September 17, 2009
How you display your laundry to the world is importantissimo in Sicily. Take my neighbor across the alley—a young mom who fries fish every Friday. She’s a pro. The last time I looked she had hung orange sheets and towels together, each item pinned neatly to the next. In the soft breeze, they were like bright wings, soaring and diving, diving and soaring. I fell into a trance.
“It’s an art form,” my Sicilian-American friend Mary explained one day when I tried to help her hang some shirts on a line at her house in Módica. She yanked the clothespins right out of my hand. “You’re judged here by your clothesline—as much as you are by your clothes.” Socks must stick together, like la famiglia italiana, and cannot tolerate an interloper like, say, a bra, in their midst. Each sock must hang near its mate, carefully clipped at the toe. Colors must be strictly segregated.
Blacks flap with blacks; whites with whites.
It’s all about sistemare: the highest Italian virtue. Neighbors study your underwear. If it’s sexy, you’re having an affair. If it’s dingy, you’re down on your luck. If you don’t hang it out often enough, you’re a filthy pig.
I’ll never forget my first attempt at doing a wash here one Sunday last November. I’d been in the house nearly a month and imagined that the neighbors must be talking. She never washes sheets! Sheets? Madonna, she doesn’t even do underwear! After foraging around town, I’d found twenty wooden clothespins. The line was ready. I used three buckets in a defunct shower stall, pulling cold water from a low faucet. I soaped in one pail, rinsed in the other, and hauled the hand-wrung laundry up to the top floor in the third. The cathedral bells tolled nine, but other than that it was eerily quiet. I hung a few mismatched towels and paint-splattered jeans, all wrong I know. Then I noticed that the tangle of lines in the rest of the alley was empty. Was it taboo to do a wash on a Sunday morning? Had I once again broken the rules of Sicily?
Lines here hang directly over the street on wrought iron curlicues so that the water drips on passersby, not on your balcony. But this means you have to stretch out over the void to pin your laundry, not easy for an acrophobe like me. I tried to pin my lacey undies, but lost my grip. They floated down, past neighbors’ open windows. A puff of air carried them east, and then splat, onto the cobbles. Exit a black-clad widow I’d never seen before—but who surely knew me. Why, damn it, did she have to choose that very moment? She feasted her eyes on the foreign object, glowered up at me, and continued on her way to mass. I flew down three flights of stairs, unhinged the noisy rusty bar that secured the double doors, and slunk into the alley to retrieve it.