Friday, April 24, 2009

Nothing on earth but laundry

The sun is back. We've not seen much of it recently: a long succession of magnificently cloudy skies. Rain in all its variations (averses, orages, pluie forte, rafales: as Steve Martin said, the French have a different word for everything) has fallen almost daily for the last month or so. And when we've seen the sun, it's been cold.

But this week warmth arrived. Full sun. Blue skies. Warm.

While there are plenty of poetic reasons to be pleased about the warmth, we have, in our house, a more prosaic reason.

The laundry dries faster.

We'd never hung laundry outside to dry before coming here. (If you don't count one ill-fated experiment in California when the girls were babies, and the laundry, once hung out, stayed hung out. For a week.) When we arrived at La Bastiole, there was a washing machine but no dryer; I bought a drying rack as a stopgap measure until Jules provided us with a dryer, believing then, the French ink on my U.S. passport barely dry, that the absence of a dryer was an anomaly.

Three months later, the dryer showed up. A month after that, Olivier connected it. By that time, the drying rack was a habit. It helped, too, that the dryer did not dry clothes so much as it rendered them less wet. (An hour or two hanging up usually did the trick.) Electricity is expensive in France, and practicality is cheap, so everywhere you go, you see laundry hanging to dry.

We've had our share of house guests who gallantly offered to help hang the laundry, offers which we, of course, accepted like the gracious hosts we are. Then we (and I confess that here it is the royal we) flinched while we watched them take a dish towel out of the basket and pin it on the rack along its long side instead of its short side, landscape instead of portrait. Really. And without shaking it out and smoothing the wrinkles. Then the undies would come out and be hung on the extreme end of the drying rack, in the place, the only place, where something long (one of C's tshirts; the girls' jodhpurs; a smallish bath towel or largish hand towel) could fit. Camisoles draped over two rungs instead of pinned; socks hung pell-mell all over the rack instead of in pairs, all together, in the lowest spot (where nothing else fits), so that, when they're dry, it will be quicker to take them down and ball them up. Well. You will understand that after a time we would send our guests inside to make the hollandaise sauce instead.

Like most housekeeping tasks, hanging the laundry is both an art and a science. For us, the socks and undies and small things go in the center of the drying rack; the larger the object, the further out it goes. (Our laundry rack, oh you who just toss the wet laundry in the Kenmore and wander off, is a collapsible A-frame with two long arms that extend from the top.) Items too large for the rack (pants; sheets; bath towels) get hung, in the winter time, along the plastic-coated wires that form the trellis above our terrace. (See illustration above.) Summer, or when the year has advanced enough for our back terrace to get full warm sun for much of the day, the larger things and some of the larger small things (place mats; napkins; wind pants) are hung on the (glorious!) retractable clothes line that Madame Mère imported from North Carolina last May, and that it took two American men (who shall remain nameless) and one supremely competent Frenchman (Olivier) to install.

I am cautiously optimistic that we will soon be able to put the retractable clothesline back in service. C's already tried it once or twice without much luck; the weather was not warm enough, the sun not persistent enough. (When C hangs the laundry, I have found, it is best for all concerned if I am the one who goes in the house and makes the hollandaise. The clothes will, after all, dry eventually.) But today when I came home from the stables with G, E had already changed out the clothes on the drying rack. The load we'd hung only two hours earlier was dry. Now--I've just checked--the faux-shearling lined sweatshirt (which takes so long to dry that I often check several different weather forecasts before I even put it in the washing machine) is, after an hour and a half--just an hour and a half!--nearly dry.

It is a minor miracle, this drying the clothes in the sun. Laundry, to paraphrase, calls us to the things of this world, to the seasons and the length of days and when was it we last changed the sheets. When they no longer smell like sunlight, it's time to change them again.


  1. I love laundry that smells like fresh air!

    And not only electricity is expensive in France, but there is already hardly enough room in most French homes to fit a washing machine, so a clothes dryer is definitely out of the question...

  2. The smell of sun dried sheets is worth the extra work it takes to hang them up.

  3. How refreshing to find someone else as pernickity as me over the clothes dryer.

    Wait until you start colour coordinating the clothes pegs when you peg out!