Laundry, one of the unsung wonders of Venice


Now I’m going to reveal something that I have confided in only a few people:   my passion for laundry.   Not just mine, everybody’s.  It’s more than a mere passion, it’s more like a  fixation, really.   A mania.

morning-laundry-compressed-web-pages1Clotheslines, fluttering with their victorious domestic banners, are like daily bulletins, footnotes in the ongoing family story.   Plenty of people walk around Venice snapping pictures of laundry, I suppose because by now it’s something you don’t see very often back home.   I can tell you that when I see people photographing my laundry, it annoys me.   I don’t regard it or myself as either quaint or picturesque.

 But why do I love it so much, in my own secret connoisseur’s heart?   It’s not the laundry itself, but the drying thereof, because that is the linchpin of the entire domestic enterprise.   Not having a clothes dryer (I only know one person here who has one, and she uses it about twice a year, in the winter), you develop, quickly or slowly, a sense about the weather and its capacity to dry your garments that you’d never have imagined possessing   in more appliance-laden towns.   It’s a jungle-lore sort of skill.

img_1950-laundry-1-compThis week is a case in point.  We have been having a stretch of dream weather: breezy, sunny, dry, cloudless.   It’s weather which inspires rational people — and there are more of them than I imagined, judging by the  troop  transports  which are the overloaded vaporettos heading to the Lido  — as I say, rational people to obey the   seductive call,  “Beeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaach.”

But I, and I think I’m not alone, look out the window and think “Laundry!!!”   Because with this perfect concatenation of elements you feel invincible, capable of drying anything, and by the look of the clotheslines around this part of the neighborhood this weather inspires a sort of primal instinct (cue the voice of David Attenborough), an irresistible urge to wash heavy cotton terrycloth bathrobes, double-bed-size comforters, vast thick beach towels, all sorts of blankets.   Mattress covers.   Sweatshirts (Go Big Red!).   Many pairs of jeans.

 img_8326-laundry-2-compIf you have ever  tried to dry anything on a winter day of chilly fog, or even those few days when it’s so cold your underwear literally freezes solid (I did not make that up),    you don’t need to be reading this, because you know.   Also, I think laundry is beautiful.  

So what happens is that I am not only in love with the texture and fragrance of the socks and T-shirts as I gather them in (is that really what sunshine smells like?), I can’t resist looking at other women’s laundry.   How’s it going?   What time did she start the washing machine to have it out already at this hour?   How can one family have so many black undergarments?   This is an irrefutable sign of going bush.

Speaking of mysteries, there was a person living in the top floor corner apartment on the west side of Campazzo San Sebastian who every day hung out a man’s medium-blue dress shirt.   I became fascinated with this, not because it was happening but why.   Does he have only one?   And more to the point, where is the rest of his garb?   In ten years I never saw any other item of clothing, for man, woman, or beast, hanging out there over the street.   It almost reached the point where I was ready to ring his doorbell to find out.   But then I realized that I was enjoying  wondering  more than I would knowing.img_7936-laundry-7-comp

My friend, Cristina, who has the clothes dryer, told me this: When she and her husband and twins moved into their new apartment in a very unprocessed part of Dorsoduro called Santa Marta, she accepted that as newcomers they would be under round-the-clock surveillance by the other women in the neighborhood.   Everybody pretends nothing is going on, but they  see everything.  

She  already knew that a certain type of housewife — I use the term not in a sociological but technical  sense, because here housewifery still a respected full-time occupation,  as respected as being an airplane mechanic — cadres of such women inspect  the hung-out laundry with  a  terrific list of parameters.   They draw numerous conclusions about you, your mother, your ancestors,  how many languages you speak, whether you’ve ever read Proust, not so much according to what you hang out to dry (there’s only so many items a family uses) but how you do it.  

An excellent example of the Right Way to do it.

An excellent example of the Right Way to do it.

Socks hung out at random?   Say, colors not matching, or thrown in with the briefs or bras?   Bad.   Do you hang your husband/son/uncle’s  shirt out by the hem, or by the shoulder?   (Ditto any kind of trouser — there are two distinct schools of thought on  whether hanging them by the waistband or the leg-hems is more effective, aesthetically pleasing, appropriate, etc.   Pantyhose also falls in this category.)   Matching items grouped together in perfect sequence are what you want to aim for, as they bespeak scrupulosity, forethought, and a commitment to doing things the Right Way.   (I am not making this up.)

But Cristina happened to be  using her dryer in  those early days  and therefore not hanging out any laundry at all.   The neighbor women couldn’t stand it.  Eventually one of them stopped her on the street and asked her, point-blank, where her laundry was.   “I don’t know what they were thinking,” she told me, “like maybe we never washed….”  

It can look just as good wet as dry.

It can look just as good wet as dry.

All you need is sun, at least for a little while (we get it in our courtyard for approximately an hour), no humidity, and a certain kind of breeze — not so strong (though of course it’s gratifying to watch your laundry thrashing around outside), but steady.   Today it’s perfect, a sturdy, efficient little zephyr that has  kept going all day.   I feel such a sense of triumph when I bring in the heavy stuff, all dry, that I have to remind myself that I get absolutely no credit for either  the sun or the wind.

Daily trivia: The common word here for laundry is bucato.   This literally means “holed,” as in, having holes in it.   Not holes that it came with, holes that were caused by countless washings, which until not so long ago was still accomplished with a washboard and tub.  

More trivia:   The washboard was the perfect tool by which to teach your kid how to swim.   Generations of Venetian children learned how to swim by hanging onto their mother’s washboard.  

So all those people photographing laundry on the line might as well be photographing Neolithic rock art.   They know what it looks like, but they have no idea what it means.  

I am convinced that when the Last Trump blows on Judgment Day, there will be at least one woman in the world who is too busy hanging out socks to even hear it.


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Categories : Venetian-ness


  1. Gary Beck says:

    I confess to taking photos of laundry, although not in Venice. Why? I like the texture of the fabrics contrasted with the texture of the buildings, and often the colors. Some places, like Cinque Terre, you can’t avoid getting laundry, as it seems like half the town is always doing laundry. Although I don’t have as many laundry photos as you do in this one article!


    • erla says:

      I love the colors and textures too, as you could tell. I can only hope I didn’t look like a tourist when I made those pictures — I wonder if I should carry a few clothespins around with me just to show I’m one of the sisterhood?

  2. Christa says:

    I had a Mennonite friend who told me that they and the Amish had a similar pecking order based on laundry. It seems contary to their vaunted humility but… the first to finish early in the morning, with the whitest clothes and arranged in the “best” order was somehow the more virtuous than the others! Oy! People will find ways to compete no matter what. (small sigh)

    • Erla says:

      I’ve given a lot of thought as to why, or to what degree, or whether at all, the arrangement of laundry should carry any significance. Best I can come up with is that your approach to laundry would be an early warning sign of your approach to many other things, some of which might in fact be important. Also, I believe most women carry around under a cloud (small, or even tiny, one hopes) of self-doubt, so measuring yourself against others is apparently irresistible. Last, competition, if we want to call it that, can be a very useful and constructive impulse, if you don’t let it get out of hand. And domestic prowess is no less worthy than any other sort. In my view. Just don’t give me any marks on my dusting, though, because I actually don’t care!