Italy doesn’t seem like such a different country and culture when you’re visiting the famous museums of Florence, sipping cappuccinos in piazzas and staying in comfortable hotels during a 10 day tour (cue an alternative version of the Gilligan’s Island theme song here), but once you’ve lived in this country for a decade, you’ve become an expert in the main differences between American home comforts and those in Italy.
The other night, my husband and I were watching a documentary about how washing machines became a common household appliance in Italy. Between amusing 1960s advertisements along the lines of “A woman’s responsabilities: taking care of the house, cooking, children, the school run” followed by the scene of her husband looking in a mirror and calling to his wife asking where his ties are (note: he was actually putting a tie on at the time), the reality that I do not have a dryer took on a different significance. Now, in all honesty, I don’t miss having a dryer and, although having laundry on a drying rack in my living room isn’t my ideal home decor, it’s never really bothered me.
While watching this documentary, I remembered my mother talking about the washing machine my grandmother had in the 1940s (It was an electric washer, but you needed to wring everything out separately!). And, although the costly washing machine made it’s way to Italy’s shores later than for American hourseholds, I wasn’t prepared to hear that, even in the 1970s, many families didn’t have one at home. So, I turned to my husband and asked him if they had a washing machine when he was a child and he said no. It took me a minute to soak it in. I asked if his mother went to a laundromat. Yes. (I felt a huge sigh of relief for my mother-in-law, who also worked fulltime). Ok, so when did they get their first washing machine? In 1982 or 83. Yes, you read that right.
In big cities like New York, there may be easy access to laundromats or shared washer/dryers in apartment building basements, but that’s not a reality I grew up in. I think most Americans who grew up in an middle class suburban setting like I did will experience the same sensation of shock panic as me. But there’s something to be taken from this that’s more important. We take a lot of things for granted. Most of us are living in relatively peaceful countries at little risk of genocide (although there’s the obsessive communication of what terror alert we might be at on any given day if we’re back stateside), we have easy access to clean drinking water, a pantry full of food that would take months to get through, can comfortably whip out our credit card at our local supermarket or even Whole Foods if we’re so lucky to be able to afford all organic all the time.
Instead, not so long ago and not so far away, women were struggling with more. No time for TV or even to read a book. Heck, rationing continued in the UK until the 1950s for certain products. Today, across the US, the UK, Italy and beyond, we see people of all ages, races and social statuses with computers, smart phones, tablets, we all shell out for overpriced lattes (ok, in Italy we don’t, unless you’re in one of those tourist trap cafés!), but in the end, the stories of our grandparents back in the states are the stories of parents here. Moving to the UK in 2000 changed how I viewed many things, but it was coming to live in Italy that I discovered how simple, difficult and beautifully profound life can be.
So, I raise my laundry basket to every woman who slaved over the waters of Vicolo dei Lavandai in Milan, to Cesira and Mamma Roma, because they didn’t have a washer or dryer or Whole Foods. They had no credit card, but just the few spiccioli in their purses. They lived off Mother Earth, depended on what they had at hand and on each other. They fought to just keep their heads above water, whether it was taking refuge in the countryside to escape the Allied bombs, or making ends meet selling vegetables at the market or selling something else at night…
The washing machine is recognition of feminine strength. A strength that couldn’t be subsituted by a man, but by a machine. (No offence intended!) A woman’s strength is found in daily life and in childbirth, her strength knows no exhaustion and when the washing machine came along, woman’s strength was liberated into the world, finally getting out of the house and becoming a more active part of the work force.
And just to make sure we don’t get too serious…