Clean Underwear: Or the Secret to Backpacker Ecstasy

While in Paris, I had an epiphany about a singular form of backpacker ecstasy.  There’s an unequalled bliss available to long-haul backpackers that’s entirely drug-free, Pope-approved and, best of all, socially encouraged.  I’m speaking of clean underwear.

Laundry is an irritating hassle when you’re on the road.  It’s time consuming, boring, every goddamn country has a different, confounding system and it can get expensive, and not just in perennially overpriced towns like Paris. 

Prior to Paris, the last time I’d done laundry was way back in Valencia, Spain. I won’t say here how much chronological time had transpired since that event, but I had passed through nine cities in three countries in the interim and needless to say by the time I reached Paris, even homeless people were shrinking away from me. 

Back in Valencia there were no self-service launderettes, but the task could not be put off any longer. I got a line on a laundry service from the clerk at my pension that only charged €10(AUD$15.90/GBP£6.75/USD$13.65). This seemed expensive by budget backpacker standards, but after I considered that I would have spent a minimum of six euros to do the laundry on my own, the measly four euros that I was going to pay for the labour seemed totally worth the money. 

Then I got the bill. Twenty euros!?  “What the fuck?” I said to the smiling laundry lady. Actually, in my most polite, formal Spanish, I explained that she herself had quoted me the ten euro price earlier that day, to which she smugly replied that it was ten euros per load and that I had whites and colours, so that was two loads.  My whites consisted of one undershirt and five pairs of ankle socks, hardly a “load”.  In any event, I ended up paying more for those two “loads” of laundry than I was paying for my over-priced, private pension room.

So why did I put off my next significant laundry event until Paris? Well, part of the reason was that I had paid twenty fricking euros for the last goddamn load and I was gonna stretch it as far as it would go! Ahem. Additionally, I am not ashamed to admit that there had been a few somewhat malodorous occasions in the interim when I had worn the same ensemble, underwear and all, for three days straight.  Gag and judge me if you must, but these things aren’t as unusual as they seem when you’re backpacking and constantly on the move. Days blend together. Over-night bus rides merge into the following day without the thought of a shower.  Then you get wasted on cheap sangria that night and the next day is a hungover haze of non-productive confusion. See how easily it can happen?

Furthermore, in my case, endurance clothes wearing is not as revolting as you might think. I have a very unique and blessed body chemistry that makes it nearly impossible for me to generate objectionable body odour. I’ve been like this for as long as I can remember.  Try as I might, I simply do not stink.  In fact, there are certain, possibly insane people in my life who actually prefer the scent that I give off after, say, a two hour juggling workout. They come prancing across the gym, grab me, bury their noses into my chest and snort deeply. Then they go limp with bliss and sigh heavily while their eyes roll back into their heads and a little goo drips out of the sides of their mouths like Homer Simpson at an overturned doughnut truck.

These people are the extreme cases.  What I normally get are benign, mildly amazed comments as to how I never seem to smell bad.  Keeping the above in mind, theoretically speaking, I could subsist almost indefinitely without washing my clothes if I weren’t spending my days wandering through teeming European cities where chain-smokers abound and every surface in all public places is peed on at least twice a week.  Inexorably, even for a pheromone deity like myself, garments suffer a general build-up of funkiness when exposed to this environment and so the dreaded laundry chore must eventually be dealt with. 

So, back to Paris. 

Wearing only my swimsuit and a “Simpsons” t-shirt that I had been using as a pillowcase in hostels that don’t provide linens, I raced four blocks through the chilly Paris night, carrying a plastic laundry sack the size of a body bag, that contained every scrap clothing I owned. 

Gratifyingly, Paris has self-service launderettes, like God intended. The downside is that you practically need to be a mechanical engineer to successfully operate the vast array of equipment contained therein. 

To start, there’s the issue of coaxing the soap machine into dispensing a single use packet of detergent. Then you wash your clothes. Then you centrifuge your clothes.  Then you dry your clothes until you run out of change or until they are actually dry, whichever comes first. All of the above tasks are controlled from an aging, coin operated programming console in the centre of the room. In order to successfully wash and dry your clothes you need excellent timing, meticulous planning and, if possible, passing fluency in French. Without these prerequisites, you will inevitably have to deal with little surprises like your washing machine starting up across the room while your back is turned, with the door open and no soap in it. 

After two obscenity-filled hours and about nine euros – it would have only been six euros if my French reading comprehension skills had been better – I was hurrying through the cold back to my hostel with an armload of pleasantly fragrant, clean clothes. 
One of the very few moments when a long-term backpacker feels almost human and respectable is when they triumphantly pack away all of their newly clean clothes and ball up the now empty dirty clothes sack and stuff it into a small side pocket of their backpack, where it will stay for a few days until its inevitable growth requires that it be moved back into the main compartment. 

When you have a backpack full of clean clothes, the difference in your appearance, odour, confidence and general outlook on life is astounding.  Your wardrobe choice is at its peak and everything is fresh, smooth and free, if ever so briefly, of red wine stains. 
For a precious few days, your spirits are as boundless and unsullied as your choice of underwear.  Yes, you detest the moment of knuckling down and washing your clothes like you used to loathe cleaning out the gerbil cage when you were a kid, but the end result is the same swollen feeling of accomplishment. 
Best of all, you know that at that very moment, you are as far away from having to repeat that hateful task as you can possibly get. 

And that, my friends, is backpacker ecstasy.

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