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Lessons in Laundry

January 31, 2007

I had no sooner placed my bags in my new dorm room when I asked one of the lovely and charming cleaning ladies how I could go about doing my laundry, which was in desperate need of hot water and soap after my trip to Galicia.

"You have to buy a ticket," she told me, while she continued to sweep the floor.
"A ticket. Where?"
"In the office."
"The office next door?"
She nodded, and took a vicious swipe at some invisible dirt on the floor. I thanked her, and made my way back to the room to collect a Euro with which to pay for said ticket. My laundry bag slumped behind my door, bulging out at though it were about to burst like a volcano and send a slow burn of dirty clothing across my floor. I prayed that it would hold until I got back, and jogged over to the office (down two flights, out the door, turn the corner, up five stairs).

Ana, the director of the residencia, was enjoying a cigarette in her small office when I arrived at the door, slightly out of breath from my exertions.
"I'd like to buy a ticket for the laundry, please."
She smiled at me through the smoke and extracted a piece of paper covered in ink stamps that said Residencia Santa Ana in bold green tint. Ana snipped one carefully with large scissors, cigarette never leaving her mouth, and handed the small coupon to me. I placed my change in her outstretched palm, like paying a fortune teller, and observed the small scrap of paper that she had given to me with all the reverence of a prophecy. She even looked a little like a seer, through the haze of smoke, long hair curling wildly against her pale skin, dark eyes squinting at the sunlight pouring in the wooden slats of the window shade.

I had a sudden nasty flashback to the Plaza de España, waiting for the hallowed halls of bureacracy to open their doors to me, standing in line for hours on end only to receive a tiny scrap like this one. Only this time it was in my dorm, and there was a vacation's worth of dirty laundry at stake.

I cleared my throat.

She waited another moment, another drag, to finish telling me my fortune. "Take that to Eloisa or Dolores," she said, "and they'll take you up to the washing machine." Pearls cast, she reverted her attention to the cigarette. I let myself out, and wandered back to my dorm room, still clutching the ticket.

I had yet to meet Eloisa or Dolores, but I figured that it wouldn't be too hard to find them. Naturally, I figured incorrectly. I spent various hours over the next several days trying to track down one of these two women, in order to get the mystical door to the laundry room unlocked. By Saturday, I was desperate.

I ate dinner early Saturday night and retreated to my room, uninterested in the various and sundry tales that the American girls at my table were sharing about their Friday night exploits. I was due to meet my friend Megan for drinks at 10:45, but a glance at my watch assured me that I had an hour and a half left before I had to leave. I had just settled down with my Tom Clancy novel when a series of rapid knocks on the door broke like a gunshot in the silence.

"Who is it?" I could hear rustling in the hallway, but no answer. Curiosity got the best of me, and I opened my heavy wooden door a crack. A tiny Spanish woman twice my age in a housemaid's blue denim uniform was awaiting me on the other side. She swept into the room, all 5 foot nothing of her a whirling ball of efficiency as she attacked my bathroom like Mr. Clean's Spanish cousin.

I introduced myself, wanting to fill the awkward silence between mop-strokes, and was greeted with a toothy smile.

"I'm Dolores."

I resisted the urge to throw myself at her feet, settling instead for a quick thank-you shot heavenward. I explained quickly how I'd been looking for her all week, I really needed to do a load of laundry, and could she please unlock the door for me? She smiled, and shook her dark hair firmly.

"It's too late. You can't do laundry after 8 pm." I looked at my watch again. It was only 8:05, but something told me not to point that out at this moment. Dolores must have noticed the chagrined look on my face, because she leaned on her mop and smiled at me.

"Don't worry. First thing Monday, you ask Eloisa to go up with you, ok?" With that, she gathered her things and slipped out of my room, the tiny sparkles on the marble floor the only evidence that she had been there. I wanted to cry. I couldn't wait until Monday…I was pretty much out of options for clean underclothes. Then I realized that I had a private bathroom, and the mental constitution of a former girlscout. I told myself to buck up, filled the sink with hot water and laundry soap, pulled all of my skivvies out of the laundry bag, and scrubbed until it was time to go out.

When Monday morning finally rolled around, I was the first person in the kitchen.
"Is Eloisa here?" I inquired of the short, blond, cupcake-like woman slicing fruit behind the counter.
"She's over at the apartments."
Of course she is. I took a deep breath.
"Do you know when she might be back? I need to wash some clothing."
"Maybe in an hour? I don't really know anything about the laundry here…maybe you should go talk to Maricarmen?"
Finally! A name that rung a bell. I could picture Maricarmen, the red-cheeked, boisterous woman who was responsable for all of our meals, and, I assumed, the kitchen staff.
"She's in the office," the cupcake added helpfully as I dashed out the door.

The gate was closed on the office door, but I buzzed, and Maricarmen let me in. She was decked out in a red knit sweater that made the apples of her cheeks seem rosier than usual, and her black hair was bundled up high on her head, giving her the appearance of a tomato whose green top had changed color. Breathlessly I explained my dilemma to her, and asked if she could please unlock the door to the laundry room. She smiled at me with motherly eyes.

"I'm afraid that you'll have to wait until this afternoon and talk to Dolores. She's the one with the keys. Why don't you try back around 7:00?"

I smiled, frustrated like I'd never been in my life, and looked at my watch. 11:00 am. I had to get out of the building. I returned to my room and bundled up in jacket and scarf, ignoring the groaning of my laundry bag as I kicked it out of the way to get to my umbrella.

I returned just before dinner, 7:05 in fact, and entered the kitchen. The cupcake was still there, slicing fruit. I wondered vaguely if she ever did anything else. I was about to ask her where Dolores was when Maricarmen bustled in through the front door. She cast me a smile, and started bellowing for Dolores.

"Dolores? Where are you!"
A faint reply came from a few stories up.
"Where?" repeated Maricarmen.
"All the way at the top!"
"I'm sending up a girl to do laundry, open the door!"

Thanking Maricarmen profusely, I hurried up the stairs to retrieve my laundry bag. As I climbed the three flights to the roof patio (and the laundry room) I was once again astounded by the ability of Spanish women to make that much noise when they are perfectly calm. It really is incredible…they all could have been opera singers, for the way that they can project.

Dolores met me on the patio, and showed me to the laundry room. I grinned, thinking that victory would finally be mine. I reached for the lightswitch in the small room, and pressed it.


I flipped it a few more times, and still nothing. I sighed. I had never done laundry in the dark before, but there was a first time for everything. Letting my eyes adjust to what little light the patio allowed into the laundry room, I began to see why they needed a "system" to let the students do the laundry: there was only one machine. I placed my laundry bag at the side of the washer, and opened the door. Gingerly, I pulled a load of wet sheets and towels out, and not knowing what to do with them, placed them on top of the machine. I inspected the inside of the washer in the low light. No wonder it took a week or sheets and towels to get cleaned…the inside barrel was large enough for approximately one pair of pants and two shirts; maybe a load of undies if you loaded the machine carefully. My gaze turned to my laundry bag, which contained jeans, two pairs of pants, four sweaters, various t-shirts, and a few pairs of socks.

I started loading by order of what needed to be washed the most: jeans, gray pants, two of the sweaters, a tank top, and the socks. I shifted things around a bit and found room for a third sweater and one of the pairs of pants. Not bad. I shut the door firmly. Everything else could wait, I decided as I poured detergent into its slot. It took me a few tries to find the right settings in the dark, but after a moment the machine began to whir, and I could hear water sloshing over my clothes. Breathing a sigh of relief, I shut the door to the laundry room behind me and went back downstairs to resume reading my novel.

An hour later, I bounded back up the stairs, proud of myself for having bested the laundry system. Little did I know what awaited me. The wash cycle had finished, and I opened the door to pull out my clothing. I was shocked when a dark, slimy sea-creature lurched out from the machine and gripped my forearm. Terrified, I pulled away, pressing myself against the wall. When nothing further happened, I cracked an eyelid open and leaned in to further examine the specimen. I touched it gingerly, and got no response. Determined to get to the bottom of this, I tugged firmly. My jeans slopped out onto the laundry room floor, drenched as though I had decided to take them for a swim at Niagara. Feeling a little foolish for being frightened of wet jeans, I pulled them up off the floor. Didn't this stupid machine have a spin cycle?

A quick test of the rest of my clothes confirmed them to be as wet as my jeans. Thoroughly frustrated with the machine, I extracted my sopping wet clothes, shoved the sheets and towels back in where I had found them, and slammed the door. Time to line dry.

**Tune in tomorrow for Lessons in Laundry Part 2: A Line by Any Other Name is a Dryer**

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