For the first week of my semester in Paris, all I could think about was laundry.
“Have you done your laundry yet?” I would ask my classmates as we sat in cafes, brasseries, in the hallways of NYU Paris. “It’s in the basement, right?” I’d ask. “How is it?” Usually, this thread of conversation was short, and understandably so — but that didn’t stop me from ruthlessly pursuing the topic.
Every remark, question and observation I made had the subtext of laundry. “Do you think it’s going to rain today?” was actually code for “Do you think I could dry my clothes outside?” “What do you think of the dorm?” was a thin veil of “What do you think of the laundry in the dorm?” And “How are you?” was supposed to elicit a response about laundry, something like, “I’m good, I did my laundry and it wasn’t a life-changing experience at all.”
My second day in Paris, I bought an unnecessarily huge bottle of generic detergent from Monoprix, one of those French supermarkets inspired by American capitalism. And from the dorm, I bought four laundry tokens. I was so ready to do laundry. All I needed to do now was wait for actual clothes to launder. And I didn’t need to wait long. Every day, another outfit was donned and discarded to the laundry pile, each garment representing another confusing and sweaty day trying to find home in another continent. Many students were starting to hint that they’d found a routine that made them feel more at home. For the most part, I agreed — going to class, reading books, making tea. But laundry? Laundry was different.
Doing laundry requires a state of settled-in-ness which I hadn’t felt yet. I was both dreading and anticipating that moment, since it would represent the dissolution of the fantasy of Paris as just another vacation. Because laundry was so utterly mundane and tedious, I decided that doing laundry would be the point where Paris would become home and therefore comfortably and recognizably imperfect, not the textbook-perfect image of mandatory croissants at breakfast and daily visits to the Louvre.
The Eiffel Tower looming over the Seine-traversing tour boat was just another shadow as I wondered how much detergent I needed to pour into the washing machine. I pictured myself doing it. I saw the little tray. I considered the colors of my clothes and wondered whether the darks and lights, like the golden yellow leaves melting into the sidewalk, would seep into each other if unseparated. Should I get detergent pods? Fabric softener? Bleach? I stared blankly at the Notre Dame while weighing the benefits of drying clothes en plein air — I once saw my neighbors doing that, slinging towels over the balcony railing with a gracefully brusque flick of the wrist. And one afternoon, walking down a street with my classmates, I voiced my general reservations of the French laundry room.
“I fear the basement laundry room,” I said as we stepped on what might’ve been century-old brick, for all I knew. “I fear the unknown. And this laundry system is a great, massive unknown.” By Friday of the first week, I had six shirts and eight sweaters left.
Once classes started, my preoccupation with laundry, unsuitable in discussions about Balzac and Hemingway, who never wrote about their laundry, found tenancy in my journal. “Found another nice leaf today,” I scribbled. “Didn’t get lost, didn’t get pickpocketed. Haven’t done laundry yet!!!” Four shirts.
The following Sunday morning, I realized that I’d woken up early naturally, instead of relying on my tactic of staying awake from 3 a.m. to get to class on time.
I prepared a cup of tea, a ritual shaped by a decade of mornings. Across the dormitory, my neighbors just opened their windows and I waved hello and they waved back and there, standing there, with the windows open to my second Sunday morning in Paris, I thought about my laundry without a great and terrible existential dread. That was all it took.
I journeyed to the basement. I surrendered my token to the machine and poured in an appropriate amount of detergent from my neon green vessel and watched as my clothes, dirty with Parisian dust and airplane mustiness and trace smells of New York and Pennsylvania, began to swirl faster and faster and faster and faster until all the touches of my summer were rinsed away. The cycle ended. I took the bag of clean, damp clothes upstairs and I hung it out to dry.
Email Audrey Deng at [email protected]