The Way Things Work in France: It All Comes Out in the Wash

Do Nice Countries Finish Last?

February 7, 2012By David JaggardC'est Ironique!
What do they have in common? I′ll get back to you on that after my break.

The time has come. The time to address an issue that has vexed and perplexed me ever since I moved to Paris nearly 30 years ago. Finally, I have promised myself that I would summon the courage to face the question head on. And that question is:

What′s the deal with French washing machines?

Americans who have lived in France know what I mean. When I was in Nice over Christmas (as reported here), the apartment I was staying in had a clothes washer with a staggeringly long and complex menu of options – fast or slow, hot or cold, whites or colors, cottons or synthetics, normal or delicate, load size, spin speed, eco-action, etc., etc., etc.

There were openings for adding detergent, bleach, fabric softener, fabric brightener, fabric scenter and, for all I know, fabric mood stabilizer. That thing had more slots than the casino down the street and more cycles than the Tour de France.

Figuring that I didn′t need a high-temp pre-soak with a fluffing phase and intermediate softener drip for the load of socks that I washed mid-week, I set the dial to “Express.” It took 90 minutes.

Which brings me to my point: here we have a machine that attempts to cover the entire spectrum of conceivable laundry possibilities and that′s express? If I had chosen the “Stubborn Stains” program I might still be there.

I imagined the designer of this system in a job interview saying, “Then I got into appliances after I was fired from the TGV development team…”

I am not mentioning this because it was some sort of anomaly – virtually all French (and European, for that matter) washing machines are as slow, although not as complicated, as that one.

This is one aspect of life in France that still seems odd to me. Having grown up in the American Midwest, I had become accustomed to washing machines that can hold a couple of moving vans′ worth of clothes, with agitators that chuck the laundry back and forth, churning it vigorously and relentlessly for cycles that last about half an hour.

A French washing machine, by comparison, can hold about a Chanel handbag′s worth of skimpy lingerie. Once the cycle starts, the drum (there′s no agitator) feebly flips the laundry around for a few seconds and then stops. It rests for at least as long as it has just turned, and then half-heartedly resumes flipping for a few more seconds. And then stops again. And then flips again.

And so the long day passes. Any cycle takes upwards of two hours. In terms of power exerted, it′s like the difference between Babe Ruth batting one into the bleachers and a kitten batting a ball of yarn.

At this point I should emphasize: all of the above is an observation, not a complaint. The clothes come out clean. In fact, a recent independent e-mail survey of between 2 and 10,000 consumers with experience using both American and European washing machines indicates that the latter actually get the clothes cleaner, with less wear and tear on the fabric.

And since I′m already being observant, here′s another observation: I see a direct parallel between the way French washing machines work and the way just about everything works here.

An example from my professional life springs to mind. My job as a freelance journalist and translator sometimes requires that I put in a few days at the office of my best regular employer, a bilingual magazine. Although I prefer to work at home, I really don′t mind going there because it is quite possibly the most easygoing, laid-back workplace on the face of the earth.

Theoretically, as at most Parisian offices, the workday starts at 9:30 am. But in practice, most of the staff drifts in between about 10:00 and 11:30, sometimes as late as noon. They do some work. Then lunch begins at 1:00 pm and lasts at least until 2:30, sometimes 3:00.

There are no defined break times, but on most days there is at least one extended breeze-shooting session, in particular if anyone has any terreshaking personal news to share: they just had a baby, bought a new apartment, were delayed on their way to work, hit the wrong button on the elevator, etc.

This kind of pacing would have been unthinkable to me in the United States. But, as in the case of the above-mentioned appliance, the job gets done. Despite appearances, all the staff members take their work seriously and are ready to stay late if necessary to meet the deadlines. In the 10 years I have been working there, we have only had two or three last-minute rushes, and there has never once been a delay in production caused by the editorial staff.

In other words, progress may be slow, but the goal is reached. And it seems like this is more or less how everything is accomplished in France, from meal consumption to ministerial decisions to (I suppose) heart surgery, childbirth and firefighting. Just going out to grab a cup of coffee can take half the day.

I have come to appreciate this calm, unhurried, stop-and-smell-the-eau-de-parfum approach. Although perhaps I have come to appreciate it too much. It has its drawbacks. I′ve noticed, for example, that now I sometimes have a tendency to leave things unfinishe


Reader C. Wilkes writes:Kudos to David Jaggard for such a delightfully accurate article!”

Reader Elaine Breakstone writes: “My boyfriend and I got hooked on you trying to figure out the combination washer-dryer with instructions in Franglais in the apartment we rented in the 6th.

“At 1:30 a.m. we gave up, went wearily to bed. Awoke the next morning to find a pile of semi-wet, totally wrinkled clothing.

“Exactement your saga. We now take our clothes to the dry cleaners who, disregarding all the rules of dry cleaning, returns clothing in two weeks (if you know him intimately), unpressed or semi-pressed, in neat plastic bags that have been pressed as well.

“Merci for your delightful, delicious words on each and every subject you take on.”


© 2012 Paris Update


An album of David Jaggard’s comic compositions is now available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, for purchase (whole or track by track) on iTunes and Amazon, and on every other music downloading service in the known universe, under the title “Totally Unrelated.”

Note to readers: David Jaggard’s e-book Quorum of One: Satire 1998-2011 is available from Amazon as well as iTunes, iBookstore, Nook, Reader Store, Kobo, Copia and many other distributors.

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