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  • Italian Laundry and How It Divides Us
    Find out how your view on laundry might as well be your passport.
    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    Doing laundry is an art for southern Italian women. Seriously, some of them stay home on Saturday nights to iron. And they have the whole process down to a science. It all begins with the hamper. These are usually fine vessels made of wood – and often even colorful. Mine is a lovely royal blue with a fabric lining sporting flowers. There are no plastic hampers in these here parts – only the best for your dirty clothes. Of course!

    Another sign of just how important laundry is to these people is the placement of the washing machine. It's front and center in most kitchens, which is the epicenter of an Italian home as you might imagine. Most of the time, the machines are draped in a beautiful covering. This stands in stark comparison to my grungy basement laundry room back in the States, which doesn't even have a finished ceiling; the laundry gets done with all the exposed plumbing pipes hanging overhead. And I keep a plastic tablecloth on top of the machine to catch dust.

    At the moment, my Italian machine is wearing an oversized fabric dishtowel with orange trim and images of colorful vegetables, sweet bell peppers and tomatoes. Others have theirs behind a gorgeous built-in wooden cabinet. I also have a sweet ceramic dish (which would probably be used for serving meals back in America) holding brown soap and Tide stain sticks, along with color catchers (which the Italians think are sacrilege because true laundry artists separate their loads) sitting atop mine.

    Recently, the washing machine wasn't working properly. People were throwing me pity parties while we sorted out the problem. It was as though a family member was ill or something. "How are you washing your clothes? By hand? Perfetto, they do come better by hand," they would say. "At least, that will console you while you hope and pray the handyman can fix it." Really? We're hoping and praying about this? Really, doing my laundry by hand (short only of scrubbing it with a rock in the ocean) is a consolation prize? Apparently.

    Their prayers were answered because the machine is working again (after two visits by the plumber) and convincing my 2-year-old son that he shouldn't use the barrel as a raceway for his cars or the inner lining as a guinea pig for his experimental life as Handy Manny or the buttons as his own personal jukebox that only plays the swooshing sounds of water. Yes, he learned how to turn the thing on. And has many, many times.

    Next, comes the actual washing. I'm as dumbfounded as you that it took me this long to get to this (and that you're still reading). A stain is like an Italian woman's husband. She acts annoyed to have him around, but she is secretly thrilled at the chance to fix him. So, she examines the stain. Minor ones, such as grass or dirt, require a little extra detergent applied directly to the stain and maybe a splash of this or that stain remover. The Big Kahunas of stains are tomato sauce, olive oil, or any kind of grease. First, they treat it with whatever degreaser they use to clean the kitchen after making Sunday's meatballs. Then, they will use a heavy-duty stain remover.

    Personally, I have found using the degreaser, along with brown soap, and soaking the item in detergent and water before putting it in a load works, especially if you increase the temperature of the water in the machine to 90 degrees C. I'm almost embarrassed to admit I've become this good at laundry. No matter how accomplished I think I am, any Italian woman will tell you that I'm still no good at laundry.

    They separate everything, not just by color, but also by use. Bath towels are only with bath towels, sheets only with sheets, clothes with clothes (and sometimes they separate those by more delicate work clothes and more durable casuals), etc., etc. They also put all their fine delicates – if they're not being washed by hand – in a lingerie bag, which I use for the color catcher, so it doesn't end up clogging any drains in my machine. Our underwear usually ends up thrown in with the rest of the laundry. Shh, don't tell anyone.

    Hanging laundry on the line to dry outside is a must for Italian women. They don't own dryers. If they do, they don't use them unless it's an absolute emergency (read: it's been raining for four days and the clothes have not gotten dry). Why? Well, for starters, electricity costs a million times what we pay for it in the States, if you can imagine that. But they also believe – really believe – that dryers ruin their clothes and are a tool of the devil. So, we must hang our clothes out to dry. It takes five times as long as throwing everything in the dryer.

    The other day, when it was pouring rain for the 20th day in a row, I had no choice but to do laundry and hang it up under a covered porch outside while winds blew large golf-ball sized drops of rain onto the newly cleaned clothes – not to mention me. Thanks to the humidity on this island (Ischia off the coast of Naples), now that it's cold and there are fewer hours of sunlight, the clothes never actually dry. The goal is damp. It's always a joy to walk out into the frigid cold nights in the fall and winter to get your clothes, which are still wet. You fold them and leave them on your bed in the hopes that being indoors gets the dampness out before you put them in drawers, where mold could form. Oh, there's that joy again. Can you feel it?

    This is where all that ironing comes into play. It gets the wrinkles out but also the dampness. The women use irons that look like they came from outer space. They are attached to huge tanks that fill with water to keep the steam coming. They use starch and they properly iron a collar with the precision of a Navy seal on a secret mission. When you walk into the room where they are busy ironing, you walk into a mist of steam clouds. I'm convinced their skin is so gorgeous because of the facials they get whenever they are ironing. They iron everything, including sheets and underwear, which I've told them I can't do because it's completely un-American (to avoid telling them that they are wasting precious time and brain cells ironing these things). Finally, they serve up these perfectly ironed items, folded or hanging on racks as though they are on sale at the Gap, to their loved ones. And start the whole dang process again.

    Why offer such a long-winded essay on Italian women and their laundry? Besides the fact that it's the reason I'll be kissing my dryer when I return to the United States, it is also one of those cultural differences worth noting. There is an extreme dissimilarity in how we view and do laundry. It's one of the many things that makes me feel all the more American despite my family's heritage and my marriage to a native Italian. Truly, the laundry separates us.

    Di Meglio is the author of Fun with the Family New Jersey (Globe Pequot Press Travel, 2012) and the Newlyweds expert for About.com.


    Article Published 11/18/13

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