A terrifying induction into a foreign civilization

Sometimes the most interesting differences between countries can be seen in the most mundane places. And thanks to the cruel logic of the universe, the mundane places are also exactly where you don’t want to have to worry about needing to learn interesting cultural differences.

I’m speaking, of course, of the bedrock of western civilization: the laundry room.

Where to begin talking about the phenomenon that is the Swedish apartment building laundry system? I suppose we should start at the beginning. Imagine this: a bright-eyed newcomer in Sweden, still orienting himself in his new land, with a virtually nonexistent knowledge of the local language, notices that his dirty clothes are starting to pile up. He knew this day would come, so without much hesitation he goes down to the basement of his temporary apartment building to examine the amenities. The first sign of trouble appears immediately:

Laundry room scheduling contraption

The brightest among you might realize, after a while, that this is a schedule. Columns are days of the month, and each day has two time slots. The laundry room is too small to share, so residents reserve a time by locking their numbered key-thingy into their desired slot. Temporary residents like me have to use rolled-up paper and trust our slot doesn’t get taken out from under us.

In case it isn’t clear, Swedes take their laundry seriously. To put things into perspective, many Swedes won’t think twice leaving their bike unlocked on the streets of Stockholm, but they WON’T EVEN TRUST THEIR OWN NEIGHBORS not to sabotage their clothes washing time. Furthermore, I’ve heard that if you don’t stake your claim shortly after the start of your allotted time, you still might lose out to the laundry vultures who prey on unoccupied rooms. In Swedish workplaces, doing laundry is an acceptable excuse to leave work early or arrive late. So yeah, they aren’t screwing around here.

Having navigated the scheduling system, we are faced with the task of actually washing our clothes. Washing machines here aren’t all that different from the high-efficiency front-loading models in the states, but I’m more accustomed to the analog simplicity of the old-school waterwasters. Luckily, the management posted a helpful guide explaining the various menu options:

Simple instructions

Eventually I figured out enough to punch in my settings, load in my detergent, and go. Inexplicably, one of the machines finished in about 40 minutes and the other took almost two hours. Everything came out relatively clean so I’m not going to worry about that too much. After all, I’ve got six hours all to myself to get this done.

An authentic Swedish laundry room.

Once you’re finished with the washing machine, you’re faced with a cornucopia of options for drying your textiles. American-style tumbler dryers, an industrial-looking centrifuge, a tall drying cabinet which circulates warm air, and my favorite: the drying room.

The drying room combines the effectiveness of line drying with the charm of being in a basement. It’s just a room with a big fan/heater on one wall and drying lines strung up across it. I had never heard of this concept before moving here, but I guess it makes sense if your climate is too cold for effectively line-drying outside. In my building, there’s the added bonus of no ventilation so the whole basement area has this really great lingering humidity feel.

Super high-tech drying room

I’m still figuring out some of the details, like how come the tumbling dryer auto-stops when my clothes are clearly still damp, but I’ve pretty much got the hang of it now. I feel like a native already.