This evening when I came home from the embassy, I directly attacked a pile of laundry that seems to multiply like mushrooms in the dark. Why can’t I be arsed to keep on top of this? I asked myself with annoyance. All I have to do is let the machine do the work. And yet the wash cycle is 90 minutes. And my closet is on the third floor while the laundry room is in the basement. And I hate folding. And I am not supposed to lift more than 10 pounds. And my foot and leg are numb and I have a recent history of falling down the stairs. And, and, and. But then I inadvertently took a trip down memory lane: I looked back at a journal entry from March 2003 when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Republic of Macedonia. After I read it, I smiled ruefully and felt a little ashamed.
Fourteen years ago this diplomat would have been beyond delighted to have a washing machine. Alas, what I had was no salary, a shallow plastic bucket, and a scrub brush. So I washed everything by hand, including jeans, blankets and towels.
I had enough room on my tiny balcony for a low-hanging clothesline that could fit about three items (not too long or heavy, though, or they’d drag). My downstairs neighbor frequently smoked on his balcony, and the smoke would waft up and permeate my clothes before I could grab them in. Not being a smoker myself, I found this super gross. And also annoying, because it meant rewashing something I’d already finished.
Sometimes my clothes would get caught in an afternoon storm, and, defeated, I’d carry them into the kitchen and lay them flat on my box heater. A day later, the clothes would be stiff and scratchy, arms and legs sticking out rigidly. Putting on my wool socks that felt like cardboard I’d giggle, thinking that I was exfoliating and keeping warm at the same time.
Laundry. Good grief, what a pain.
While I was busy being peeved about my Peace Corps laundry routine, I received a letter from a pen pal acquaintance of mine serving in Peace Corps Cameroon. He told me that he used to wash his clothes in the river in his village, until the river dried up. Then he paid some ladies to beat the dust out of his clothes with sticks. He said he basically always smelled bad and that he was just used to it. I sat reading this, mouth agape, feeling ashamed at my good fortune. Macedonia sounds like Peace Corps Lite, he ribbed me. However, it’s all relative, isn’t it?
In fact, I eventually did buy a washing machine out of exasperation (my dad gave me some money as a gift because my knuckles were chafed and covered with sores). I was also the only one in our volunteer group of 18 whose landlord didn’t put a washing machine in the apartment. The same people in my host site who asked me how much my laptop and camera cost and whether I had a Ferrari and beach house in California, also teased me that they had a washing machine and I didn’t. Well, I thought, biting my tongue and smiling, trying not to scratch.
The day I bought the washing machine and had it installed, I made it a Friday evening event. I cooked some popcorn kernels on the stovetop, emptied my wardrobe into colored piles, and sat on the concrete floor in front of my glorious Italian washing machine, watching it churn out brown water through a hose that emptied into the bathroom sink. I was mesmerized at how dirty the water was and in awe of how bad of a job I’d apparently been doing washing my clothes by hand. I thought I had paid enough dues, and I wasn’t going to hand wash clothes anymore. What a revolution.
So today I marched my happy ass down to the basement of my diplomatic housing and put in a load. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you that the last day in my Macedonia apartment, I gave the washing machine away to a friend’s parents, where presumably it still sits, with a doily on top waiting for hard times.
* * * * * Originally written March 9, 2003
This afternoon, I decided I had better do some laundry. The pile on my bedroom floor was growing, as I still have not been able to find a good hamper with a lid on it. It is difficult for me to do laundry, as I don’t have a washing machine. I have not heard of anyone having a dryer here, but to have a washing machine is common. Supposedly there are machines in the capital that are washers and dryers in one, but I have never seen this. I don’t have any intention of buying a washing machine, because I think I could spend 200 euros in a better way… Electricity is expensive here anyhow.
It doesn’t bother me so much to wash my clothes by hand. I do a really good job, and everything always gets thoroughly clean. It works out well, except that it hurts my right wrist, which has never been the same since I worked at [a psychiatric facility] and had to use my staff keys 175 times a day.
I get out a large yellow bowl/bucket thing my landlord gave to me, fill it with water (cool, tepid, warm, or hot, depending on what I’m washing) and then add either Woolite…or liquid detergent concentrate which smells good and you can buy here, but sometimes it’s a little harsh.
I set the bowl in the [kitchen] sink; the dimensions of the bowl are such that it fits perfectly in my sink, which is conveniently divided into two equal halves. I put the clothes in, and let them soak a few minutes. I agitate them by hand and then scrub them with this little hard brush I brought from home. I used to use it to keep [the underside of] my French manicured acrylic fingernails clean back in my sorority days, the irony of which is not lost on me.
When all this is done, I take the article of clothing out of the water, squeeze as much soapy water out of it as I can, then bring it over to the other side of the sink for rinsing and more squeezing. Then I either lay it on the big flat metal rectangular heater in my kitchen (it isn’t designed for this purpose but it doesn’t get hot enough to burn or hurt the clothes) or take it out to my tiny balcony clothesline. Both of these places have room for three things at a time, [but] the heater is a LOT faster.
The reason all this work is a pain in the ass to me is only because of how much it hurts my wrist. As I type this, it feels like it is on fire. It’s just hard on the hands in general; my skin is dry and flaky, and I have big callouses. Also I don’t have enough room or clothes hangers to really do a lot in one day. That’s okay though, my wrist probably couldn’t manage much more than 6 things a day anyhow.
This afternoon’s laundry experience was nice. The sun was shining outside, so I opened up my balcony door to air the place out. The door doesn’t have a screen on it, but I just pull the curtain (a thin material with square holes in it that runs the length of the door and adjoining window) over the top of the open door, and it acts as a bug screen, while still allowing the fresh air and view. I washed three sweaters, and three kitchen hand towels. I laid the towels on the heater and took the sweaters outside.
I brought 20 wooden clothespins from home, and they are much stronger than the plastic ones I often see here. I hung the sweaters and felt eyes upon me. I looked to my left (I am on the end of the building) and saw three little children giggling from their balcony. I said, “Zdravo” (hello) and they giggled some more. Finally one said, “Dobar den” (good afternoon).
Inside my laptop was blasting…the Doobie Brothers and Fleetwood Mac. I watched the little kids playing hopscotch below my window (I am three floors up) and they watched me squeezing and squeezing and squeezing the sleeves of my sweaters. The man who lives below me came out onto his balcony for a cigarette – I immediately wrinkled my nose at the smell but didn’t know he was standing there. I narrowly avoided squeezing all the water from the end sweater right onto his bald head!
Maybe this summer I will buy a washing machine!