Swedes in a spin: border-patrolling the people’s laundry
by Soula Emmanuel, 30.3.23
‘Strip the human race absolutely naked,’ Mark Twain wrote, ‘and it would be a real democracy. But the introduction of even a rag of tiger skin, or a cowtail, could make a badge of distinction and be the beginning of a monarchy.’
The clothes on our backs are the first stamp of difference. They are symbols of identity, yes, but also of status and wealth. From women in Iran and Saudi Arabia to trans kids throughout the world, marginalised communities are fighting for the right to dress as they please. But while clothing can separate us, can it also bring us together?
Last year, a YouTube video went viral with a portrayal of how Nordic people do their laundry. The clip depicts a blonde woman digging an ice hole before soaking dirty clothes in freezing water (and, for some reason, saliva). She then carries the clothes back to her cabin through flurries of driving snow.
Wisecracking commenters went along with the joke, saying ‘Yes, I as a person who grew up in Northern Sweden can confirm that the first time I saw a washing machine was when I travelled to a foreign country, at the age of 37…’ and ‘I’m Swedish so believe me, when we say doing the laundry is a woman’s job, it’s a compliment.’ Yet the truth of the Swedish clothes wash is scarcely less arduous – and arguably much colder.
Sweden’s tvättstuga – literally a washing cabin – owes its existence to a simple premise: that a nation which tumble-dries together stays together. In the 1950s and 60s, the Swedish government embarked on a vast homebuilding programme, and inherent to it was the idea that communal laundry facilities would be made available free of change to those who could not afford their own equipment. It was an effort to make modern household convenience available to all.
Today those high ideals have been largely forgotten, but the tvättstuga still has its uses. There is an unquestionable therapeutic quality to the weekly or fortnightly ritual – to the extent that heaving an Ikea bag full of fusty socks could be described as therapeutic. It is also practical: a no-questions-asked excuse to get out of work or social engagements. Nobody ever intrudes on laundry time. That is an unwritten rule – it is one of many.
Swedes are famed for their ardent defence of personal space. At bus stops they stand pandemically distanced, and on buses and trains they guard their empty aisle seats jealously. They do not make small-talk, and, of course, they do not feed house guests.
The laundry room, then, is a curious anomaly in a country which is resolutely unsociable – and, indeed, there is a certain vulnerability to it, located as it often is in a windowless room in the basement of an apartment building, a dimly lit space with poor mobile phone signal. It is not a place where anyone would wish to encounter a stranger on a dark winter evening.
The psychologist Per Johnson of Lund University observes that part of the tension of the laundry room is that it combines the private and the public: the openness of a public space and the bespoke intimacy of private routine. It is, in that sense, a psychological border, and, no less than a physical border, its presence, to paraphrase Ayesha A. Siddiqi, implies the violence of its maintenance.
It is sustained, not by guards and checkpoints and big, beautiful walls, but through mute passive aggression. Like many borderlands, the laundry room has a wildness to it.
It is a place where people act as though they are not being watched. Basic principles, like leave the area in the condition you found it, are ignored. Residents pour detergent into all compartments of the washing machine, creating a mess for others to clean up. And lint, the devil’s dust, is left in the filters where it clogs them and creates a fire hazard.
No wonder, then, that the laundry room is associated with arga lappen, angry notes put up on walls and machines to warn others that their delinquency has consequences. One found by Swedish television in 2019 says simply: You didn’t clear up after yourself? GOD IS WATCHING YOU!, a considerable threat in a country with some of the lowest religious observance in the world. In Ängelholm, complaints led to the housing association proposing to install security cameras to catch uncleanly social criminals.
It is nothing short of a tvättstugekrig: a laundry-room war.
Swedish social democracy was predicated on the notion of the Folkhemmet, the people’s home, in which society operates like a family, with each member contributing and being looked after in turn. Here too, the public and private seem enmeshed. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that as social trust has declined in Sweden, the politics of the laundry room seem less like a quaint cultural quirk and more a microcosm for a wider breakdown.
I was in Stockholm during the final week of last year’s election campaign, and was struck by the slogan of centre-right leader (now prime minister) Ulf Kristersson: now we will sort out Sweden. Kristersson presented himself as part-cop, part-handyman, and there was something amusingly blasé about his message, the sense that crime and inequality and social segregation are in truth merely a pile of damp sweaters to be reunited with their slovenly owners.
How we live with one another is probably the central political question of the twenty-first century. With fewer safe places to live, the world will have more border areas, more people in fewer rooms, more opportunities for misunderstandings and awkward encounters. Although the laundry room itself is declining in Sweden, as those who can afford to retreat into the safety of their private space, the mentality of it seems more relevant than ever.
30 March 2023 | £15.99
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Debut novelist Soula Emmanuel tells the story of Phoebe Forde, an Irish trans woman living in Scandinavia who unexpectedly reconnects with her first (and only) girlfriend, igniting memories she thought she’d left behind.