Sunday, October 30, 2011

From the pet peeve department

Dear Readers,

For eons, tourists have come to Italy and have giddily snapped photos: of Florence's Duomo and Rome's Pantheon, of the Amalfi Coast and the Umbrian countryside, of fountains and piazzas, of Fiat 500's and Vespas, of monuments and mouth-watering Carabinieri--and I get it. I get it.

But what I've never understood is why laundry hanging out to dry should warrant a place in the family photo album, or worse, in travel articles advocating the glories of a particular Italian location (I'm thinking specifically of a recent New York Times article on Naples, with its clichĂ©d and apparently obligatory photo of Neapolitan-style biancheria*). I mean, it's laundry for Chrissake. Granted, Italian laundry--but those aren't exactly Missoni dishtowels or Valentino skivvies hanging up there. Hardly. Why is the sight of some old lady's pantyhose or a few faded bedsheets considered charming and so very Italian, merely because there are cobblestones below and a fiendish bureaucrat (doubtless) nearby? I have a theory--unproven--that familiar objects take on uncharacteristic appeal when they are superimposed on a foreign locale.

How adorable! Laundry all'italiano!
The fact is, Italians don't have clothes dryers--if they did, you probably wouldn't see so much laundry hanging around. So taking pictures of Italian laundry is like taking pictures of, say, my mother-in-law's dentures (if she had teeth, you wouldn't be taking pictures of her dentures)--it's just dumb.

As an experiment, I recently pretended I was an Italian tourist in Portland, Oregon and snapped a photo of the clothes-drying rack in my friends' apartment (of course, all Americans have dryers--though some may elect to let certain items air dry--which makes capturing an image of native laundry all the more difficult):

That rare and most elusive of commodities: American laundry

Now you tell me, dear Readers--what's the big effin' deal about laundry?!

My best regards,


* I don't know about you, but the sight of indigenous underwear doesn't make me want to immediately jump on a plane in order to revel in Italian cultura.


  1. My friend Mark, a fiction writer and man of rare wit, had this to say:

    "I lol'd,but then wondered,yeah, wtf? So,of course,I've thought about this too much now and....

    1. Nostalgia. The idea that hanging laundry speaks to a simpler time (for Americans, that is the past and we think Europe's past was even quainter)

    2. Artiness. All the varied color and movement against a distinctly foreign object makes people think they are art photographers and

    3. actually, there are more underwear fetishists than you think."

    And the winner is #3!

  2. Anonymous7:14 PM

    Campobello, first year I was here I met two former students from Atlanta for dinner in the Piazza del Campo in Siena. Both were highly educated professionals, one and architect and the other a pediatrician. Both childishly romanticised about about the laundry blowing in late September Senese breeze. This was when a certain book about Cortona had just been published, so many of my friends saw Italy through Walt Disney's rosy Ray-Bans. When I gently pointed out that hundreds pieces of laundry were destined to be ironed by Italian women wearing floral polyester housecoats, my friend (who still is, by the way) was amazed that he hadn't thought about that. After all, all his shirts and pants went to the dry cleaners. Great post, as usual! Papaya

  3. Oh goodness, Papaya--you've made me pee my pants! (After I launder them I'll hang them out to dry so some tourist can photograph and wax romantic over them).

    "When I gently pointed out that hundreds pieces of laundry were destined to be ironed by Italian women wearing floral polyester housecoats"--that's just priceless and so true, and a fabulous and spot on image to boot. Thanks so much for sharing this! You should have your own blog :)

  4. hmmm now that I think of it I'm sure I have a picture of some laundry hanging in Sienna...ooops

    I guess it looks charming somehow...but if I had to do all that ironing I'd kill myself.

  5. Debbie--thanks for "coming clean!" Don't worry--we're all friends here ;) The ironing of Italian laundry is definitely grounds for suicide.

  6. Anonymous5:33 PM

    Campobello, You are too kind! I fear I lack the stamina or stomach for a blog, which is a shame since the world is indeed poorer without a blog entitled "Under the Tuscan Son" Tillie dared me to use it ten years ago on a wine soaked flight over the Atlantic, but alas, I lack the courage. And frankly, I'm amazed that someone hasn't used it yet. In attesa per il prossimo blog, Papaya

  7. I admit that I am guilty of photographing laundry while on holiday. For me a line of laundry hanging out to dry is a slice of life, proof that behind the beautiful facades, there are real live people living there, doing the laundry. Oh and ironing it afterwards.

  8. Dear Isabel--your slice of life comment is the best justification I've heard. And since you live in India, I can tell you that, were I to visit, I'd doubtless snap photos--like so very many have--of multi-colored saris hanging out to dry. Because they are exotic garments compared to the boring tees and jeans we wear endlessly in the West, and because they are, well,a slice of life! Thank you, as always, for your astute remarks :)

  9. After my Belgian "washing machine" called it quits this week after one year and approximately 75 articles of clothing, there is nothing romantic about laundry.Period. I've had a date with the bathtub and a jug of detergent waiting for Belgium to come back from "holiday". Almost makes me miss living in Detroit...:)

  10. Andi, I agree. Laundry is about as romantic as a root canal.

  11. Oh, the joys of living in a foreign country..but hey, look at the fabulously ancient churches around us as we struggle to complete simple daily tasks like grocery shopping..or the dreaded post office. I break out in a sweat just thinking about it. I need to follow your blog- we Detroit girls in a foreign country need to share experiences:) Hope to get to Florence this spring..

  12. Andi--it's true that art and architecture and cobblestones go a long way toward soothing the expat soul in his or her dealings with the "efficiency-challenged." But still...

    Yes, we of the Detroit diaspora should definitely swap stories--if you make it to Florence, let me know!

  13. How funny! The tourists always stop in front of my garage door to take a picture of the lock...seems having green, ugly old wood behind it makes it charming. Wide bottomed bloomers on display are fodder for the children's jokes in the piazzas, I've overheard my fare share.


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