Nothing raises more hackles, shortens more lives and causes more gnashing of teeth in Sweden than a bleak room filled with washing machines.
The room in question is the communal laundry room, called the “tvättstuga” or, literally, “laundry cottage”. This is where people who live in apartments go to wash their clothes. Every apartment building has one, or offers access to one, and most everybody uses them (except those who have installed their own washing machines to avoid ever setting foot in the place).
Now, the problem with the tvättstuga (tvett-stoo-gah) is not the standard, nor the location, nor the price (they are almost always free to use). The biggest problem is always the other people, the ones who cannot seem to understand the difference between “everyone’s” and “mine”, or “open” and “closed”, or indeed “now”, “later” and “not if you were the very last man on Earth”.
For me the idea of a free communal laundry room is still a bit of a luxury. Having spent four years as a student in Dublin (and a subsequent four years living like a student because it was such a giggle), doing the laundry involved stuffing everything into a large plastic sack and dragging it down the street like a ponderous dead body to the closest laundromat. Once there, every item of clothing that I owned–colours, whites, Spandex, woolens, silks, plastics, Kevlar–was dumped unceremoniously into an enormous washing machine and pummelled with 60 degree water until it was either clean, dissolved, or shrunken to the size of a hand-puppet.
So it goes without saying that the free and functional Swedish washing machines make me feel as if I am being pampered like a King. The Swedes, however, see the tvättstuga as a given, and not a luxury, and so they go out of their way to find things to get annoyed about.
The time-booking process — whether it is done by pen and paper, movable metal pegs or an electronic system — is generally problem-free. The trouble starts when one discovers that there are always people who cannot do the simplest of tasks without completely fudging it up for everybody else. And these people fall into four categories: the late arriver, the late finisher, the machine snatcher and the wielder of the door-chair. Bear with me please, I will explain.
The late arriver always wanders into the wash room some time after the 30-minute window for starting their wash has run out. They will stare in disbelief at you, the person who has had the gall to take “their” machine, and then proceed to get all stroppy about it. The fact that it is their own fault may absolutely not be mentioned. The late arriver may also begin to offer a long and complicated explanation for their tardiness, often something to do with a dead or dying cat, and may even start to cry. If this happens you should simply nod and start sidling inconspicuously toward the exit.
The late finisher comes in at the other end. He or she will decide that it is absolutely okay to hog the tumble drier far into the next wash cycle, which happens to be yours. You will therefore be granted the happy task of lifting out mounds of somebody else’s washing, comprised mostly of underwear too hideous to mention in a family newspaper.
The machine snatcher will take all the machines in a single washroom (usually four of them) if the other person has not turned up thirty seconds into the booked time. When pressed on the issue they will pretend to speak only ancient Aramaic. and leave you standing there like a confused idiot with a fully laden blue Ikea bag digging a deep and painful cleft into your shoulder.
And then we have the door-chair wielder. This person has several different washes on the go in several rooms at once (actually impossible to do legitimately). They will then jam a chair in all the doors to avoid having to open them as they wander back and forth between the rooms, and to make it easier to pop out for a smoke. So if you are sharing a wash room with a door-chair wielder, the door will always be open and anybody can just wander in and take your clothes. The wielder will listen to your protests but will fail to see why this is a problem, mainly because they are a complete idiot.
The tvättstuga is naturally a place of conflict, and the Swedes very often deal with these conflicts in a not unexpected way — they send anonymous notes to each other. In fact, the angry unsigned tvättstuga note (“you take my time again I take your head”) has become a social institution and there are even websites devoted to collecting and displaying them. The levels of bile and anger in these notes really have to be seen to be believed and are a sure indication of a people with slightly too few things to worry about.
You may wonder — if I get so annoyed by the whole thing, why do I put up with the tvättstuga at all? Well, in my mind it’s better to run the gauntlet every two weeks than to have a washing machine installed in the bathroom. Because this leads to a situation that is even worse: a machine taking up half the available space in the bathroom; an apartment that smells constantly of wet clothes and fabric conditioner; and no excuses whatsoever, from now until the end of time, for not doing the stupid laundry.
Paddy’s tips: To read more about the rituals surrounding Swedish washing rooms, you could always go to this blog entry, which says basically the same stuff. And if you want to amuse yourself by reading angry notes, then why not go here and have a good chuckle. And finally when you are sick of the whole thing you can buy a washing machine, cheap, and never have to bother yourself with your neighbours or their disturbing underwear ever again.
Paddy Kelly has been in Sweden for many years but he still can’t work that mangle thing in the washing room.