Czech Culture & Adaptation

Hanging out the laundry

April 11, 2014
Clothes pins for line drying

Line-dry idle time

After six years of pumping out fresh, dry clothes like clock-work, our dryer, without warning or apology, simply burned up. I first smelled it Saturday morning when I was tidying up the kitchen, but I attributed the burnt smell to a candle I had lit. When I went into the laundry room, I found the dryer’s START button blinking. There was a bundle of warm, wet and slightly roasted-smelling clothes inside. Undaunted, I simply pushed START again and went back to cleaning in the kitchen. It wasn’t until I returned an hour later that I realized something was wrong.

Radek was away for the weekend. When I called to report the problem, he expressed sympathy, but told me it would be best to wait. He hoped he could figure out the problem before we called a repairman. I took a break from the laundry to sit down for breakfast with the children.

Both Anna Lee and Oliver had spent that Friday night at their elementary school as part of a world-wide program called noc s Andersonem (night with Anderson). There they had read fairytales and celebrated Hans Christian Anderson’s 209th birthday. Anna’s third-grade class was given the job of describing Anderson’s home in Denmark, while the fifth graders were responsible for designing a special late-night bojovka (adventure game) with scavenger-hunt tasks related to particular Anderson fairy tales. As the youngest students, Oliver’s class drew pictures of Anderson’s fairy tales and watched the older students’ presentations.

My children interrupted each other as they recounted the details of the evening’s bojovka, a common thrilling fixture of Czech summer camps and school overnights. As they walked in the dark to different stations in the school, they encountered famous Anderson fairy tale characters, such as the Ugly Duckling, the Littlest Mermaid and even the Emperor without his clothes. Getting past the Snow Queen and safely back to their classroom was the final task.

Anna and Oliver were delighted to tell me in detail of the characters they’d encountered, both new and familiar, and of the history they’d learned about Anderson. They also seemed pleased to linger a few minutes over their eggs and bacon, waiting to listen to my reactions to their adventures. Finally, I sent them to clean the playroom while I went to hang the wet laundry.

Shaking each piece and smoothing it before I hung it on the drying rack, I was reminded of my earlier experiences washing clothes in the Czech Republic. In my first few months in the Czech Republic I’d gotten used to hand washing items and laying them to dry on a radiator in my apartment. Since it was winter, the central heating was on and the clothes dried quickly. I only had a handful of items with me. I soon learned the trick of airing-out my sweaters and jeans that weren’t dirty, but smelled of second-hand smoke from bars and restaurants.

For serious washing, my roommate and I took our bag of laundry via tram to a laundry-mat. It was an expensive and time-consuming way to spend a Saturday. So when my new-boyfriend Radek offered that I could bring my dirty clothes with me when we visited his mother, I readily agreed. He didn’t have a washing machine in the apartment that he rented with his friend, so he always took his laundry home, he explained.

Upon arriving in his hometown Friday evening, Radek announced that we needed to make a stop at his grandparent’s apartment before going to his mother’s. We caught his grandparents just before bed and chatted with them for a few minutes. On his way out the door, Radek casually mentioned to his grandmother, “Oh, I’m just going to run get my laundry from the car. Emily’s got a few things that need to be washed, too. Is that okay?” Mortified, I couldn’t speak. Although I protested, his grandmother smiled and nodded as she took the bag from Radek’s hand. She waved us on our way.

When we returned later to his grandparent’s apartment for a typical Sunday lunch of snitzel and potatoes, Radek’s grandmother showed me my laundry. It had been carefully ironed and folded, even my underwear. I thanked her profusely and told her (or at least tried to) in Czech that I hadn’t expected her to do my laundry, I had just wanted to borrow her washing machine. Radek translated and she laughed and patted my cheek. Later, when I asked Radek why he didn’t do his laundry himself, he told me that his grandmother was the best at ironing his work shirts.

Although that was the last time that I took my laundry to my future-in-laws, Radek’s tradition of taking his clothes to his grandmother’s continued until he bought our first apartment in Prague. We installed a washing machine under the kitchen counter top, just to the right of the sink. It is a spot I later discovered that was fairly typical for a European washing machine. Like most Czechs, we didn’t have a dryer. The drying rack held a prominent position in our living room, and I soon became used to ironing everything that I wanted to be soft and smooth, even underwear.

Over the years, I’ve grown pampered by our dryer. It saves me time and effort by tumble-drying most of the clothes my family wears. The ironing I’ve done of late has been limited to Radek’s button-down shirts or synthetic fabrics that I don’t choose to dry in the machine. When our dryer suddenly stopped working, I realized how fortunate I am to have the modern equipment that makes doing laundry a mere blip in my housekeeping routine. As I began smoothing the clothes and laying them out on the drying rack and around the house on top of the radiators to dry, I realized how much more time it was going to take me to get my family’s clothes back into their drawers ready-to-wear.

Still, I couldn’t help but look back with pleasure on an earlier time when drying my clothes meant experiencing and adapting to a new culture. Although many of my Czech neighbors and friends also have dryers now, I find that they are far more selective about the items they choose to put in their dryers. Usually, clothes are still hung to dry while sheets and towels are dried in the automatic dryer. I’ve got friends who swear that line-dried clothes, particularly those dried in the open air, not only smell better but stay in good shape longer than those dried in the dryer.

While I am grateful for the modern convenience of the automatic dryer, there is a certain feeling of satisfaction in a job well-done that I get when hanging laundry. I remember a friend who didn’t have a dryer and didn’t like to iron, once telling me that smoothing the wrinkles from her husband’s shirts when she took them off the drying rack was one of the greatest gifts she gave him. It seemed kind of ridiculous to me at the time, but I now think I understand.

Although I’d like to reflect more on the benefits of the modern dryer, since our dryer isn’t yet fixed, I don’t really have the time. I’ve got to go iron some underwear.

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  • Reply Corry LO'Brien April 11, 2014 at 11:35 am

    I bought at drying rack at Kika and shipped it back to Wisconsin when I left Prague..the guy who came to my flat to pick up my boxes to ship laughed when he saw my drying rack. He said many people ship those and I told him I couldn’t find anything like this one in the U.S. My drying rack is in my bedroom right now and I treat it with great care !!! Enjoyed this story Emily !

  • Reply emilyraasch April 14, 2014 at 11:23 am

    Hi Corry, thanks for writing! I didn’t realize that drying racks were such specialty items, but I am certainly thankful for mine. All the best, Emily

    • Reply Corry June 13, 2014 at 11:51 am

      You are very welcome Emily ! I didn’t either until I tried to find something similar on the internet and couldn’t find anything except the typical wooden or plastic types, so I decided I needed to ship one from Prague.
      I really enjoy your stories Emily…they keep me in touch with the Czech Republic which I miss so much !!

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