Murder in the laundry room

Hideous underwear, tales of dead cats, speakers of ancient Aramaic, and anonymous threats: Paddy Kelly has been to the laundry room and lived to tell the tale.

Murder in the laundry room

Nothing raises more hackles, shortens more lives and causes more gnashing of teeth in Sweden than a bleak room filled with washing machines.

The room in question is the communal laundry room, called the “tvättstuga” or, literally, “laundry cottage”. This is where people who live in apartments go to wash their clothes. Every apartment building has one, or offers access to one, and most everybody uses them (except those who have installed their own washing machines to avoid ever setting foot in the place).

Now, the problem with the tvättstuga (tvett-stoo-gah) is not the standard, nor the location, nor the price (they are almost always free to use). The biggest problem is always the other people, the ones who cannot seem to understand the difference between “everyone’s” and “mine”, or “open” and “closed”, or indeed “now”, “later” and “not if you were the very last man on Earth”.

For me the idea of a free communal laundry room is still a bit of a luxury. Having spent four years as a student in Dublin (and a subsequent four years living like a student because it was such a giggle), doing the laundry involved stuffing everything into a large plastic sack and dragging it down the street like a ponderous dead body to the closest laundromat. Once there, every item of clothing that I owned–colours, whites, Spandex, woolens, silks, plastics, Kevlar–was dumped unceremoniously into an enormous washing machine and pummelled with 60 degree water until it was either clean, dissolved, or shrunken to the size of a hand-puppet.

So it goes without saying that the free and functional Swedish washing machines make me feel as if I am being pampered like a King. The Swedes, however, see the tvättstuga as a given, and not a luxury, and so they go out of their way to find things to get annoyed about.

The time-booking process — whether it is done by pen and paper, movable metal pegs or an electronic system — is generally problem-free. The trouble starts when one discovers that there are always people who cannot do the simplest of tasks without completely fudging it up for everybody else. And these people fall into four categories: the late arriver, the late finisher, the machine snatcher and the wielder of the door-chair. Bear with me please, I will explain.

The late arriver always wanders into the wash room some time after the 30-minute window for starting their wash has run out. They will stare in disbelief at you, the person who has had the gall to take “their” machine, and then proceed to get all stroppy about it. The fact that it is their own fault may absolutely not be mentioned. The late arriver may also begin to offer a long and complicated explanation for their tardiness, often something to do with a dead or dying cat, and may even start to cry. If this happens you should simply nod and start sidling inconspicuously toward the exit.

The late finisher comes in at the other end. He or she will decide that it is absolutely okay to hog the tumble drier far into the next wash cycle, which happens to be yours. You will therefore be granted the happy task of lifting out mounds of somebody else’s washing, comprised mostly of underwear too hideous to mention in a family newspaper.

The machine snatcher will take all the machines in a single washroom (usually four of them) if the other person has not turned up thirty seconds into the booked time. When pressed on the issue they will pretend to speak only ancient Aramaic. and leave you standing there like a confused idiot with a fully laden blue Ikea bag digging a deep and painful cleft into your shoulder.

And then we have the door-chair wielder. This person has several different washes on the go in several rooms at once (actually impossible to do legitimately). They will then jam a chair in all the doors to avoid having to open them as they wander back and forth between the rooms, and to make it easier to pop out for a smoke. So if you are sharing a wash room with a door-chair wielder, the door will always be open and anybody can just wander in and take your clothes. The wielder will listen to your protests but will fail to see why this is a problem, mainly because they are a complete idiot.

The tvättstuga is naturally a place of conflict, and the Swedes very often deal with these conflicts in a not unexpected way — they send anonymous notes to each other. In fact, the angry unsigned tvättstuga note (“you take my time again I take your head”) has become a social institution and there are even websites devoted to collecting and displaying them. The levels of bile and anger in these notes really have to be seen to be believed and are a sure indication of a people with slightly too few things to worry about.

You may wonder — if I get so annoyed by the whole thing, why do I put up with the tvättstuga at all? Well, in my mind it’s better to run the gauntlet every two weeks than to have a washing machine installed in the bathroom. Because this leads to a situation that is even worse: a machine taking up half the available space in the bathroom; an apartment that smells constantly of wet clothes and fabric conditioner; and no excuses whatsoever, from now until the end of time, for not doing the stupid laundry.

Paddy’s tips: To read more about the rituals surrounding Swedish washing rooms, you could always go to this blog entry, which says basically the same stuff. And if you want to amuse yourself by reading angry notes, then why not go here and have a good chuckle. And finally when you are sick of the whole thing you can buy a washing machine, cheap, and never have to bother yourself with your neighbours or their disturbing underwear ever again.

Paddy Kelly has been in Sweden for many years but he still can’t work that mangle thing in the washing room.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


OPINION: Sweden’s incredible disappearing climate election 

The campaign so far suggests that Sweden's image as a paragon of virtue on the environment might be at risk, says David Crouch

OPINION: Sweden’s incredible disappearing climate election 

Four years ago next month, a 15-year-old girl sat down on the cobblestones outside parliament in central Stockholm. She refused to go to school until Sweden’s general election that September, to draw attention to the climate crisis.

July 2018 had been the hottest in Sweden since records began 262 years ago, and forest fires had ravaged large parts of the countryside. Greta Thunberg’s school strike gave voice to a pent-up feeling that something must be done to curb global warming.

Within months, she had become one of the world’s best-known figures in the climate debate, leading mass protests for immediate and radical action. 

But this Friday, July 1, Thunberg was back on the cobbles outside parliament with just four supporters, repeating her message of 2018. She might be tempted to ask, after all her campaigning: why doesn’t the climate have a higher profile in this year’s Swedish elections? 

There is every reason for it to do so. According to the latest report from the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change, the world has “a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future”. Some damage was already irreversible and ecosystems were reaching the limits of their ability to cope. Their findings were an “atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership,” said UN secretary-general António Guterres. 

Sweden’s self-image as a leader on green issues is undermined by recent slippage, delay and prevarication. In 2017, left and right came together to agree that the country should become “the world’s first fossil-free welfare state”, with zero carbon emissions by 2045 and negative ones thereafter. Sweden became the first nation to enshrine this target in law. However, the country is not on target to achieve this goal. In its latest assessment, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency said more measures would be necessary to prevent progress from slipping further behind on its climate transformation. 

As for other environmental targets that the country committed to achieve by 2020, 15 out of the 16 goals have not been reached. Growth, prosperity and consumption are taking precedence over the environment, researcher Katarina Eckerberg told Dagens Nyheter: “It’s the elephant in the room. No one dares to tell the truth, we are [just] trying to polish the surface a bit.” 

At the party-political level, climate policy seems to have stalled. Since Magdalena Andersson took office in the autumn, the “climate collegium” (klimatkollegium), set up in 2020 as a place for ministers to discuss essential climate initiatives, has not met. Party leaders debated energy and climate in public in early May, but the focus was on the hit to citizens’ pockets caused by rising fuel prices, with left and right united on lowering taxes. What we do for the climate in Sweden won’t bring down the temperature in India, said Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson, whose party rejects the 2045 zero-carbon target. The Green Party, who left the government in November, has seen its ratings sink steadily lower in the polls. 

Sweden’s greenhouse gas emissions actually increased by 4% in 2021 – partly because the economy bounced back after Covid, but still a worrying trend. Almost 80% of wind power projects in the country were vetoed by local municipalities, as the kommuner increasingly say no to wind power, putting a spoke in the wheels of Sweden’s green transformation.

This all adds up to climate taking a back seat so far in this year’s general election campaign. This is in sharp contrast to Norway’s “climate election” last autumn, which saw the country’s reliance on oil come in for sharp criticism and success for parties campaigning on green issues. The climate dominated the campaigning in Norway after the IPCC published a “code red” warning on the climate. For Germans also deciding whom to vote for last September, alarming events at home and abroad drove home the urgency of the climate crisis, with deadly heat waves, wildfires and devastating floods that left more the 200 dead.

More recently, the Australian election in May became essentially a climate election, with the victorious centre-left putting climate change and environmental policy firmly back on the agenda. Closer to home, a feature of elections in Denmark and Finland in 2019 was that the climate also enjoyed a profile higher than ever before.

Meanwhile, however, the world seems to be going backwards on the climate. This week, the US Supreme Court ruled that the country’s main environmental regulator has no power to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Thanks to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, demand for coal has shot up. Just months after the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, there is a backlash in business circles against so-called “woke capitalism”, with the idea of environmental investment coming under attack from populist politicians and financiers.

Swedes themselves are consistently well-informed and concerned about the environment. The environment and climate are around fifth on the list of voters’ main concerns, after crime, health, schools and inflation. Immigration and refugee issues, which have long dominated the Swedish debate, are in sixth place, while defence and security – despite the debate over Nato – are down in seventh place, according to an Ipsos poll in June.

But at the polling booth, when it comes to casting their vote, it seems that most Swedes have little faith that political parties will make much difference. Despite the fact that the climate had such a high profile in 2018, the issue did not even end up among the top 10 reasons for choosing a party to vote for, according to polling station surveys commissioned by SVT. Instead, voters feel this is a global problem rather than a Swedish one. “It wouldn’t matter if every Swede held their breath so as not to emit a single molecule more of carbon dioxide – progress would still be negative,” the head of polling company Novus told Svensk Dagbladet last month.

So Sweden seems set to continue to make slow but unspectacular – and even disappointing – progress on the climate in coming years. It would be a shame if the country, with its solid record on the environment and its fondness for grand declarations about the future, were to become a byword for greenwashing rather than a beacon for a better world. Greta and her supporters have work to do here at home.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.