A modest wish: that our doings and dealings may be of a little more significance to life than a man’s dinner-jacket is to his digestion. Yet, not a little of what we describe as achievement is, in fact, no more than a garment in which, on festive occasions, we seek to hide our nakedness.
– Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings
The Great Wall of Sweden is not a historic monument, but rather the laundry aisle in the grocery store. Granted, the aisle dedicated to ost, or cheese, is even larger, but during my first two weeks studying in Sweden the former was the more intimidating foe. I distinctly recall staring at the varieties of tvätt-whatevers and wondering which ones might color-morph or size-shrink my clothes, and which ones would actually clean my shirts and socks. I hollered over at my Swedish roommate, who was examining the Great Wall of Potato Chips, to ask if he knew which containers were detergent and which were not. He shrugged his shoulders – his mom does his laundry. Ask the expert.
So I bought something that at least smelt nice and a few days later journeyed down to the dormitory basement, where the two washers lived. Earlier, my signature had reserved me a four-hour time slot where I got both washers all to myself. It’s a stereotypical Swedish system of social hyper-organization, as opposed to the collegiate American chaos of first-come first-serve laundry.
The reason they provided us two washers for the four hours was to sort out cottons and synthetics or colors and whites. But being preconditioned to pay $1.25 for a load in university basements taught me to throw it all in at once. (This apathy towards my clothes at first seemed a triumph against Swedish materialism, later it dawned on me that my reckless laundry habits were symptomatic of American consumerism. Think about it.) I set the machine for what looked like Swedish for “automatic” and left, crossing my fingers. At worst, I consoled myself, my entire wardrobe would have to be replaced at the downtown H&M.
I returned midway through my reserved time to discover that my shirts had turned into blusar and my boxers into panties. The unbelievable became downright embarrassing when, after seeing my jeans hanging on the clothesline, it became apparent what had actually happened. Some tjej had snuck in during my timeslot to do her emergency load of laundry. Out of respect, she decided to hang each of my articles of clothing on the community clothesline. A blush came over me. Part of it was because an unknown girl had been through my socks and boxers and odd proportion of running short shorts. More to my disgrace, I had been caught in the act of mixing cottons, synthetics, colors and whites in a single load. Needless to say, I sorted for the rest of my time in Sweden.
Returning for my air-dried clothes I learned a few more lessons, this time regarding the art of the clothesline. First was that if one neglects to use softener in the wash, one’s jeans are super crispy – think autumn leaves – when one pulls them off the clothesline. This was not too much of a problem however. The second lesson was more severe, a discovery shortly after noticing one of my black socks was without it’s pair.
Thus began the search through the community clothesline for the missing black sock. The challenge was in part due to the fact that – unlike many other parts of the world which dress in bright, festive colors – Scandinavians really like black. Searches through jeans and shirts were futile, as my lone black sock was hanging out by a bra of the same color. What it was doing over there I will never know.
I threw my sock into my bag and breathed a sigh of relief. Even with the help that came along the way, my first foreign laundry experience was a success. One more cycle in the process of learning to breathe like a Swede.