Before I started traveling full time, I had never hung laundry up to dry.
This isn’t to say I never did my own laundry. For years I insisted on doing my own, feeling this was something I would need to know how to do, and that if I could master the skills involved with washing, drying, and ironing my garments, I would be at the top of my man-game, needing no one to help me on my way to wardrobe splendor.
But then I left the US and found myself afloat in a sea of unfamiliar services and skill sets.
In Argentina, for example, I couldn’t find a washer and dryer to save my life. The closest nearby option was a shop down the street that advertised itself as a fluff and fold. The service was scary cheap, and I actually had to have a friend come over and confirm that they would indeed wash and dry my clothing for such a low price. I found this hard to believe, because the same service would have cost a month’s rent in Los Angeles.
Most other countries, though, have had washing machines, and I would happily load the metal box with shirts and pants and detergent and turn it on, only to realize, after turning the knob, that there didn’t seem to be a dryer nearby. I’d peek around corners and ask my landlord, and I would always get the same answer: “What’s a dryer?”
Growing up in the US, hanging clothing is considered old school. It’s something that poor people and hipsters do (just to be alternative), and though I’m sure there are some people somewhere for whom laundry is still dried that way (out in the country, perhaps: I picture mountain people with no electricity washing their clothes in streams and then hanging them out to dry by the cows and chickens), it’s simply not a common enough sight that I can remember ever seeing people hang up laundry as a child, teenager, or even as a poor college student.
No, in the States, we use machines. Big, loud, solid machines that pump in hot air and dry clothing quickly.
And sure, sometimes that clothing shrinks in the process, but sacrifices must be made for progress, and sometimes that sacrifice comes in the form of a little black dress or American Apparel t-shirt, which transforms from ‘just right’ to ‘children’s clothing’ after 20 minutes in the big metal beast.
But now I find myself on the other side of the world, sitting in the living room of my apartment in Kolkata, India, surrounded by furniture draped with bed sheets, pants, and underthings, the chairs and couches spaced out to allow for optimal ventilation, the doors open just a little, allowing big, fluffy towels to be hung from them without being smashed in the door frame.
Every once in a while I glance up from my computer screen, look around my apartment, and smile at the ridiculousness of it all.
I’m sure I’m doing it wrong. I’m sure people who often hang up their clothing are good at this, and have figured out a way to make it work without decorating their home like a haunted house, socks and pillow cases dangling from every available perch instead of fake cobwebs and giant plastic spiders.
Walking around town, I can see that the locals hang their wash outside their windows and over their balconies, but I can’t bring myself to take that step just yet. I know, logically, that as long as I use enough clips and watch the weather, it’s unlikely that I’ll lose my bed spread to an errant breeze. But knowing how steep the learning curve on this kind of thing is for me, I still haven’t worked up the nerve to walk out onto the balcony of my 19th-floor apartment and think, “Yeah, this would be a good place to put my freshly washed underwear.”
Update: February 14, 2017
That apartment was so huge, but I still managed to fill a substantial portion of it on laundry day. Spreading out those colorful sheets and blankets and clothes, using the few pieces of furniture that came with the place as racks; it was quite the adventure. A experience that was remarkable to me, but agonizingly commonplace to most people around the world.