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The Mystery of French Washing Machines

Blue, white and red swimming costumes hanging over a balcony, France

My wife and I are traveling around Europe for a while and have been in France for the last month. I am responsible for doing the laundry in our family, and French washing machines present a special challenge.

Every time we land in a new place, I have to figure out a new washing machine. You would think they would be standardized—or at least kind of similar—but you would be wrong.

Charles de Gaulle famously said of the fractious French, “How can you govern a country with 246 types of cheese?” He could easily have been talking about French washing machines, but I suspect it was Madame de Gaulle doing the laundry while Monsieur le Général sat around eating cheese.

It took me quite a while to figure out the washing machine at our first place. All it had were a few buttons and an LED screen. If you pushed various buttons, or combinations of buttons (whose idea was this??) different wash cycles would appear on the screen. You picked the one you wanted and off you went.

Of course, with no instruction manual, there was a lot of random button-pushing to finally get to a good cycle. Which is to say, one that did not take all day.

You see, French washing machines are kind of like French fonctionnaires (bureaucrats)—they take a very long time to get anything done. You might start a load at 8 in the morning and think it will be done by 9 or so. But by lunchtime you are still waiting for that darned thing to finish. If you have plans for the day, you won’t get your laundry until when you get home for dinner, which means it won’t have time to dry (dryers being non-existent in France.)

I eventually found a short wash cycle in that first rental. But with each new place we stay, I’ve had to start all over, and it’s not easy.

This goes back to the washing machines all being different. Sometimes they have buttons, sometimes knobs, and sometimes both, but never do they have a clear description of what they do. Maybe the French have a secret talent for knowing what cycles to use, or maybe they like having enough time to read an entire volume of Proust while their clothes are washing away.

My latest adventure was in our current place. I asked the rental agent to tell me what the shortest cycle was, so I wouldn’t have to go through my usual trial and error. She didn’t know but pretended she did. “This one!” she said, “It’s for silks so it will be fast.” And she was right, but forgot that delicate silks don’t get a fast spin cycle. Which meant that my clothes came out sopping wet.

Eventually I found a short wash cycle, as I always do, and my wife did not complain too much about the results (well, not any more than at home.) So maybe I am mastering this French washing machine thing. Or not!

Keith and Val Van Sickle live part of the year in St-Rémy-de-Provence and have traveled widely throughout the region.  Keith is the author of An Insider’s Guide to Provence (read our review).  

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