Open-air laundry ... it’s a familiar site in Venice.
Open-air laundry ... it’s a familiar site in Venice. Kristina Afanasyeva

Travel: Airing your dirty laundry in Venice

I'M reading a wonderful travel memoir at the moment called The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice.

It's a strange title, yes, but it is about an English mother who goes to live in Venice with her Italian husband and four young children, and all the ordeals and difficulties she encounters.

While Venice is the most glorious of all cities to visit, it is quite another story to live there.

The author, Polly Coles, gives vivid insight into the ceaseless grind of daily life in a city slowly being crushed to death by its own popularity.

But, to the title. Politics? Washing?

Polly Coles is talking about the delicate and diplomatic negotiations a person has to navigate when hanging out the washing if you live in a tall apartment building, as so many Italians do.

Many washing lines are strung between two buildings and you must share your washing line with a stranger across a narrow gully.

This will mostly be a person you will never encounter on the street below, for the buildings are crowded and impersonal, but you will see her at the window as you hang out your wash and pull the line towards you.

Heaven forbid if she decides to do her washing on the same day and wants the line pulled towards her.

So … to my experience with the washing line in Italy.

Visiting friends in the ancient and beautiful Tuscan town of Lucca recently, I came face to face with the politics of washing. Our friends had recently moved into a third-floor apartment in a building within the centuries old walls of Lucca and had, at that stage, not dared to hang out their washing.

Across the narrow canyon that divided them from their neighbours, a woman would appear at her third-floor window, laying proprietorial claim to the double row of rope that should be shared between the two buildings.

"We are too afraid of her to hang out the washing," our friends told us, to which I boldly (and foolishly) responded: "Nonsense, she doesn't own the rope. I'll do it."

But as I hung my upper body out of the third-floor window to pull the double-layered rope towards our building (a life-taking chance in itself) the neighbour appeared at the window, so close across the narrow divide, armed with a bottle of detergent spray and a grim expression. I yanked my body inside as fast as I could and advised my mates to use a laundromat in future.

Later, in Milan, I watched in fascination from the window of our hotel as some of the occupants of a towering apartment building across the park hung out their washing.

There was no building across a narrow canyon from them, so theirs were wall-mounted washing lines that folded up and down.

One woman was particularly efficient, stretching her body from the thighs up out over the high-rise window to reach the lines far away from her.

She hung out sheets, shirts, towels, tablecloths … a huge load of washing.

It flapped in the spring sunshine so cheerfully I could almost smell its soapy freshness straight from the washing machine.

As soon as she had hung out the last pair of knickers and the line, so high up in the sky, was full to capacity, an old woman appeared at a window above her with a plastic bag.

She opened it and the contents - dust, a lot of it, she had obviously just swept the floor - came softly raining down on the clean washing one floor below her.

See, politics of washing.

Makes you appreciate your backyard Hills Hoist, no?

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