The Laundromat, Not the Louvre by Carole Howard

When I vacation in Paris, I’m like everyone else, transported by the beauty, the history, the food.  A lot of ooh-ing and aah-ing with an occasional ooh-la-la.

Living there for ten months was different, though.  More than museums, monuments, and meals, what interested me then was getting a glimpse into French-ness.  Not exactly, “What makes French people tick?” More like, “What makes French people French?”

The Louvre can’t tell you about that. La Joconda looks the same whether it’s in Paris or London or New York.  The painting is the point, not the venue.  Real life, on the other hand, changes from one venue to another.  And that’s what I was interested in. Real life.  Nitty gritty.

Since people were more interesting to me than paintings, I loved going on the metro, or to the supermarket, the florist, the gym, the post office.  But my favorite observation-deck for reality was the laundromat. The people-watching was easy, interesting, and fun while I sat quietly, read a little, observed a lot.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Most of my fellow-washers didn’t do anything while they waited.  They didn’t read.  They didn’t talk to each other. They stared at their laundry. Were they wondering if the socks were really getting clean?  Or whether they were getting along with the undershirts?  Were they thinking deep thoughts?  Meditating?  Stoned?  Even the young ones only occasionally listened to music.  Mostly they stared, too.

One day, an oldish woman in nunnish glasses, plaid skirt and sensible shoes, with thin hair pulled into a bun smack in the middle of her head, was there at the same time as me.  It’s true: not all French women are young, tall, svelte, fashionable!

She stared at the instructions on the wall:  Load washer.  Close door.  Add soap.  Pay.  Didn’t she know those already?  She found Le Parisien (like the Daily News) on a washing machine next to her and riffled through it.  She tried unsuccessfully to take her sheets out of the dryer without spilling the underwear and socks that were still rotating.  She went to the folding table in the middle of the room. Then she did something unusual.  She talked to me!

Unfortunately, I was sitting next to the noisy spin cycle of the largest washer in the place, 16 kilos.  (Why did they measure the capacity in terms of weight?  Couldn’t some things take up the same amount of room but weigh different amounts?  Do American laundromats do it that way, too? I digress.)

I put my finger to my ear and shook my head, indicating I couldn’t hear her.  And then she did what French people always do – she said the same thing at the same speed and the same volume.  I semi-shouted that I didn’t speak French fluently.  She did what French people always do.  (See above.)  So I did what I always do in that case: watched her body language and mimicked.  She smiled, I smiled.  She furrowed her brow, I furrowed mine.  A nod here and there.  She was satisfied with that, so I was too, though I had no idea what she’d said.

Then I noticed my reaction to not understanding her and realized that, somewhere along the way, I’d absorbed some Frenchness.  I’d mentally used that very French phrase,  “C’est comme ca, voila.” (“It’s just the way things are, oh well.”)  It’s about accepting something you can’t change or don’t want to be bothered trying to change. A sort of Froggy Buddhism.  It felt great.

Have you ever tried to penetrate another culture?  What happened?

***

Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio, recently published by Second Wind Publishing.

9 Comments

Filed under musings, Travel, writing

9 responses to “The Laundromat, Not the Louvre by Carole Howard

  1. I’ve had so many incidents in China which defy my ability to understand. Like this one: A friend and I ordered lunch in a restaurant in a Chinese hotel. I could read a lot of the Chinese characters on the menu so we were pretty certain about what we selected. After ordering, we waited a long, long while and watched a table of western tourists nearby struggle with everything. Finally, the waitress brought us food, set it down quickly and disappeared. These dishes bore no resemblance to what we’d ordered. However, in our jet lagged and hungry state, we decided to go ahead and just eat. About the time we’d cleaned our plates, the waitress reappeared and served the nearby table–with our orders. We got up, laughing, and left as we listened to the confusion and anger of those other diners. When we got to the cashier, I tried to pay but then the manager came out and said I couldn’t pay for it because we’d been given the wrong meal. He nodded sagely as if this made complete sense. After offering to pay again, we left. The people at the other table were still arguing with the waitress who couldn’t understand a word they said. I guess I put this one down to “Placate the American hotel guests because they are too dumb to do anything right, but they can make your life hell if you don’t.

  2. I am amazed at all of you who have tried to penetrate other cultures. I am still trying to penetrate ours.

  3. Mickey, I love your story. This one’s not cultural but about translation: On a menu once, I saw “jambon cru” translated as “believed ham.” (Cru is BOTH the past tense of the verb croire, to believe, and also an adjective meaning…. raw, of course. The translator picked the wrong one.)

    Pat, I know exactly what you mean! Some times are more difficult than others. Like now!

  4. The suburbs. Of Virginia. As a stay-at-home mom. I often find myself unable to speak the language. And it’s a multi-lingual society: the kids, the moms, the working moms, the vendors, the Southerners…People often ask me “How do you do it?” and I have to stop myself from responding “Am I doing it? Does it look like I’m doing it? Ooh la la!”

  5. Oh, yes, yes, trying to “pass” in the culture of “the kids, the moms, the working moms, the vendors, the Southerners.” I love the image. And it’s harder for you because people assume you’re just like them whereas when I’m in France, they know I’m not. Thanks for the insight.

  6. BTW, Carol, I’m reading your novel and I like it a lot. The whole Africa thing is amazing. One place I would never, ever go, by the way. But then, I run from mosquitoes and lots of other things.

  7. Oh, give it a chance! True, mosquitos are the worst but there are places that aren’t so bad, and there are seasons when they aren’t bad either. Then again, there are plenty of other interesting places to go in the world. And thanks so much for your kind words about the book.

  8. Pingback: Happy Five Year Bloggiversary! | Second Wind Publishing

  9. Pingback: Welcome! | carolejhoward

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