Absolute Beginner: The Adventures of a Middle-Aged U.K. Newbie

[Blogger’s note: I was born and raised in America, moved to Canada for love in the early Aughts, and recently relocated again, in my 50s, with my British-born spouse to the southern coast of his homeland. This is an occasional series about learning new tricks in Merry Old England.]

Rage Against the Machine: Battling Britain’s Perversely Popular Combo Washer-Dryer… and Losing

cofIt’s a question this exasperated expat has asked. This blogger’s vexed U.S.-born partner has asked it. Heck, I’m going all in, every American living in Britain who has used a combo washer-dryer to do laundry has asked it at one time or another. Why do these contraptions exist? And, as a follow-up question, how do we defeat and destroy them?

Strategies of annihilation tumble through my mind come laundry time in our flat. With malice aforethought, I glare into the glass portal of this diabolical device while waiting an eternity for the wash-and-dry cycle to run its course so that I can retrieve my still-clammy jammies. For those of you who have never encountered one of these hellish hybrids, which are commonplace in Britain and the rest of Europe, but still rare in North America, here’s the dirt. Some time ago, a sinister cabal of inventors took your typical front-loading washer and added a vent-less drying system that kicks in when the wash cycle is done. A key selling point of the combo unit echoes one once used to tout compact discs over LPs: No more getting up to flip the record over, or in this case, to transfer your Levis from one machine to another. Just pop your togs in, hit the “start” button, then sit back and relax! It’s also marketed as an energy-efficient space saver. Here in the U.K., this squat appliance is often slotted into a kitchen cranny next to the sink, where an American might expect to find the dishwasher. (An “extravagance” that many Brits happily do without, but that’s a post for another day.)

Admittedly, the theory behind the combo washer-dryer is sound – users get to be lazy, eco-friendly, and thrifty with their square-footage all at once. But in practice, it falls far short of its promise. First, the front-loaded drum on an average unit can only accommodate a miniscule load of laundry. Forget about washing your bedspread or your favourite winter blanket, or getting a work week’s worth of trousers coffee stain-free in one wash.  After you’ve fed your puny pile into the drum and locked the door, you’ll have to wait a good four hours for the cycle to finish. And while the wash part of the cycle is exceedingly slow but effective, the drying mechanism is woefully inadequate. When they’re finally released from their interminable sudsy purgatory, your clothes will most likely still be damp, or even sodden, depending on the thickness of the fabric. (Towels are the worst.) If you reach in and pull out a pair of cotton boxers that is merely moist around the waistband, count your lucky stars.

For the record, I want to stress that I love my adopted country, absolutely adore it, and I have precious few complaints about life in Britain other than this washer-dryer agita. I think the only other major grievance is the locals’ insistence on putting mayonnaise on pastrami sandwiches. And as a modern enlightened man, I’m definitely down with conserving energy, although I’m dubious as to how green any apparatus that runs non-stop for four hours can actually be. I also understand that British dwellings are generally smaller than sprawling North American abodes and that space is at a premium. I don’t expect every U.K. home to be the size of Windsor Castle, or even to have a designated laundry nook like my parents in the southern U.S. have for their ginormous Kenmore set. (A family of four could live comfortably in their dryer.) But here’s the thing. The two-bedroom flat near the English Channel where my spouse and I now reside is quite a bit larger than the 725 square-foot condo we previously inhabited back in Toronto. Our North American galley kitchen was half the size of the one we have now, and there was far less storage space in general. Yet even in that cozy Canadian box-with-a-view, there was still room for a snug laundry closet that housed a stacked washer and dryer, modest in size but able to get the job done in a fraction of the time. Hmm.

The combo unit in our current flat, an Italian model with the brand name—well, let’s just call it il Diavolo—is particularly uncooperative. When we first moved in, it was the usual long wait/soggy payoff situation. Then around the beginning of summer of this year, it began to go wonky, sputtering and stalling out mid-cycle. I’ve had to turn it off and let it sit for half an hour or so until it regains its strength and is ready to work again. And despite my vigilance in cleaning the filter, it has drainage problems. Occasionally, I’ll open the door to find the load sitting in a pool of water. By the time I run a drain cycle, allow for a restorative break or two, and dry only two or three items at a time so as not to overtax the poor thing, my four hours have stretched to six or seven. I now find that I’m unable to coax more than one paltry load out of it per day. The usually ample heap of dirty clothes in our laundry cupboard has bulged to Matterhorn-size and is threatening to pop the cupboard door off its hinges.  There’s obviously something wrong with the machine, I mean over-and-above its inherent terribleness. But it’s too depressing to think about spending the time and effort to get it fixed—even if that just means phoning the landlord and scheduling a repairman—only to have the end result be that it reverts to its original substandard state.

So, after coming to the bitter realization that the battle is over and the machine has won, I’ve retreated to a place I haven’t frequented since my days as a young, guileless bachelor, the laundromat—or as they call it here in Britain, the launderette. My first trip a few weeks ago was an eye-opening reminder of what I’d been missing; I washed and dried our entire home towel collection in 55 minutes. And just like back in the day, it cost me a sizeable pot of change, the finicky machines only took certain denominations of coins, and there were a few oddballs skulking around the folding tables. But you can’t have everything. One of the eccentrics, and elderly gentleman, sat staring intently at the washer into which he’d placed his clothes. He scarcely dared to look away as his socks and underwear somersaulted through their cycle. When the washing machine clicked off, he rose, collected his wet garments, and deposited them into a cavernous dryer on the opposite wall. Then he sat facing the dryer and gaped at it, just as riveted, as it went through its motions.

When I first noticed this, I found his rapt attention to be a bit freaky. But as I folded the last of my thoroughly cleaned and dried towels, I got it. Compared to the pokey, temperamental appliance he either has at home or has no doubt wrestled with at some point during his long British life, the lightning-quick, sublimely separate washers and dryers at the launderette must seem like a magic show.


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