I arrived on campus at Louvain-la-Neuve in the 80s to find I had been assigned accommodation to share with six other Belgian first-years.
I had arrived in mid-week and even as I was settling in I was most surprised and completely mystified to find myself utterly alone in the large apartment come Friday; everybody else had disappeared and, on the streets outside, only black and brown faces were to be seen, overseas students going about their business with their coat collars up and their shoulders hunched against the October chill.
The same thing happened the following weekend and every other after that and I marvelled at the level of homesickness displayed by my fellow students; I too was homesick, but not as much.
But as I got to know my flatmates better, I found out that the main reason for the Friday exodus was to have their laundry done by their mothers and enjoy home-cooked meals and a weekend outing with friends before returning to campus late Sunday evening or early Monday morning in time for lectures.
And so, even though the campus had many bars and restaurants, a cinema and even a discothèque, it had only one laundrette where we foreigners would go to do our washing since Belgian mothers were prepared to continue providing clean linen to their adult offspring.
My friend Patrick remained dependent on his mother for clean socks and underwear long after graduating and getting a job; he would fill a suitcase with dirty clothes and arrive at his mother’s doorstep 100 kilometres away just in time for Sunday lunch. The practice came to an end many years later when his sister bought him a washing machine and a dryer both as a birthday gift and as a broad hint that it was time he cut the umbilical cord.
When I moved to Brussels some years later and started out on my first job, most of my furniture was bought second-hand or donated by friends as was the case of the ancient washing machine that Sue left behind when she moved back to the States. It served me well for many years but finally gave up the ghost shortly before I moved to a new address in Etterbeek.
Luckily there was a laundrette within spitting distance of my apartment, conveniently situated next door to Jean-Marie’s café where I first met Claudine one Saturday afternoon as we both escaped the boredom of waiting for the washing cycle to end; we got to know each other well and doing our laundry together and sharing a drink soon became a weekly ritual.
On one such Saturday Claudine jokingly observed how convenient it would be if one could do their laundry and enjoy their drink in one and the same place.
Her husband Alfredo, joining in the light-hearted banter, suggested that Jean-Marie should consider expanding his business to include such a service. “Yeah, right”, Jean-Marie sarcastically observed. “And what next? A barber in the back, perhaps, while we are at it?” Jean-Marie is a purist, you see, and very much insists on everything remaining in its rightful place.
Well, what we said in just a couple of years back has come to pass. Two young fellows in the university city of Gent spotted a gap in the market, drew up a business plan, approached manufacturers of laundry equipment and eco-friendly detergents for financial backing.
They recently opened the first Wasbar (from the Flemish word ‘was’ which means ‘wash’ and, of course, bar), a tastefully designed laundrette-cum-meeting place targeting students and young professionals. The menu hangs alongside the washing instructions for those weaning themselves from dependence on their mothers.