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Postcards from Italy: il bucato

LaundryInTheDarkIt’s 6pm on a Saturday night as I write this and I’m sitting in the kitchen waiting for the laundry–il bucato–to dry. I know what you’re envisioning. I ran out of underwear or my Penn State sweatshirt got a little noisome in the pit area.  I did a load of wash and now the dryer’s doing the old spin and fluff thing. It’ll be done in half a mo’ and then I’ll be out for a fast night of café crawling.

Wrong. The reality is there isn’t a single dryer in the entire country of Italy so we hang our clothes out the window to dry. It’s going to rain for the next ten days here in Frascati so these clothes have got to get in tonight. Today was wash day and I got a late start. Everyone else up and down the street was smart enough to wake up at four in the a.m. to get the show up and out by eight. That gave them a whole long day to dry their bucato. At the moment I’m the only one left with socks and pants and shirts hanging out the window.

Stupid American.

It takes a while to get the hang of things here, but I should know better. It wasn’t until half way through my childhood that my mom gave her old wringer the boot. And then three quarters of the way through my childhood she finally got herself a dryer. Before that, though, scenes of the entire family scrambling to bring the sheets in because of impending storms were common. Here in Italy they don’t scramble. They just leave the laundry out in the rain. It stops soon anyway and then the sun comes out and it’s quite warm and not very humid and fifteen minutes later the laundry’s done, none the worse for a second rinse.

Usually that’s the way it works. For some reason (probably the same reason it was cold in Bari last weekend), it’s not going to stop after fifteen minutes this time. Everyone else knew that. I’m the only one that didn’t get the memo.

There are other things to get used to with laundry here. These old apartment buildings do not have central heating. There’s no booming boiler down in the entrails that deliver steam or hot air up to your room. These buildings have been here since long before  humanity discovered the pleasures of radiators. Here homes were retrofitted with heat exchange units that  supply hot water on demand. Each apartment has its own unit. It’s efficient. Plus there’s no problem when everybody in the building decides to take a shower at the same time. Remember your first apartment? The shower that would dwindle from piping hot to northern frigid just at the point when it was getting good? None of that here.

The downside is that the wash cycle takes four times as long because the machine has to regularly stop while the water heats back up. What that means is if you don’t get up until a leisurely 8am and then set out to do the wash, well, I guarantee you’ll be hanging around the kitchen waiting for the laundry to dry on a Saturday night.


I’m baffled by the washing machine here. Take a look at the panel up there. What does all that mean? Those green numbers and incomprehensible pictures. Those are international symbols? For what? Is that recycling over there by #15? Flower power at #7? And by the way where’s #’s 6, 12, 13, and 17? They’re on the dial. How come they’re not on the graph thingy? Is this another case of designing an amp that goes to 11? Get the new space age Wash-o-Cyclone! 17 levels of bone-scrubbing power! But there are only 13 needed. Yes, but this one goes to 17.

At home washing machines have three easily deciphered settings: temp, level, and fabric. Nobody cares about fabric so you just let that one be. And nobody washes in hot water anymore, so you’re left with deciding between warm and cold. If it’s an old model you might have to set the temp on the rinse cycle as well. That leaves you with one tricky item: level. Guess high and you can’t go wrong. Worst that can happen is you’ll waste a bit of water.

When I do the wash here I can only close my eyes and point at the settings. I hope for the best but unfortunately it makes a difference. The wash comes out embarrassingly bad. The shirts have fuzzies on them. The dark colors aren’t clean, the whites come out gray. Forget washing Wooliteables. I’ve resorted to the old panty hose method: rinse ‘em in the sink and hang ‘em to dry on the shower rod.

I’m at my wit’s end with this thing  so I’m doing the only thing any self-respecting housewife would do: I’m crowd sourcing for answers. In a week or so I’m going to hold a contest with prizes. I’m going to post a diagram of the panel and a sheet of the International Symbols of You Tell Me. The first person who comes up with a solution to this puzzle wins a free book or free music CD. Print or electronic, your choice. My stuff, your gift.

I’ll be announcing this contest via my freebie newsletter. If you want to get in on the action, sign up to receive the announcement.

Thanks for reading!

Sue Lange



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