Housekeeping Secrets along the Road

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           Any lengthy foray into Europe requires aspects of domestic life to be undertaken; there is no getting away from it. Laundry, cleaning, shopping and [depending on circumstances] a degree of food preparation and cooking are all part of an extended expedition.
Luckily most sites offer the necessary facilities for such mundane household tasks as washing clothes and bed linen, with washing machines and driers commonplace-for a price. In spite of this we travel with spares for bedding and towels. We also have a line, clothes drier, pegs, washing capsules and hand-wash detergent. How organised we are!
Vans are equipped with fridges [ours will function perfectly well for a couple of days without electric hook-up] although they are seldom as large as in the average kitchen, so we supplement it with a cold box and aim to shop every 3 or 4 days, which often, though not always coincides with moving from one destination to another.
We don’t leave home without a basic ‘store-cupboard’ of ingredients; mine include: mixed herbs, English mustard powder, Oxo cubes, peppercorns, gravy powder, olive oil, cornflour, tomato puree, tinned vegetables, pasta and rice. We take industrial quantities of tea bags owing to the poor quality of ‘Liptons’ from which 2 bags are necessary to make one, weak cup of tea. Anything else is widely available in the supermarche.
Wandering around a French supermarket doesn’t feel too much of a chore as long as certain aspects are understood. A trolley needs a euro coin to be released; we are fortunate to possess 2 plastic, pretend euros that for some inexplicable reason we call ‘sniglets’, given to us at ‘La Chaumiere’, a Flanders site that is unique for a number of reasons. The supermarket car park must be accessible by van [ie no height barrier] and must have enough space. We look for an area where other vans are parked. Then we ascertain whether fruit and vegetables must be weighed and labelled before the checkout, as nobody wants to arrive with half a trolley-load unprepared.

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Larger ‘hypermarkets’ will often have large vats of delicious concoctions such as paella that can be bought and re-heated. There will also be huge fish counters with mountains of mussels, melancholy crabs and lugubrious lobsters as well as acres of assorted cheeses. So there is never any need to go hungry-

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At the boulangerie a modicum of restraint is always required. Some days we allow ourselves a pastry. I attempt to confine myself to croissants but am inclined to succumb to the pleasures of ‘pain au raisins’ or ‘pain au chocolat’ [Husband’s favourite] on occasion. The French have a proud tradition of ‘artisan’ bread and the array of different types of baguettes or grands pains can be confusing.
Last [but not least] is the beer and wine supply. I confess to being a lightweight these days and may choose a single bottle of white for myself. Husband favours ‘Leffe’ beer and red wine. In these alcohol-enlightened times, even in France the supermarkets are beginning to offer ‘sans alcool’ varieties, which can be very good.
Intermarché, Leclerc, Auchan, Carrefor, Super-U and the ubiquitous Lidl. We wonder what their British equivalents might be? Leclerc would seem to be the equivalent of Sainsbury’s, Super-U more of a Tesco?
For many the demands of shopping and preparing meals while away would not constitute a holiday, but they have not sat outside on warm, light September evenings with beautiful views, sampling the produce that is on offer. And when we feel like it-and the location provides a choice of venues [as last night] we dine out.

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Fiction Month 2015. Unmanned on a Wednesday. Part 2

Strangers Muriel and Niamh are bonding in the launderette-and Muriel finds they have more in common than an article of clothing…

[Part 1 of this story can be found in the previous post]

She gazed into the gyrating turmoil of clothes. “It’s complicated.”

“You mean he’s married.”

Muriel stared at the circulating washing. She realised now what the familiar item was. She was sure it was a shirt; one that her husband used to wear, but hadn’t for some time. She could remember where he’d bought it, when they’d been on holiday in Italy. It was an expensive, designer shirt; flamboyant, the colours an unusual mix of purple, red and cream, the design vivid and abstract like a Picasso painting.

A machine to the right of them jolted into an angry whirl as it prepared for its rinse cycle. Muriel continued to gaze into the enigmatic circle where the mingling colours jostled for prominence.

“I’m not shocked,” she said, once the raging machine had settled for a quiet, resentful simmer, “but it makes me sad. I’m guessing he’s an older man? I’d say you were too good for him, too young and lovely to waste your life on him.” She hauled her eyes away from the washer, from which a trickling sound issued.

Niamh drew out a tissue from her sleeve and blew her nose. “I don’t know why I’m opening up to you like this. I’ve not told anyone else. You must be easier to talk to than most people. I would never be able to confide in my mother like I’m confessing to you. Can we chat again next time you come? We could go for a coffee or something.”

Muriel was silent, contemplating the revolving drum. It turned this way and that as if undecided. The younger woman stood abruptly and began pulling articles from the dryer, which had churned to a grumbling halt. The Italian shirt tumbled out into a pale blue, plastic basket, pock marked with cigarette burns. She had her back to Muriel, speaking harshly into the cavernous cylinder.

“I’ve been too personal, haven’t I? I’m always like this with people; not reserved enough, nattering like we’ve known each other for years. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. I’m sorry. Say something. Please.”

She turned around. She had the shirt in her hand. Muriel nodded at it. “I see you don’t send his washing home for his wife to do.”

Niamh held the hot garment against her cheek as if the spirit of her lover was bound within its vibrant folds. “I love to do things for him,” she said. “I pretend I’m married to him. I spend hours finding new recipes to cook for him. I like to open the wardrobe and see some of his clothes hanging next to mine. That way I’ve got some small part of him when he’s not with me.” Facing the dryer as she closed the door, she missed the fleeting look of weary scorn that passed over Muriel’s face. A stab of cruelty thrust out, threatening to pierce the friendly bubble of shared confidences.

“He won’t leave his wife, you know. They never do.”

“He is going to leave. He’s waiting for the right time to tell her. He’s sensitive to her needs. I love that about him.”

She was folding garments now and placing them into a rectangular laundry bag. There was a brisk manner to the way she was pushing the clothes into the bag, as if she could press her conviction into the still warm fabrics.

“I wonder if he knows what her needs are.”

“She’s been occupied looking after the children all these years and now they’re growing up and leaving-like yours are. He has to wait for her to find a new direction in her life; something to fill the void her children have left. You must know how that feels. How have you coped with the extra time on your hands?”

Muriel smiled an enigmatic, knowing smirk. “Oh I like to travel. I’m always planning the next holiday and preparing for it. I like comfortable hotels in beautiful locations with wonderful, scenic views. I enjoy eating in expensive restaurants, shopping in exclusive stores and finding exquisite, original art works.”

She paused to observe the effect her words were having.

Niamh stared, transfixed as she listened then nodded, grinning, her creamy skin pink with enthusiasm. “My man is well travelled. He’s going to take me on exotic trips once he’s free.”

She lifted the strap of her leather satchel over her head and gripped the handle of the chequered bag. She looked at Muriel.

“Shall I see you at the same time next week?”

“It’s possible.”

“Go on, you know you want to! I can give you an update on progress. I’m seeing him tomorrow night. He might have told her by then! Bye for now!”

She pulled open the door and stepped out, leaving the bell jangling. Muriel watched as she crossed the road, negotiating the passing traffic, tossing her head to rid the glossy, dark fringe from her eyes. Then she disappeared round a corner. Although the two machines had stopped, Muriel continued to sit in the silent laundrette. Outside the light was beginning to fade and glare from the headlights of passing vehicles cast intermittent flashes into the scruffy room.

It would soon be time to start packing, she thought, wondering what she would need this time.

She was jerked from her thoughts by the strident ring of her phone.

“Ah, I’ve got you. Where are you, Mu? I got home hours ago!”

“I had to come to one of those laundry places. The new washer won’t be delivered until next week.”

“Good God, Mu! Don’t these places collect and deliver or something?”

His voice crackled. “Anyway, never mind that now. I’ve found us some flights to Geneva. Thought we’d do the Swiss lakes. Fancy it? The flights are on Friday morning. I’ve just got a meeting tomorrow night to tie up some loose ends then I’ll be free.”

Muriel stood, pocketing the phone, savouring the anticipation. Last time they’d stayed at the Grand Hotel Kempinski on the lake. Their room had overlooked the Jet d’eau fountain. She would have to contact an ironing service in the morning, one that could do a rush job. She could spend tomorrow evening researching excursions and places to eat.

She crammed her laundry items into the holdall in an unceremonious bunch, stuffing recalcitrant clothes down into the corners, heedless of the creases that would form as they dried. When the zip gaped in an obstinate refusal to close over the bulging, newly laundered items she capitulated and grasped the handles, leaving it open in her haste to be away. She pulled the door, hearing its accompanying clank for the last time as she tugged the bag through to the outside. Trudging past the window she glanced back in at the stark, Spartan room, the plastic chairs and the worn lino and exhaled a profound, heartfelt sigh of relief.

Fiction Month. Unmanned on a Wednesday-part 1

It’s Fiction Month on Anecdotage. This is the third year I’ve celebrated National Novel Writing Month by posting up a month of stories. Here’s part one of the first story- ‘Unmanned on a Wednesday’- a tale of two women, a launderette and a shirt known to both of them.

Muriel stood outside on the pavement and examined the information on display, mouthing the words: opening hours, the management accepts no responsibility…

Shielding her eyes against reflection, she peered into the gloom, scanning for signs of life, hoping for an efficient counter assistant to relieve her of her bulky bundle; someone who was familiar with the machines and the vagaries of washing one’s dirty linen in public. Inside she could make out a figure, bending to pull open a circular door.

She inhaled, grasped the handle of the bag with one hand and pushed the door with the other, hearing its incongruous jangle as she dragged the holdall in through the entrance to the launderette.

The figure straightened, turned to acknowledge her presence with a smiling ‘Hello’ then continued to feed clothing into the open mouth of the washer, flicking items or turning them inside out.

Muriel looked around. The atmosphere was oppressive with the stifling damp of detergent fumes and hummed with churning dryers and the whirring of front loaders as they went into intermittent, furious spins. She approached an idle machine warily as if it were a stray dog and studied the instructions. It needed some pound coins. She dug into her bag for her purse.

A voice hailed her from the row of chairs opposite.

“There’s a coin dispenser if you need change. It’s on the wall by the service counter.” It was a lilting, youthful voice, the words coloured with a tint of accent.

Muriel turned to face the voice, the young woman having sat down, a dog eared magazine unopened on her lap.

“A coin dispenser?” she replied, “Oh, I see-for pounds to go in the slot. Sorry! You must think I’m an idiot! I’m not used to these places. I thought there would be someone here, to take the laundry and deal with it.”

In the ensuing pause she became aware that she’d spewed out her inadequacy like an over indulgence of champagne.

The seated woman smiled again. She had an elegant, restful face; a long nose above a wide mouth accustomed to laughter.

“It’s unmanned on a Wednesday and in the evenings,” she informed the older woman. “Don’t worry. It’s quite easy when you get the hang of it, as it were.” She grinned, extracting an inadvertent smile from Muriel, who negotiated the change machine, returned to the machine and stuffed as much of the contents of the bag as she could into its gaping aperture.

“They don’t like being overloaded,” cautioned her companion. “It might be better to split the load between two machines.”

Once the two appliances were humming in harmonious tandem Muriel sat down next to her mentor and the two watched the revolving drums in a shared trance.

“You must be a regular at this,” she ventured. “You seem to be an expert.”

The young woman shrugged.  “I’ve no washing machine in my tiny flat. I don’t mind it; in fact I enjoy coming. I get to read the trashy magazines I wouldn’t buy or admit to enjoying.”

“Except for tonight!”

She laughed; a light, infectious laugh.

“Oh no, I didn’t mean I wasn’t enjoying some company for a change! I come from a large family back in Ireland so talking is what I’m used to. But what brings you here? Has your home machine broken down?”

Muriel sighed. “The new one can’t be delivered until next week. I may have to visit a second time before it comes. You might have to suffer my company again.”

“I’d like that! What’s your name?”

“Muriel.”

“I’m Niamh.” She put a slender hand out to shake.

They watched the circulating fabrics in silence. Muriel thought it curious how an item would present itself at the front in the spotlight for a few seconds then withdraw to make way for a different article’s display. One of the dryers ground to a halt, prompting Niamh to stand, pull the door open and inspect the progress of its contents. Muriel continued to watch the revolving laundry behind the doors, her attention drawn to an item, the colours of which seemed familiar. Perhaps she had an identical tablecloth or bed linen; a coincidence. The piece of laundry came and went, teasing her in its intermittent exhibition.

Having reinvigorated the dryer with more coins, Niamh returned to sit.

“I see you’re married,” she said. “Do you have children?”

Muriel flushed. Accustomed to her own company or the stilted, polite society of her husband’s associates and their wives she was unused to striking up spontaneous conversations with strangers on subjects of a personal matter. Not for her the inconsequential chatter of the supermarket queue or the doctor’s waiting room. Her groceries were delivered, her healthcare private. But she was both flattered and warmed by this beautiful young woman’s attention and besides, she’d brought nothing to do or to read, not having considered she would have to undertake the task of washing the laundry herself.

She nodded. “I do, though they’ve flown the nest. The youngest is at university.”

“So you’ve more time to spend with your husband now, is that it?”

The older woman raised her eyebrows. “You would think so, but no. My husband spends more time at work since the children grew up and left; late evenings and overnight to different cities, for training sessions, he says. So I’m on my own most of the time.”

“This is a night out for you then!”

Infected by her familiarity, Muriel felt emboldened.

“You are not married yourself?”

She hesitated. “No. I am kind of seeing someone though.”

“Kind of?”

Check in next week for Part 2-the conclusion

The Housebot is Coming!

                It would only be fair to say that these days, here at Schloss Lessageing, the family home and domestic hub that houses us, domestic chores and hum drum routines are shared on an equal basis. This is not to say that there aren’t tasks which one or other of us has adopted as routine, or that one task falls under an individual’s remit more than another. Husband, for instance is more inclined to put dustbins out for collection each Sunday night, although I do undertake this job on occasion. It is interesting to note, however that when neither of us is present the bins experience a less regular evacuation. On one occasion I discovered, while tidying the garden, the corpse of a cat, which I’m sorry to say I dealt with by manoeuvring it into a plastic bag, wrapping it in a number of layers of newspaper plus more plastic bags and depositing into the refuse bin. [I’m aware that this appears callous, but time and opportunity did not allow for a more dignified disposal]. On our return I gathered that this bin did not get emptied for several weeks, resulting in a powerful stench as the said corpse deteriorated. Luckily our neighbours are still speaking to us.

                Meal preparation, vacuuming, laundry, polishing of furniture-these are all chores which are designated either/or. This way we all get some time off for good behaviour, although myself, I do not hold the same contempt/disregard/reluctance for domestic tasks that I had as a proper working person, in fact I may even, on occasion derive something approaching satisfaction in their execution. This is because it is possible to accompany chores with pleasurable activities such as radio listening or story composition. In other words, they are mindless and allow the brain to think about anything one likes.

                But I am not so far removed from the world of proper work to have forgotten how utterly exhausted I used to be on my return each day and also at weekends [when it would take until Sunday night to recover from the rigours of the previous week]. So the news that Dyson, the vacuum cleaner manufacturers are pouring mountains of cash into research into a variety of domestic robots seems, on the face of it to be encouraging-that is, until you look forward to the time when these domestibots begin to be commonplace.

                You will be able to sit watching the TV while the hooverbot revolves around the room. Your only movement will be a slight lifting of the feet as it nears the sofa. You will be able to read a magazine as the tablebot clears the plates; only needing to raise your paper as it takes your plate. You may lie, comatose on your sun-bed as the mowerbot beavers up and down the lawn manufacturing its perfect stripes, and you can continue with your next level of ‘Candy Crush’ as the refusebot empties the bins, the laundrybot sorts the garments and the chamberbot makes the beds.

                And if you are very, very lucky the hoistbot will come along and lift your [by now] obese form from its dent on the couch and transport you along to the hospital for your heart transplant. What’s not to like?

Not Just a Machine, Monsieur Corbusier!

                After a tortured, traffic ridden crawl of ten hours from bonny Scotland, where we’d disembarked from the Larne-Stranraer ferry, we arrived back at home-that is to say-the place where we live when we don’t live in our miniature, wheeled home.

                I’d be lying if I said homecomings are no different from the time when I was a proper working person. I no longer get that plummeting sensation as the first working Monday looms; that attempt to cling to every last moment; those delaying tactics at bed time. The return journey from any trip these days provides me with an opportunity to speculate on what may have happened in my absence and what may need to be done in order to mitigate these happenings, and also to appreciate the comforts and conveniences that a house offers.

                We near our street. I experience a frisson of surprise like the Narnia children’s experience of coming back through the wardrobe when I see that nothing has changed. Opening the front door and stepping into the hall feels new. There is a pile of [mostly junk] mail teetering on the hall chair, clamouring for the recycling bin. Of the mail that remains, one is a reminder to renew my car tax, one is a bank statement, one is yet another publishing agent’s rejection of my novel. Lovely.

                Even if it is dark I am always compelled to go first to the garden, where there tends to be good news- and bad. A lot of things have survived or even thrived in my absence [=good]. A lot of things that have thrived are weeds [=bad] and snails [=bad]. The lawn is not waist high [=good]. The lawn consists of weeds, moss, brown patches and ants’ nests [=bad].

                During the three weeks we’ve not been here the doorbell has made use of the time to take one of its intermittent sabbaticals, the carpets have acquired a layer of particles, the windows have taken on a smoked glass look, the fridge is empty of all but a tube of tomato puree, a few wrinkly cloves of garlic and half a jar of marmalade. Next day, after a stuffy and restless night in the luxury [post camper] that is bed, as I launch into laundering the sixteen tons of dirty washing we’ve created, the garden washing line decides, during the pegging of the last load, to make a statement by collapsing.

                But it’s not all bad. The sun is out. I spend my first sockless day for three weeks-[and not just because there are no clean socks in the drawer]. A passable duo at the local pub makes a refreshing, timely change from Irish folk ditties. And there is something to watch on the box…Glastonbury!

                So, as in the immortal lines of Frank Sinatra’s ‘It’s Nice to go Traveling’-it is quite nice to be home. Now, where shall we go next?