18 March 2008
My Fear of Belgian Washer Women
I don’t know her name. But she looms in my consciousness like a vengeful Banshee. I will call her Brünhilda, because chances are that isn’t far off.
Let me just start by saying that we don’t have a clothes dryer. That sounds very strange to most Americans, because they can’t fathom the concept of having a washer but not a dryer. To them washeranddryer is grouped together as one word like “lmno” or “samanderic” (Alphabetical and “Lord of the Flies” references, respectively), but here in Euroville that’s how lots of folks do it. Mostly hanging your washing up to dry is less damaging to your clothes (apparently) and of course kinder to the environment. After living away from the US for almost a decade I’ve learned to still that American mantra inside that says, ”Fuck the environment! I want convenience!” and hang my socks on the radiator along with everyone else.
Towels, however, must be dried in a tumble dryer in order to turn out fluffy. The only people I’ve seen who seem to prefer the hard crust of line-dried towels are the English; but they also prefer the masochism of stilton cheese, warm beer, and mustard that burns your sinus passages, so they should be regarded in a different light. The rest of the Euro-gang say, “Fuck the environment, I want fluffy towels!” (albeit with really cool accents.).
My first foray to the “Wassalon”, was also my first encounter with Brünhilda. She isn’t there all the time. She is a cleaning woman apparently independently contracted to come in every day for a half an hour, terrorize all the customers, and wipe down the counters and floors.
Something that I’ve discovered about the Belgians is that they wash floors in a really weird and violent way. They don’t bother sweeping first. They just take a large bucket of boiling hot water and chemicals and chuck it across the room, then sweep it all away with a squeegee. Then they put a rag on the squeegee and go over it again. Then they have no problem immersing their ungloved hands (they refuse to wear rubber gloves! It’s so weird!) into the boiling vat of chemicals to rinse out said rag, all the while seemingly oblivious to being watched from the corner by the gape-mouthed American woman who is used to a gentler kind of floor cleaning.
But with Brünhilda, the simple act of violent Belgian floor cleaning isn’t enough. With her it’s about power. The first time I encountered her wrath, I was sitting on the bench reading my book. She said something to me in Dutch, but this was back when I didn’t understand a single word of the language, and I usually tried to employ the method of pretending I hadn’t heard anything at all rather than attempt stumbling through a bunch of verbs which I found ridiculous. Whatever she was saying, she repeated it a few times, and I continued to stare at my book and try to appear really foreign. It never occurred to me that she wanted me to move off of what I had thought was a stationary bench. Well apparently what she had been saying was something along the lines of, “You've got three seconds to move your ass because I’m about to toss the bucket”, because the next thing I knew, a vat of boiling chemicals had been angrily tossed in my direction, and the tops of my shoes were soaked. I noticed that the other patrons of the Wassalon were sitting on the folding table, obediently dangling their feet like children, so I quickly joined them. No sooner were my feet in dangling position, than she moved the bench into the center of the room, making it clear that it was no longer a mere bench, but now a sign that symbolically screamed, “CAUTION! WET FLOOR!”.
The other customers sitting on the folding table exchanged looks of terror and consternation with me. Even as our dryer loads of towels and underpants finished spinning, none of us dared move to fetch them out and fold them until her assistant, a pale cowering little man, had come through with the squeegee.
I soon learned that there were rules of engagement when she was around and I learned to keep my head down and stay out of her way like the others. Generally speaking, when she enters the Wassalon, those of us In The Know just get up from our seats and jump up on the folding table, unbidden. This is just what you do, and if you play along, no one gets hurt.
So things were fine for a while. Like the others, I made myself small and scarce when she was near. But then I don’t know, I think I just got too relaxed. She sensed I was no longer intimidated enough and she decided to push the envelope. One day, as I was putting coins in the machine, she suddenly approached and became fixated on wiping down the machines.
But not just any machine, my machine. She projected her aura out like I was supposed to move, but I was literally in the middle of putting the coins in the slot, so I (timidly) stood my ground, and she started wiping the panel around my fingers, jabbing at my knuckles with her chemically-soaked rag.
I finally stepped aside just because she was seriously freaking me out. And I swear she got a little look of triumph on her face. The whole experience sent me into a shame spiral. I already have problems with my boundaries and standing up for myself, and now I was letting this psychopath with cleaning rag push me around.
After that, with every subsequent visit I would have to spend a good deal of time just psyching myself up. Because I was starting to notice that she was waging some sort of vendetta against me. It would seem hat no matter where I stood or sat or leaned, that was where she suddenly had to chuck water, poke the squeegee or dab her rag. If I was standing near the machine she had to clean it. If I was sitting on the counter she had to scrub the exact part I was sitting on. If I was standing in the middle of the room she had to chuck her vat of chemicals exactly on that point. She even got to the point of systematically grabbing my wheeled laundry cart and putting it up on a counter without so much as a how-do-you-do. She would clean the entire wassalon, and but leave the floor wet in front of my machine. Then when I had to traipse across that area to bring my laundry to the counter, she'd stare at me menacingly. Or if one of my clean towels accidentally dropped into the floor puddle she'd sport an evil little smile. Once I got to the folding table it would be time for her to clean that - just that section, exactly where I was standing.
So one day back at home, when towels and underpants needed to be dried, I decided that I couldn't take it anymore. I started hemming and hawing and finally coughing and feigning illness in front of Wim. I just didn't want to go Back There. Between coughs I made the argument for buying a dryer.
"Fuck the environment." I coughed.
Wim saw right through me. He'd heard my complaints about Brünhilda, but always accused me of gross exaggeration and melodrama. So to prove a point, he packed up the wet laundry and decided to go to the wassalon in my stead. He laughed as I called out warnings after him as he disappeared down the street.
He returned 45 minutes later, nearly reduced to tears.
“She started wiping the table while I was folding the laundry!” He blubbered. “She even splashed some of our towels with her cleaning rag!”
“Did she start wiping the table right as soon as you started folding?” I asked, knowingly.
“Yes!” Screamed Wim, “it was as if she was waiting for the most inconvenient moment!”
The thing is, this sort of thing is hard to prove, even to yourself, even when you’re standing right there as it’s happening. Your mind covers it up and tries to make the experience go away. You tell yourself she didn't really shove you or threaten you or touch your fingers with her cloth. You start to doubt your own sanity, thinking, No one would be that evil... But when someone else notices the same thing, that's when it really dawns on you and you're forced to face the reality of the situation.
We both agreed that something needed to be done. The next time I went to the wassalon, I brought my camera along. I don't know quite what it was I thought I'd capture on film, but I knew I needed something. I didn’t need to worry whether she’d be there, because although her visits are only ever 30 minutes long and at varying times of day, Murphy’s Law dictates that she will always be there whenever I am. And sure enough, she arrived. I saw her loitering in the front of the wassalon, and I started priming my camera. I knew that as soon as she sensed my presence, she’d be making her way back to check the timer on my machine and see how she could best obstruct me.
Luckily my camera looks obscure enough that it could be anything. I sort of poked and prodded at it and pretended that it was some sort of video game, and in this way as she came closer I was able to snap away, even when she was right next to me. If I caught her looking at me too intently, I just pretended to be really engrossed in the "game", even making the odd sound effect like I was losing.
Sure enough, within minutes she had ascertained that my laundry was almost done and prepared to obstruct the floors.
She actually watched my reflection in the mirror as she waited out the last minute for my clothes to dry.
Then as soon as I was standing there folding, she did it. She chucked the bucket across the floor, and started poking and prodding at my feet, as if I just happened to be standing on the dirtiest spot within a 10-kilometer radius. She literally attempted to shove my feet out of the way with her evil squeegee stick. I stood my ground. She stood right next to me staring and sending out intimidating death rays. I kept standing my ground. Finally I really couldn’t take any more and I started laughing and I said, “This is ridiculous. I’m not moving.” And she stormed off. I so wanted to take a picture but it just wouldn’t have looked natural that I had been gripped at that moment by the sudden urge to play a video game. I stood firmly in place like a warrior and folded my tea towels and underwear.
Then the most amazing thing happened! I looked up and she was outside getting into the car with the pale little man! I jumped for my camera, but they were already taking off as I was able to get a few shots.
Am I a bit immature? Sure, maybe. But it’s a jungle out there, my friend. Belgian cleaning isn’t pretty. It’s an arid wasteland where Management Is Not Responsible For Damage. I made my stand. This is one lady who can finally fold her towels in peace.