dryers.  Her parents have never owned one, and although there is one in the cellar of her apartment building, she never uses it. Why not? “I don’t know. Tradition?”  I wondered why I don’t see laundry hanging out Viennese windows as it does in Marseilles and Arles (so colorful, so lively) and she blanched. She said it is too cold but mostly, it seems, it is a matter of modesty, which is ironic given the public displays of nudity and lingerie that abound on posters and billboards in Vienna and the intriguing array of sex toys displayed in store windows. She didn’t mention it, but I’ll ignore the environmental impact argument.
Marseille Street 

I’ve hung up laundry in my lifetime. Those sunny afternoons of hanging up damp clothes on the long wire lines at my grandma’s farm when my grandma would identify the songbirds for me as we worked rank among my fond memories. Our family of seven created a lot of laundry, all of which my mother did, and although sometimes a portion of it would be hung on the more modern rotary clothesline in our backyard, my mother no doubt was grateful on a daily basis for the modern dryer.  I know the smell and stiffness of pillowcases dried in the open air. I’ve spent time wondering why some people chose the wooden clothespins that look like primitive human figures and others used the less-anthropomorphic spring-action variety.  However, I’ve never spent so much time before thinking so much about something so mundane.

Reeve, Ocean, Marseille Train
As I’ve been hand wringing clothes again, one of my favorite American authors has come to mind.  Tillie Olsen, author of the stunning short story, “As I Stand Here Ironing,” and the novella, “Tell Me A Riddle,” was a Nebraskan, a high school dropout, a union activist, a wife, and a mother of four daughters, who published her first book when she was 50. Until then, she was too busy with the prosaic demands of cooking, laundry, cleaning, child-rearing and near-poverty to express herself.

When she finally had time to write, she wrote, "The habits of a lifetime when everything else had to come before writing are not easily broken. Habits of years—response to others, distractibility, responsibility for daily matters—stay with you. … The cost of 'discontinuity' is such a weight of things unsaid … that what should take weeks, takes me months to write; what should take months, takes years."

Melanie, Ocean, their house and gallery
Her nonfiction book, “Silences,” is an examination of the creative costs of household and labor duties. How many creative works, innovations, political interventions, flashes of brilliance -- particularly those of women -- went unborn or unexpressed because of the demands of domesticity?  I think again of those Peruvian women washing laundry in the river. Which of them might have been the equivalent of Olsen, or even the Peruvian Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa?

And then a much better known American writer comes to mind, one vaunted for his “courage” in forsaking civilization for Walden Pond, Thoreau. While he was thinking deep thoughts about the simple life and being visited routinely by Mrs. Emerson, guess how he did his laundry? He dropped it off in Concord for his mother and sister to do.

The repair person is scheduled for Monday.

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