PBS travel guru Rick Steves is a big influence on how I approach getting away from it all, even if I don’t always agree with every one of his recommendations.
One of Rick’s mantras involves getting off the typical tourist circuit and throwing yourself into the local culture in whatever way possible.
Sometimes travelers have to will this to happen. Like when my wife and I stopped to watch a high school rugby match once in rural England. Or, when I insisted we wander through a supermarket in London on the same trip just to see what it was like. Yorkshire pudding is still a mystery.
But after a few trips abroad in recent years, I now think there may be no better way to get closer to the locals in Europe than a simple trip to a laundromat.
‘Everything is gross. It’s time to do laundry’
Doing laundry on vacation isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time, but on a 13-day trip with six or seven days worth of clothes, it becomes a fact of life.
My wife and I have been in this position three times now, and every time it delivers something beyond clean clothes.
An American eavesdrops in a British pub by Matt Patterson
After fumbling with a tiny washer-dryer combo unit at an apartment in Paris, we decided to brave the streets and go to a laundromat.
There we met a French-Canadian couple who were in the same predicament. She worked for the government, and he was a cab driver who had just quit his job so they could spend three months traveling Europe.
“I can always get another job driving a taxi,” he said to me as we were watching the spin cycle.
They had already worked their way through most of Scandinavia and were scheduled for a week or so in Paris, and then they’d “figure it out from there.”
To an American with a career, and a mortgage and two big fluffy dogs at home, their decision to drop everything to live life on the road in Europe was inspiring and more than a little daring.
On another trip, my wife and I found ourselves in Edinburgh with suitcases full of dirty clothes. After getting lost twice, we discovered a laundry run by a couple who offered us tea.
The woman couldn’t have been more surprised to see two Americans doing their own laundry. The man was extremely interested in American professional wrestling, Elvis and the NFL, all of which I can speak about with varying degrees of authority. It was a fascinating look at how people from other countries view our culture, and it was a jovial and warm conversation I never expected to have.
But as interesting as those two experiences were, our most recent experience in the heart of Tuscany this October will be hard to top.
To detergent or not detergent? (My Italian sucks)
Midway through a two-week trip, we once again found ourselves in need of a laundromat. This required a trip to nearby Chianciano Terme. We entered and found machines with instructions in Italian. We asked the one person in the laundry whether we needed to add our own detergent or if it was automatically added by the machine. (My Google translator app had provided inconclusive results.)
Likewise, the man didn’t understand what we were asking. He quickly exited, returning with another Italian man who also didn’t speak English but seemed to be the village authority on the laundromat. We stood and watched as they talked and examined our single use pouches of Cheer, clearly puzzled.
Then two more guys showed up and joined the conversation. I’ve never seen a Federico Fellini film, but I know enough about the famed Italian director to know this trip to the laundry was turning into a scene from one of his movies.
Eventually they figured out what we were asking. The man leading the investigation pointed to our little packet of Cheer and said emphatically, “No need. Machine.”
The code had been cracked.
When they finally got our two loads going, the first man hugged my wife, pointed to the machine, made the “OK” gesture with his fingers and said, “Quaranta minuti. Perfecto.”
Amid confusion, how about some cheese? Maybe some love?
As the crowd dispersed, I stepped outside. The man followed me out. There were two chairs by the door. He motioned, said “sit” and then offered me cheese from a plate. I politely declined, making some hopelessly dopey gesture to my stomach indicating I had already eaten. From that point, we just sort of sat there. He didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak Italian. I was failing miserably at connecting with the locals.
And then a dog showed up. It’s not clear if he was a stray or owned by someone in the area, but the tiny dog vaguely resembled Toto from the Wizard of Oz and had an equally sunny disposition.
“Bluto,” the man said with a mouthful of cheese as he motioned to the dog, adding irony of name to this pup’s list of qualities.
He later called the dog “Blutino,” as did the woman who ran the deli next door. Everyone showed affection for the little guy, and he liked me, too. That became clear when he started humping my leg with increasing intensity.
The gentleman who offered me the cheese saw the humping and said, “Ah! Amore!” We both erupted in laughter.
A little dog — doing what a lot of dogs do — shattered the language barrier.
Luckily, the man admonished Blutino to stop before things got out of hand. In the end, it was probably a close call. My gentle nudges and coos of “OK, buddy” had seemed to have almost no effect.
When we finally got our laundry to the dryers, the man said his goodbyes and wandered off into the Tuscan night. We have no idea if he was the caretaker of the laundry, just a concerned citizen or someone who just enjoyed the comedy of Americans trying to navigate their way through an otherwise mundane task in the middle of Italy.
At that point, it didn’t really matter. On our trip we saw Lake Como, Venice, Rome and a huge chunk of Tuscany. But years from now, it won’t be the crumbling remains of the Colosseum I’ll remember most. It will be a man eating cheese and that horny little dog.