The Perils of Paris, or, How to Use a French Washing Machine and Live to Tell the Tale

The French do food well. Scenery, too. History? Bien sûr! Washing machines? Mais non!

Frankly, when it comes to household appliances in France, I’d rather walk the plank with a pirate than turn a knob.

I’m quite mechanically illiterate and so I’ve never stayed in a Paris apartment where I felt truly comfortable with the machinery. And my current garret offers no respite from the annoying peculiarities of French washing machines. It’s like the monster under the bed that I feared in childhood, except this one leers with only one eye and emits a real growl.

But the truth is that as I scamper around Paris in temperatures hovering around 80 degrees F for several days, I sweat. Not to mention that seven pairs of underwear only go so far.

So the moment comes. I have to wash some clothes. Have to. I pull out the landlord’s instructions:

Washing Machine:  There is a washing machine in the bathroom. [Note: The bathroom?!]  There is no dryer – the French believe dryers cook their clothes  –  they hang to dry.  To operate the washer load the clothes.  Put a little less than one scoop of detergent into the drawer on the upper left.  Close the drawer and the door and turn the “Programme” knob clockwise to one of the three areas within the three large blocks  (approx. the  2 o’clock, the 4 o’clock or the 7 o’clock positions-  heavy duty/normal, permanent press and permanent press/fine, respectively). Pick the temperature you want (any thing above 70 degrees is going to nearly boil your clothes).  Make certain the “vitesse d’essorage” button is set to “1000” (i.e. top pressed in) and then push the Start/Stop button (which is next to the “Porte” button).

IMPORTANT: When the washer finishes the “arret” light will come on. Do NOT push any buttons until you have turned the knob, counterclockwise, back to the Arret position (i.e. the Noon position on the dial), and then pushed the “Porte” button to open the door.  Finally, with the door open, push “Start/Stop”.  (Any other combination of steps is likely to lock the door with your clothes inside and force you to wash them all over again.)

Always that word – IMPORTANT, followed by a clause warning of the dire consequences wrought by a finger rebelling against the task at hand. So with the instructions firmly ensconced on the bathroom counter, I dig around in the cupboard and come up with the detergent.

Laundry detergent, France (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

OK. There are two blobs of detergent in each cellophane wrapper, so I guess that means it’s OK to use both. Concentrating really hard on the instruction sheet, I pull out the little drawer; there’s water sloshing in the tiny cubicle for the soap, but I ignore it. I cut open the cellophane packet and plop the tablets into the water. They begin to dissolve like Alka-Seltzers, speaking of which I’m feeling like I need a couple of those myself.

Soap for French washing machine (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

Then comes the part where I wish I knew a rocket scientist: the KNOB. Reading the instruction sheet out loud, I close the door and press the correct button. I turn the KNOB and presto!

Water pours into the machine! It works!

But wait! Oh no, I forgot to put the clothes in!

Two hours later, the sparkling clean washing machine stops. And I start all over again, penciling in, of course, at the beginning of the instructions: Be sure to put your clothes in first!

© 2011 C. Bertelsen

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9 comments

  • If there is an ARRET position, you have to move the dial back counterclockwise to ARRET before you do anything. Push the PORTE button (the door should open) and THEN push the button next to it. Bonne chance!

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  • Found your site while on vacation in Normandy and searching for help. AH! We can’t figure out how to open the machine:) My first try started the whole wash over again. Suggestions? It’s an INDESIT brand. Really appreciate any help!

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  • I needed a good laugh and your washing machine provided it. When you are frustrated just think of how impossible it would be for me to do what you are doing.

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  • Hahaha… and they are supposed to be such energy savers! Ah well. Are you not used to washer/dryers in the bathroom? That’s where we had ours growing up in California. A room of their own sounds luxurious, and in the kitchen sounds modern (grew up in a Victorian)… what’s the norm for you?

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  • Oh, my goodness….that just gave me a good laugh! I’ve always resorted to hand washing in Europe for that exact reason!

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  • HI Karen,
    yes as I speak, another couple of loads of laundry are draped over every piece of furniture and a special rack for drying clothes, as well as the towel warmer in the bathroom. I suspect I will turn on the warmer later and finish drying the towels, not a quick process at all. Thanks for writing!

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  • Funny! That is exactly what I would have done. Do you have to hang your clothes up around your apartment to dry?

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