Taking Care of Business at the Medieval Laundromat

Updated: Nov 21, 2019

A photo story by Maureen Cain

To shop for everyday items, we have to leave St. Paul de Vence and go to the town of Vence, a village of 18,000 people three miles up the hill. Like all medieval communes in the South of France, Vence is double-dipped in charm.

This sculpture in front of city hall is titled "La Vençoise." In English that means Badass Woman from Vence.

Vence has a collection of fountains around town flowing with spring water. In 98 AD the Romans built the aqueducts that deliver water to the village from the springs in the hills.

The springs also supply water to this village laundromat. The placard says the washhouse was used for hundreds of years. I cringe at the part that claims women would gather to wash clothes and "quarrel for the best spots." Sorry, Fellas Who Write History. You misinterpreted this scene: the women of Vence were not bickering like children; they were grown-ass women taking care of village business.

This misrepresentation of women's lives sends me into a feminist fury. I decide to come back tomorrow to rewrite this sentence. I stand in sisterhood with the women of Vence! Justice must be served! But first there's some shopping to do.

Our first task is to get a large photograph printed out, matted and framed. The owner of the copy shop will print the photo and sell us a frame. But we'll have to get the mat from the art supply store several blocks away. "Framing mat" in French is "passe-partout," which translates directly as "everything passes through." My sister Shannon and the shop owner are speaking in French. I understand enough to know he is telling us to go buy the mat from Marie-Louise, the owner of the art supply store.

I don't find this out until later in the day, but as it turns out he's not talking about a woman named Marie-Louise at all. In fact, a "Marie-Louise" is another term for framing mat and he was telling us to go buy one. Specifically, a Marie-Louise is a secondary wooden frame, used mostly in heavy museum pieces, but the French also use the term more broadly to mean "mat." It's possible that the French named this secondary frame after Marie-Louise, Duchess of Parma, Napoleon's secondary wife.

In the meantime, I'm anxious to go the the art supply store to meet Marie-Louise, the art shop owner. We walk to the art store as directed: To the left three blocks, pass the fountain, cross the market, up the little rue and around the corner.

Shannon picks up the "passe-partout" while I look around for Marie-Louise. I want Marie-Louise's picture for this blog post. But I can't find her and we have other shopping to do, so we take our mat and head all the way back to the print shop.

We finally return to the print shop to get our photograph framed. We suggest to the owner that it might be good for business and a lot easier for his customers if he sold mats too. He considers it for a minute then shrugs. I don't think he's interested in our silly capitalist ideas.

We return to the market and buy a kilo of cherries from this woman, who estimates the kilo (2.2 pounds) with her hands and turns out to be off by just 2 cherries.

Summer squash

Summer dresses

My new favorite bread from the bread lady

Fresh eggs from the egg girl

Mom & daughter refresh themselves at the spring water fountain

I love the women of Vence! These are not the decendents of Laundry Quarrellers! These women are running the village.

Back home I rewrite that sentence from the washhouse placard. The next day I return to Vence and, in solidarity with La Vençoise, I tape it to the sign. It says: "The women met here to manage critical aspects of village life as they washed everyone else's clothing. Often men could be seen nearby, drinking beer and fighting over their toys."

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