Monday, June 15, 2009

Paris Laundry

After I checked in to my hotel in Paris I hauled my stuff up to my room. There were three single beds and a bathroom done completely in a peachy pink plastic. The shower was about the size of a casket, and the whole bathroom was about double that. Nevertheless, it was the first private peeing place I had had. I immediately marked it as my territory by throwing all of my toiletry items sporadically on its peachy plastic shelves and counter, emptied out my backpack, refilled it with my dirty clothes (all of them) and raced back out to the Laundromat I had seen nearby.
I studied the machines with distrust and the box that looked like an old-fashioned nuclear reactor control console with fascination. I finally managed to figure out that you put the money into a rusty slot, push the button with the number corresponding to the machine you want to use, and voila! clean clothes, here I come. There were three different sizes of washers, and I chose the second biggest, since I was washing nearly everything I had brought with me. I then needed change, and my first experience with French customer service was a positive one: I bought a yogurt and the kind woman threw in a blueberry muffin at no extra charge. She used gestures right along with mine, instead of trying to see how much French I understood, since obviously I didn’t speak any. She even knew what I wanted when I held out the five-Euro bill she had given me, a desperate look on my face. If I were she, I might have feigned ignorance and kept it as a tip.
I went back to the Laundromat with my newly acquired wad of change and loaded them one by one into the console. As soon as I hit the button for the washer, I realized that after all this time, after all my travels, I still managed to make some incredibly stupid mistakes. I heard a lock slide into place, echoing with finality as it would in a prison, and the washer started up. I screeched and ran over to try to yank the door open, only stopping momentarily to drop my backpack, which was still jammed full of my dirty clothes. I stared in pain through the front window of the empty washer as it filled with water, preparing to go through the cycle I had just paid 5.50 Euros for without having had the sense to load the damn thing first. Of course, being that it was a public Laundromat, of course the door would lock once activated so people could do errands while their clothes were being cleaned without having to worry about someone rifling through their undergarments in the middle of a cycle. I hung my head and sighed a deep, frustrated sigh. I only had enough change left for a smaller washer and I wasn’t about to go back to that nice old woman and have her wonder if I had a gambling problem or if I only paid for drugs in change. I loaded up a smaller washer, and much to my consternation everything fit without any sort of problem. I then realized, ten minutes into the cycle, that I had put the laundry soap in the wrong side of the soap compartment. I switched it over, not hard because they were soap tablets, but when I checked again they still weren’t dissolving. So there I was, mashing soap tablets with a pen in a dirty public laundry mat that was costing me 9 Euros due to my own stupidity. It was snowing outside and a cold wind was turning me to ice where I stood, in the least protective of all my clothing because it was the only thing I had that didn’t need to be washed and sandals because all my socks were dirty. It didn’t help that there were two men in the Laundromat who had witnessed the entire scene, and just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, I looked up and saw the directions written in English on a huge sign right in front of me. Really, it took up the whole wall. I wanted to climb into a washer and never come out. I could just imagine these men going home to their families, sitting around drinking wine and eating French bread and telling about the stupid American at the Laundromat. It just proves, they would say, that Americans never wash their clothes.
Forty-five minutes later, I hauled all of my clothes back to my room, sopping wet sopping because I didn’t have enough change to dry them. I hung them around the room, cranked up the heater and sat in a rainforest.
After a shower, I furthered my own shame when I started to apply some lotion I had bought in Venice. I remembered finding it to have a very strange texture – like rubbery mucus – and had amused myself for quite awhile during the first application, making designs on my legs that resembled sand ripples in a changing wind. It wasn’t until putting it on after that first shower in Paris, however, that I noticed it bubbling when I applied it. Well, ladies and gentlemen, it was bubbling because it was not lotion, but body wash. I had simply been looking for the word crema, which is both Spanish and Italian for lotion, but if I had taken five minutes to think about doccia, the word that accompanied crema on the bottle that could have been any cream from soap to shampoo to car polish, I would have realized that the Italian pronunciation made the word sound a lot like the Spanish word for shower: ducha.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

In Italy without any Italian

Most people ask me at some point how I get around without speaking the language of whatever country I'm in. In Italy, I had decided early on to use my Spanish and my five-word Italian vocabulary instead of relying on English, and that got me absolutely nowhere. Either they would take pity on me or despise me for mussing up their language, or in many cases they would rapid fire sentences back to me, and the few words I understood made me wonder why all the others were necessary. It happened repeatedly, but one time stands out more than others. I was searching for an Internet cafe in Levanto, one town north of Cinque Terre, and I was in a hurry because I had to find it, check my email and catch the last train before the two-hour lunch break. I wandered around for about 20 minutes before I finally asked a nice older woman on the street.
“Café internet?”
“No. Blahblah, blahablahabblah blah.”
I think I may have gathered that she never uses them, so she would have no idea where one is. But maybe, just maybe, she said something like this:
“I know of one, but you have to be inducted through a ritualistic sheep killing. Hail Satan.”
Next I wandered into a camera shop.
“Café internet?”
“No.” I think she may have thought that I thought I was in one. Then she pointed one way down the street she was on, blabbered on for a minute, then made a movement that told me I should take a left.
“Straight? Then left? When? How far?” I asked.
She shrugged. Maybe, just maybe, this is what she said:
“No, I will not take you to my leader, but if you go straight down this road, it eventually turns left right in front of the train station, and you can get on the train and go back where you came from, you moronic giant of a red head.”
After having made it back to the train station on her directions, I tried one more time at a fruit stand. The man took pity on me and used what little English he knew to tell me how to get to the one Internet café that was right down the street from the photography shop. Nevertheless, I think he may have said, “Go back to your home planet,” as I gratefully waved goodbye.

May the gods of irony smile upon you

Why, oh why does irony play such an essential role in our lives? Why am I always stuck next to a boring middle-aged woman or old man or families on airplane rides? Or rather, why does it always happen except for this once? This was the one time I forewent any attempt to look presentable and wore a 6-year-old purple T-shirt, my glasses, scraggly uncared-for and uncut hair, having been in airports or on planes all day, fresh from New Orleans with a rattling cough that makes people back away slowly and a gushing runny nose. Why does all this happen to me when I am sharing my row on a seven-hour flight to London with an attractive, probably single 20-something with a book and a water bottle, just like me? Why did he have to walk in and sit down right as I stuffed the last of a chocolate chip cookie in my mouth, just in time to hear my rasping attempt to swallow with a plugged up nose that made me feel like I was trying to breathe through wet cotton? Oh God of attractiveness and perfect timing, WHY do you forsake me?
I tried to come up with something to say to the-man-I-would-have-married-if-I-had-only-planned-better to save face, but my ideas seemed as addled as my congested sinuses. I picked through possible conversation topics in my head:
“Gee, this pressurized weather sure is great, isn’t it?”
“Well, if you need any Kleenex, I’ve got some, har har.”
“Want some hand sanitizer? It’ll keep you from getting my cold.”
“Want some Tylenol PM? That way I won’t be the only one who sleeps through my needing to blow my nose.”
But it was useless. He’d already seen me unpack my arsenal of medication, water, chocolate, sappy Western romance novel and a toilet paper roll I would inevitably use up on my nose before the flight was over. To prove my point, he got up and moved. Only across the aisle, mind you, where he could spread out and sleep on four empty middle seats. But it’s obvious why he really left, I thought forlornly, and I couldn’t really blame him. I wouldn’t want to sit next to me either.