Keeping House (In French)

This was originally written for my memoir, My (Part-Time) Paris Life: How Running Away Brought Me Home, published by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, but didn’t make the final edit for reasons of story flow. In this deleted chapter, I talk about the challenges of living longterm in Paris (specifically the difficulties of everyday tasks with what was, at the time, lamentable French) after having previously stayed in my apartment for only a few days at a time.

©Lisa Anselmo

©Lisa Anselmo

The time had come. I couldn’t put it off anymore. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I just needed to be strong and get it done. I’d come far, been through a lot. I could do this.

Laundry. In Paris.

I faced my foe, my lave-linge, which squatted under my counter, its large round eye staring me down. The brand name imprinted on its face, Candy, said, “Come play!” The cryptic symbols on the control panel hissed, “…if you dare.”

The washing machine came with my apartment, but I hadn’t used it since I’d bought the place because I would only stay in Paris a few days at a time. My friend Fabien, who I’d hired as a kind of property manager, washed my sheets and towels for me, and I’d wash the clothes I’d worn once I was back in New York, where washing machines made sense. But now that I was living in Paris, and had gone through all my clean clothes and sets of sheets, there was no way to avoid laundry day chez moi.

Comment dit-on “Bleach?”

My confidence had already been shaken after a trip to the store to buy laundry detergent, fabric softener, and bleach. Should be easy enough, right?

Wrong. The French like to put all their liquid soap products together in one aisle. That means dishwashing liquid, hand soap, and laundry detergents are often stocked side by side, especially if the store is small. I’d spent ten minutes trying to divine which of the indiscernibly packaged soap products was intended for laundry. You’d think they’d help a girl out with an image of a shirt, or something. But no. My French phone was useless for translations: no data plan. I’d thought the products would have been obvious by the brand or label, but nothing in my new life in Paris seemed easy, or straightforward.

Kinda looks like Downy. Mais non?

Kinda looks like Downy. Mais non?

I was going to have to work this out using only high school French and my housekeeping instincts. I walked down the aisle again, and one bottle caught my eye. The brand name was foreign, but the image on the label was happily familiar: a baby wrapped in a fluffy blue towel. “Assouplissant” it claimed. The word was close enough to “supple” to take a risk. Baby in a supple towel? Fabric softener.

I studied the bottles stocked beside the assouplissant for more clues. There, I found something called lessive. It looked enough like laundry detergent—some in tubs, some in large bottles. It was no wonder, though, that I’d passed it up before, with brand names like Le Chat. The Cat? The name hardly inspired confidence. After another five minutes, anxiety setting in, I made the only educated choice I could: the detergent with the nicest scent.

French Detergent Featured ©Lisa Anselmo

I was in the home stretch, only bleach left to buy. But just as the clouds were lifting, it went foggy again. Stocked beside the laundry detergent were tubs of Vanish. Vanish? Wasn’t that toilet bowl cleaner? I scanned the laundry products again. Nothing. Not even the word “white” on the a label—blanc—which might have been helpful. So, once again, I put my nose to work. What I couldn’t read I could smell, and my nose lead me to something with a name I wouldn’t have imagined in a million years: javel. I was exhausted already and I still had to actually wash the laundry.

French Laundry & Me: It’s Complicated

Top: The mystery that is French washing machines. Cycle selection is by temperature—in celsius no less. Why would I know that? Bottom: Blessed American laundry logic and simplicity.

Top: The mystery that is French washing machines. Cycle selection is by temperature—in Celsius, no less. Why would I know that? Bottom: Blessed American laundry logic and simplicity.

My expat friends had warned me that simple tasks would become herculean in my new foreign home, but I had no idea how true that was until I tried to comprehend my washing machine. The first and biggest mystery? Wash cycles of French machines are determined, not by type of garment, but by specific degree of water temperature—in Celsius. Did I want a 30°C wash, 90°C? Who knew? Why would anyone need to know that? Warm, cold, whites, colors, permanent press, delicates—these were simple choices that made sense. Shouldn’t the machine know how hot to make the water? Isn’t that the point of automating the washing process?

I was quickly discovering that, much like French bureaucracy, laundry in Paris seemed overly complicated, and illogical.

The machine’s instruction manual should have provided enlightenment, but the instructions were, of course, in French. I could read French magazines, but when you’re reading an article about a chateau in Normandy, you can get away with the gist of the story. And the photos help a lot. But this was laundry machinery. What if the one thing I didn’t grasp made my jeans two sizes smaller?

Oh, mon dieu, how was I ever going to make it here in Paris if I couldn’t even do a load of laundry without breaking into a cold sweat?

After searching online in vain for an English-language version of the instructions, I had no choice but to retype the entire instruction manual into an online translation program in hopes that it might bring understanding.

©Lisa Anselmo

I typed the entire instruction manual for my washing machine into an online translation program. Now that’s desperate. ©Lisa Anselmo

Word by word, the instructions became clearer—but that didn’t mean they made sense. One hundred and eighty minutes for a load of laundry? What could possibly justify over two hours of washing time? Back in the States, I could wash bedding and rugs in just forty minutes. What was this machine doing with my clothes all that time, sending them out somewhere across town through a secret portal?

Maybe the French like to take things at a leisurely pace but I had better ways to spend my day. Out of the three loads I had planned, I resigned myself to only one for the day. It was all I could handle emotionally, anyway. I selected the shortest cycle I could find—one hundred and ten minutes—and tossed in the detergent pod. As I hit the button labeled “Marche” to start the wash, I held my breath.

Water filled the tank, the drum agitated, and we were off! My clothes swished silently in the machine, suds building. I was so proud of myself that I shot a video to mark the milestone.

Two hours and a puzzling three rinse cycles later, I was hanging my clean clothes on the drying rack. The fresh scent of detergent filling my apartment was almost as sweet as the smell of victory. Maybe I’d make it in Paris after all.

Yes, I prioritized pillow cases and underwear. Wouldn't you? ©Lisa Anselmo

My first load of laundry in Paris. Sweet victory. (Yes, I prioritized underwear. Wouldn’t you?) ©Lisa Anselmo

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35 responses to “Keeping House (In French)

  1. I have to say that I’ve done my laundry many times while renting my apt. for several weeks a year in Paris, and it’s really not that mysterious or difficult…my rental apt. is equipped with a fabulous combination washer/dryer (something the U.S. should start to take note of!)…I speak/read French pretty well so understand the labels on the detergents etc. but even so, it’s really similar to what we’ve got in the US-except their temperature system is in Celsius (which you obviously know). But the French really don’t over-complicate doing laundry…I’m sure they have their own opinion of the way Americans do things, as well.

    • I don’t doubt many American machines and customs confound foreigners! My old washer was really outdated and definitely not user-friendly—and was quite complicated to use. And the story isn’t really about the wash; it’s about throwing myself into a new life, and being overwhelmed—and afraid. The washer is a metaphor, of course.

      • You’re spot on with that! I actually figured out how to use all the appliances in my Parisian rental-it takes some time but once you get it…and oui, I know your story was an metaphor…I do wish we had combo washer-dryers in NY (where I live)-be so convenient (we may have them, but I haven’t seen them as of yet…).

      • I LOVE my combo washer-dryer here. My new one (Scholtes) is wonderful, and logical! 😉 It’s a 7K/5K so it handles a lot. And it dries my sheets in an hour so that’s rather a miracle. Never thought I’d be excited about laundry!

  2. I love this ‘chapter’. You’ve cemented my resolve to never use the machine in the apartment I rent. I won’t even use the dishwasher…. terror! The sink and towel warmer work for me.

    • Oh no, you must! My new washer, from Scholtes, is simple and logical. Love it! But when I was renting 7 different apartments during my leak fiasco, I really got the hang of all different types—and luckily the rental agencies provided excellent user guides.

  3. I hear your pain! The apartment we are renting for the year we’re spending in Paris, has a convection microwave/oven, something I have never used before. There is an instruction manual, in several languages, none of which are English! I did manage to find an English version online, and have it in my iBooks library! My washing machine, however, has ‘timed’ washes – I choose the shortest cycle and add an extra rinse! It feels like such an accomplishment when you figure out how to do the tasks that are so simple in your home country.

    • Those ovens are impossible. Most rentals I stayed in during my leak drama had the IKEA version, and I’m sorry, they made no sense. Even with the direction in English. They never cooked right! It does feel like a huge milestone when the everyday tasks become everyday tasks again. And I like the adventure of living here, household appliance challenges and all!

  4. How long did it take your French to improve to the point that everyday tasks were just everyday tasks again? I’m living the Parisian life vicariously through you!

  5. I just finished your book, Lisa, and LOVED it!!!!! I will write up my review on Goodreads today. We are leaving for Paris on Sunday and although we have been there several times, I found a few places in your book that we want to add to our 10 day itinerary. Are you planning another book? I hope so because I love your blog and your writing is great!!!! Thank you for sharing all your experiences with us through your writing!!!!!

    • Thank you so much Pam! If you could review it on Amazon, too, that would be huge! I’m so happy that my book inspired you to visit new places in Paris. It’s funny because I’m doing a partnership with April in Paris tours this spring, touring sites in the book! Yes, a new book is in the offing—but different! Stay tuned!

  6. I have to say I so relate to this. Of all the years and rented apartments etc., I have yet to figure out how to use these machines. And I speak and read French fluently. Then there are the machines that are both washer and dryer so once the clothes are washed, the dryer is suppose to kick in. Hasn’t happened yet. The instructions are impossible; the symbols on the machine from Mars. The machines are so tiny so you would have been spending days anyway Lisa washing the clothes. My understanding of why they take so long is the method of washing the machines are designed for: they don’t ruin your clothes by twisting and turning etc.

    • Yes my new machine is a washer/dryer. It’s a Scholtes and super easy to use, I have to say. And yes, the dryers, while they take FOREVER do a nice job of drying without killing your fabrics.

  7. Lisa,
    I emphasize with you. When we were in Mexico City staying at my father-in-laws home, I attempted to do our laundry. I was so confused! I decided it really was best to let their help take care of it. Who knew laundry could be so challenging!

    Cheers to you!

    Rosanne

  8. Oh my goodness hilarious! I have had a few bad experiences, too! The worst was washing a huge load in what felt forever in boiling water – I could feel the heat through the door of the machine – nothing I could do – but sob quietly for the hour and twenty before it released the load. 😂😂😂

  9. As some others noted, the condensation dryers are even more interesting. Why condensation ? Because most places can’t let you cut a hole and put a vent outdoors so they created a dryer that condenses the moisture while drying and it flows out the water drain. However, those condensation dryers take forever. Originally we had a combo washer / condensation dryer which is great but it would take 7 hours for a wash and dry. Now we have a separate Miele washer and dryer so much faster. I think it is down to 3-4 hours 🙂 The same condensation system is used if you want to add air-conditioning to an apartment as again you can rarely cut a hole for a vent.

    • Thank you, Bill! Yes, at first it was disconcerting to see so much moisture collecting. My washer/dryer is a built-in model and I have to keep the cabinet door open when drying. When I’m impatient, I trod down the street to the laundromat to dry. Especially bedding. I ain’t got all day.

  10. I have fear of Nice washer/dryer. It’s an Indesit and it’s so damned complicated that I dread using it. May I never own a French machine every again! A

  11. I just bought an apartment in Paris and there is a dishwasher in the kitchen but no washer/dryer anywhere. Haha, now I understand the appliance choice. I didn’t try to use it , however, so maybe the dishwasher instructions are just as challenging????
    Can’t wait for your next book ,Lisa!
    Lynn H

  12. Interestingly our Miele has words instead of numbers so a bit easier as they normalized their dials with all the EU countries including the UK. Even more so after we bought the plate in English and replaced the one in French. So I’m a big Miele fan even though they are pricey.

  13. Not a fan of the combo washer/dryer-in Normandy it actually took at least four hours to wash and dry one load – the ovens too are a challenge- in the 10 years we’ve owned the Paris digs I can count on one hand the times I’ve put it to use

    • Yes indeed. I’ve rented apartments during my leak saga where the ovens were those IKEA microwave/oven combos. Even after reading the instructions I couldn’t really grasp it. And the buttons are total “mystery meat navigation” as we say in the web design world: cryptic and understandable only to the designer. User-friendly and intuitive? Not.

  14. We have friends from Canada and they use Celsius. I have looked up the formula for converting to Fahrenheit and it is quite a process, not one done easily in one’s head as they mention that the temp was some strange Celsius number and you are wondering if it was too hot or too cold!

    • Funny story: I was skiing in the Canadian Rockies years ago, and they told us it was minus 40 degrees so we had to take precautions to cover our faces. I asked if that was Celsius or Fahrenheit and they told me it was the same. So the two do meet up, but at 40 below. How’s that for a cold howdie-do?

  15. Trying to do laundry in Paris has made me question my intelligence, threatened my sanity, and tested the limits of my patience. Chapeau to you for your persistence — and for finding humor amid the exasperation.

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