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Airing dirty laundry: dealing with smelly clothes while traveling... well... stinks.

When you're traveling abroad, clothes washing can be a hassle... even if you're not dealing with a machine whose instructions are only in Polish.

By Staff writer / September 28, 2013



A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

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Europe Editor

Arthur Bright is the Europe Editor at The Christian Science Monitor.  He has worked for the Monitor in various capacities since 2004, including as the Online News Editor and a regular contributor to the Monitor's Terrorism & Security blog.  He is also a licensed Massachusetts attorney.

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Smelly clothes.

It's one of the big annoyances of long-term travel abroad.

You can’t expect to bring a set of clothes for every day. Too much to carry.

Even if you could haul all the clothes you expect you might need, it still may not prove enough. A bit of rainy weather, a spilled dish, or a sudden change in temperature could derail well-laid plans.

Of course, in most professional circumstances, you can't just re-wear dirty clothes, at least not if you're trying to meet local analysts and reporters, hoping to impress them with your professionalism.

Odoriferous journalists are not particularly endearing, and I wouldn't fault any journalistic source for declining a follow-up meeting after a noxious first impression.

These sorts of concerns weighed heavily into my planning for my European travels. But I thought I had them beat.

While the early and late legs of my trip would be in Parisian and Berliner hotels – where laundry services were too pricey – I did find a small apartment, complete with washing machine, to rent at my journey’s midpoint, Warsaw. Problem solved!

Not exactly.

When I arrived, I did indeed find the apartment furnished with a washer. It was a new one too, fully functional and not yet scuffed and scratched with the loads of ages. The landlady had even left detergent.

But the washer model was called “Intuition,” which is an immediate warning sign. Indeed, the machine's labeling was ironically cryptic: no words, in Polish, English, German, or otherwise – just strange symbols arrayed around knobs and buttons in arcane fashion.

I recognized temperature settings (in Celsius, of course), but what were the numbers in round hundreds – 600, 700, 800 – next to them? The setting for “jeans” seemed fairly clear – the icon was, as one might suspect, a pair of jeans – but what did the broken triangle mean? Or the little flower? And where the heck do you put the detergent?

Faced with this kind of knowledge gap, I turned to the repository of all human knowledge: the Internet.

Armed with the counter-Intuition device's model number, I tracked down the manufacturer's website and found the manual. Victory!

Well, not exactly.

I did indeed have the correct manual, but the only version I could find was in Polish. With my knowledge of Polish confined to about three words, this was not immediately helpful. (Particularly because those three words – lody, delikatesy, and sklep, which mean “ice cream,” “supermarket,” and “shop” respectively – are not highly relevant to washing machines.)

So once again, to the Internet! Or to a different corner of the Internet, since I was already there. This time, I went to Google Translate, to put their Polish-to-English logarithms to the test.

This took a lot longer than I expected. With the manual in a PDF format and full of Polish-specific letters – Ł, Ć, Ą, and the like – the formatting was awkward at best, and required much squinting at Polish words in the manual, figuring out which letters belonged where, and reassembling that order in Google.

After nearly an hour of close scrutiny and copy-pastes – and thanks to the simplistic syntax and sentence structure that all manuals appear to use, even those in Polish – I was able to decode the washer.

Those rounded hundreds? Rotation frequency of the washer drum.

The broken triangle? “Synthetics.”

The flower? “Fabric softener.”

And the detergent goes in the receptacle marked “II,” the one marked “I” apparently being for pre-wash.

Armed with my newfound knowledge, I managed to successfully wash my clothes. No risk of having to wear a pierogi-stained shirt to an important interview. Success!

What did I learn from this epic experience abroad?  

First, the Internet is a surprisingly useful tool for doing laundry 4,000 miles from home and on the cheap.

Second, never trust a device named “Intuition” to be intuitive.

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