Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Time: Wednesday October 22nd, 2003. 7:30PM

Location: Paris

Conditions: Dusk. Clear and 42 degrees Fahrenheit

The Scene: The author is walking down the street in his swimsuit, sandals and an old Simpsons t-shirt that he has been using as a pillowcase. He is headed to the laundry, carrying a bag that contains every single scrap of clothing that he owns, minus what pathetic little that is on his back. Aside from a small desperation load that was done in San Sebastian, he has not done laundry since (cue dramatic rise in music) Valencia, over a month ago. (Cue scary music climax) The author takes a momentary sniff of the contents of his laundry bag and we hear him quietly mutter “Jesus, no wonder I haven’t been making any friends.”


Clean Underwear: Or the Secret to Backpacker Ecstasy

Posted on 1/30/04


Laundry is an irritating hassle when you are on the road. It’s time consuming, boring, every goddamn country has a different, confounding system and it can get expensive, depending on where you are when you break down and do a wash. My last laundry experience was not good. There are no self-service launderettes in Valencia, but the task could not be put off any longer. I got a line on a place from my pension guy that did your laundry for 10 euros ($11.76). This seemed expensive, but after I figured out that I would probably spend at least six euros to do the laundry on my own, the measly four euros that I was going to pay for the labor seemed totally worth the money. Then I got the bill. Twenty euros! “What the f*ck??” I said to the smiling laundry lady. Actually, in my most polite, formal Spanish, I explained that she herself had quoted me the 10 euro price earlier that day. Then she pointed out that it was 10 euros per load and that I had whites and colors, so that was two loads. My whites consisted of one t-shirt and five pairs of socks. Hardly a “load,” but apparently mixing the whites and the colors in Spanish launderettes is like mixing orange juice and toothpaste. Sane people just don’t do it.

This seemed awfully suspect to me. I was not used to being ripped off in Spain. One of the side benefits of being able to speak the language, is having the ability to grill people at my discretion about the prices of goods and services, so there are no misunderstandings like this. Usually this kind of precaution is more prudent in places like Rube Tourist cities in Mexico than in Spain, but I had gotten sloppy and here I was paying more for one load of laundry (yes, put it all together, like I usually do in cold water, and all of the clothes that I own at the moment can be done in one load of laundry) than I was paying for my over-priced, private pension room with the TV that played porn for free after midnight on the weekends (which, by the way, was totally worth the extra cost).

Part of the reason that it had been so long since my last significant laundry event was that I had paid 20 fricking euros for the last load of laundry and I was going to stretch that load as far as it would go. I am not ashamed to admit that there have been instances during the past month when I have ended up wearing the same pair of underwear for three days in a row. These things happen when you are constantly on the move. Days blend together. Over-night bus rides, merge into the following day without the thought of a shower. Then you get wasted that night and the next day is a hungover haze of non-productive confusion… See how easily it can happen?

In my world, these occurrences are not as revolting as you might think. I have a very unique and blessed body chemistry that makes it nearly impossible for me to generate objectionable body odor. I have been like this for as long as I can remember. Try as I might, I simply do not stink. In fact, there are certain, possibly insane people in my life, who shall remain nameless, who actually prefer the scent that I give off after, say, a two hour juggling workout. They come prancing across the gym, grab me, bury their noses into my chest and snort deeply. Then they go limp with bliss and sigh heavily while their eyes roll back into their heads as if they had just free-based high quality crack. These people are the extreme cases. What I normally get is benign, mildly amazed comments as to how I never, ever seem to smell bad. Keeping the above in mind, in theory, I could subsist almost indefinitely without washing my clothes if I weren’t spending all my time wandering through huge, crowded European cities where eight out of every 10 people are chain smokers and every surface in all public places is peed on at least twice a week. Inexorably, your garments will suffer a general build up of funkiness as a result of existing in these surroundings and so the dreaded laundry chore must eventually be dealt with.

Where was I? Oh yeah, Paris. So, Paris has self-service launderettes. Hurray! The thing is, in Paris you need to be a mechanical engineer to operate the vast array of equipment in a launderette. First there’s the issue of coaxing the soap machine to dispense a single use packet of detergent. Then you wash your clothes. Then you centrifuge your clothes. Then you dry your clothes five times or until they are actually dry, whichever comes first. All of these tasks are controlled from a self-service, coin operated programming console in the center of the room. In order to successfully wash and dry your clothes you need excellent timing, meticulous planning and preferably a passing fluency in French. Without these prerequisites, you will likely end up with your washing machine starting up across the room, while your back is turned, with the door open and no soap in it like someone I know did on their first try. In any case, after two hours and about nine euros (it would have only been six euros if my French reading comprehension had been better) I was hurrying through the cold back to my hostel with an armload of pleasantly fragrant, clean clothes.

Here we finally come to my point (better after 1,099 words than after 5,000 words my English teacher used to say!). The point being that one of the very few moments when a long-term backpacker feels almost human and respectable is when they triumphantly pack away all their newly clean clothes and ball up the now empty dirty clothes bag and stuff it into a small side pocket where it will stay for a few days until its inevitable growth requires that it be moved back into the main compartment. When you have a suitcase full of clean clothes, the difference in your appearance, odor, confidence and general outlook on life is astounding. Your wardrobe choice is at its peak. Everything is fresh, smooth and free of, if ever so briefly, errant red wine stains.

In the end, for a precious few days, your spirits are as boundless and unsullied as your choice of underwear. Yes, you detest the moment of knuckling down and washing your clothes like you used to loathe cleaning out the gerbil cage when you were a kid, but the end result is the same swollen feeling of accomplishment and, more importantly, knowing that at that very moment, you are as far away from having to repeat that hateful task as you can possibly get. And that my friends is backpacker ecstasy.

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