act in haste, repent at leisure: a cautionary tale in four haircuts

They say talking to houseplants helps them grow faster. I want to know: does this work on hair? I’m cajoling it, pleading with it. Occasionally my words turn threatening.

fabric scissors needle needles scissors
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It started innocently enough–just a gateway trim at the place down the street. Four cuts later, I have battle scars, bad memories, and a deep distrust of salons.

Be careful–I beseech you–who you let near your hair.

My parents are visiting, sharing Clara and almond croissants with me for a few weeks. I take the opportunity one morning near the end of their visit to slip out and get a haircut. New year, new me. I’m hoping to rediscover the chic lob I had senior year of college.

I’ve booked an appointment through an app. The place was rated highly, but it’s shabby, with hair all over the floor, despite the fact that I seem to be the only customer. The stylist pops her gum and looks at me listlessly.

“Have a seat.”

A half hour later (the fastest haircut I’ve ever had), I’m staring at my reflection in a dirty mirror. It’s not shocking–I still have lots of hair–but the cut is too blunt, not the most flattering angles. It doesn’t hang well, but I still look like me.

II

A few days later, I hop off the metro with Dad and pop into a salon chain to see if they have a minute to thin out my hair and improve the last cut, nothing major. A tall, friendly woman ushers me to a seat and gives me the once-over.

“Oh lala. Who cut your hair?” She asks.

“Oh, some lady…” I don’t know what to say. “We just moved here.”

“Mon dieu…I’d say she cut it with her eyes closed.” The woman shakes her head.

The back is totally uneven, she tells me, and it’s all too blunt. The cut doesn’t work with my face. She tells me I look like a Playmobil.

A few minutes later, I am walking down the street with a spring in my step and a next-day appointment with Blandine for a complete hair overhaul. I greatly prefer her frankness to the apathy of the first stylist. She’s got a plan.

III

Blandine is snipping away furiously. She’s not slowing down. It’s looking okay, and hey, she clearly has a vision–but then–she keeps going, cutting off more and more hair until I’m cringing at every snip. It seems like too much, but I won’t be able to tell until it’s done. When she gives my hair a final pass with the blowdryer, I don’t know what to say.

“Voilà! This is a vast improvement. Perfect for your face shape.”

My face must resemble Paul McCartney’s, because this shag haircut would be right at home on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

My hair is shorter than ever before in my life, and she has cut about ten layers into my former all-one-length style. This haircut has attitude, a mind of its own. I like my hair to submit to my will, not the other way around. This haircut defies gravity. I look like one of those pouting, dated ladies on a tacky salon poster. I yearn for one hour earlier, when I was a Playmobil.

Blandine is pleased with her work. She shows me off to everybody in the salon, deriding my former appearance and talking about the miracle she just worked. Okay lady, it wasn’t that bad. People compliment the cut, but I detect surprise in their eyes. I just smile back sheepishly, yearning for the privacy of my own bathroom, where I can take stock of the damage.

“You’re not the same person!” she says. “Your husband won’t recognize you!”

I think she’s right. (New year, new me, indeed.)

I have a good husband, however, a kind husband. He assures me I’m beautiful.

I tell him I appreciate it but I really think I look like Paul McCartney.

He bursts out laughing. From time to time he walks past whistling “Yellow Submarine.”

IV

This time Victor makes the appointment. Traditionally, he’s much better at research. He says this place looks classe and it’s worth a try. My family walks me to the salon and  continues on to get groceries. I feel badly to have usurped our plans with my hair. Four times. Then again, it will end naturally soon enough. I don’t have much left.

Giacomo from Rome has longish salt-and-pepper hair and a serious face. He’s exactly who you want on your side in a crisis. He rushes me over to a chair. I don’t need to explain.

“Non, c’est pas bien,” he says in his low, quiet voice. “This is all wrong. The person who did this didn’t consider the texture of your hair. C’est pas possible.

He tells me it’s going to have to get even shorter, but he’s going to do a Vidal Sassoon-inspired thing. I am slightly cheered by the notion that something stylish might still be possible. It is clear Giacomo knows what he’s doing. He cuts hair like Michelangelo sculpting the David.

When he’s finished I want to kiss him but settle for a firm handshake. I tell him I no longer have the envie to hide under a rock.

“Don’t hesitate to come back if you have the least trouble,” he says.

I do have the least trouble. Styling it proves complicated, as I am not a swarthy Italian with flawless instincts. At least I am not too embarrassed to leave the house. At least I am not a Playmobil.

daily bread: a confession

It didn’t go well for Jean Valjean. You remember. Sentenced to prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family. Served a total of nineteen years (after a couple of escape attempts complicated things). You don’t steal bread in France.

You’d think I’d know better.

sliced bread on white surface
Photo by Mariana Kurnyk on Pexels.com

In all honesty, I hadn’t dabbled in petty crime since the Great Coloring Book Theft of 1999. Of course, that effort was foiled by my mother before I even got the goods out of the store. I gave up the outlaw life then.

So I was quite surprised the other day to discover, upon exiting Lidl with my groceries, that my cart contained two baguettes. I’d only chosen one, only wanted one…the crusty kind, cooked until golden brown. The only acceptable kind to pair with soft, gooey cheese. This baguette, though, was pale, soft, and less appealing. And was that–sure enough, someone had taken a few generous bites off the top. This was not my bread.

I looked around wildly, making a dozen calculations. Who had seen me? What should I do? I was a bit off my game. This trip to the store represented my first solo automobile voyage in France. (For the first few weeks, I whirled around the many roundabouts like they were games of Russian Roulette: my life at stake, everything left up to chance.) I strained to remember my new credit card code at every transaction. What’s more, I was several months pregnant and particularly invested in a sale on strawberries (I mean, they were giving them away. I bought ten cartons). I had a lot on my mind.

Where did this bread come from? Oh, right. I remembered. Standing behind me had been a fortyish woman with wild orange curls and a deep voice. She had clearly been itching for a cigarette, had the pack out and ready to go, the box’s stark warning–FUMER TUE–impossible to miss. She was the kind of person who talks to others in line. Out of boredom, maybe. Her modest purchases–a baguette, a plastic container of tabbouleh, a soda–shuffled down the belt following my week’s worth of groceries.

She had glanced in my general direction–j’ai la dalle. She groaned. Oh j’ai la dalle.

Ugh, I’m starving. I gave her a half-smile. What was I supposed to say? What would a French person say? Me too? Bon appetit? 

I’m starving, she had said. And I responded by walking away with the bulk of her lunch.

I may not have looked particularly criminal. I looked like, well, a pregnant woman in overalls pushing a cart of strawberries. But I was guilty. Rushing to load up my purchases to avoid slowing things down, I had grabbed what I thought was my bread, setting it gently on top of the rest, next to a bouquet of tulips. Loading the groceries in the back of the Renault Captur and discovering my own bald-faced deception, I had to make a decision. It was one of those times when the pros and cons of several possible choices flash in front of you, all augmented by a rush of adrenaline.

Option 1: leave the half-chewed baguette in the cart and hightail it out of there. The best option for saving face. While extremely tempting, also rude and wasteful.

Option 2, a: find the woman, apologize, and hand the bread back. Okay, okay. Obviously the right choice. I hurried back to the entrance and scanned the checkout lines and nearby cars for the woman. She wasn’t there. Merde.

Option 2, b: tell the cashier what happened. Call it a hunch, or call it the kind of intuition you get after living in France for several years. Either way, I knew I would only be laughed at if I tried to hand over a chewed-up, 85-centime piece of bread.

That left Option 3: take the bread and go home. Well, I didn’t have to feel good about it.

I set the baguette on the passenger seat, next to the tulips. Time to face the roundabouts. Apart from the theft it had been a good first solo grocery run. I was set to pull out of the lot, turn-signal flashing, when I noticed a woman approaching. I rolled down the window.

two baked breads
Photo by Mariana Kurnyk on Pexels.com

Yeah, you have my friend’s bread, she said. She didn’t sound angry or accusatory at all, just matter-of-fact. Unfazed. She knew it was me, though, there was no doubt about that. How long had they been watching? Grateful I had not abandoned the bread in the cart, I picked it up and passed it through the window. C’est normal. She accepted the bread and my harried apology with a wave.

I’m lucky I got off with a warning. Because really: you don’t steal bread in France.

no shoes no service: alone in italia, day six

Monterosso al Mare. I am ready for my second try of the hike between three villages of le Cinque Terre. It’s a fine day for a hike, not too hot, and we’re getting an early start. We will stop in Vernazza for some pizza and then finish in Corniglia, where the basil gelato is once again calling my name.

I hand the man at the trailhead a ten-euro note and he looks past the money to my feet, which are outfitted in my black Birkenstock slides.

“Oh no, signora. This is not recommended. This is very dangerous.”

I smile, sheepish. “Thank you, I understand. I’ve already done the hike; I understand the risk… I think I would like to try anyway.”

The man narrows his eyes, and for a second I think he’s actually going to make me turn back.

Trying for respectful, yet determined, I offer my best charming smile. There is a silence.

The man waves his hands at my foolishness. “I understand this for you, you are young, no problem,” he shakes his head. “But I tell you this: very dangerous. Not recommended!” He hands me my ticket.

With this “beware the Ides of March” word of encouragement, I start hiking.

In all fairness, I did not expect to be hiking today. In the latest incarnation of my usual plan not to plan, I am in the shuttle down to Riomaggiore with a vague vision of cannoli dancing in my head, when I find a group of guys to go hiking with.

I had met Martin the night before while I was camped out in my office for the week (the computer near the front doors of the hostel), working on a blog post. He sat down beside me: “Hi, what are you doing?”

The first thing I notice is his impressive beard and an accent I’m not sure about. He’s Austrian. Later, he pops back around with a handful of peanuts for me. “Brain food.”

He tells me about his plan to go hiking the next morning with a group of Welsh guys. “Oh cool, hope it’s nice weather,” I say, or something like it, having no clue I will be making the trek with them.

The next morning, we all happen to be taking the same shuttle. “Will you be hiking with us, then?” One of them asks me. I say no, automatically. “I’m not really dressed for it, anyway.” But as we get to talking, I find I do want to go. The sky is so gray and I have nothing better to do. Sandals be damned, I’m doing it.

We get coffee and cornetti al cioccalato before taking the train from Riomaggiore all the way down to the last village, Monterosso, where we’ll start our hike. On the train platform, the conversation turns to food.

“I love a great stack of American pancakes,” says Jimmy. “Smothered in maple syrup. Absolutely de-” I think he’s going to say delicious, but debaucherous is the word he chooses to describe his favorite breakfast.

“Absolutely debaucherous.”

That is when I know for certain this is going to be a fun day. If I survive it.

Thirty seconds into the morning’s activity, I think that my red-painted toenails look absolutely frivolous, and I have a vision of falling to my death, or even just spraining my ankle, while French and Italian families look on, shaking their heads and thinking, she had that coming.

And I do. Hiking in Cinque Terre isn’t complicated; there are just a few rules:

Drink water.

Don’t wear sandals. 

I feel a sudden kinship with the Chinese grandma who is making the hike in dainty ballet flats and a sun hat. The man at the trailhead warned her as well, and she just grinned at him, uncomprehending. It is her and I against the world, respectfully disregarding the naysayers. An Iggy Azalea song flashes through my head: I just can’t worry ’bout no haters, gotta stay on my grind…

Unfortunately, my ally gives up the grind fifteen minutes into it, turning back with her daughter holding her arm.

I forge on ahead.

I don’t like the looks of the heavy clouds, which start spitting rain at us and make the trail woefully slippery. I also don’t like the way these sandals threaten to slip off my feet at any moment.

I admit it. I was wrong. And my punishment is having someone scold me every ten minutes for my impractical choice. The fun part: I hear disapproving and incredulous muttering in at least four languages.

put that in your book

That’s going in my memoir. 

When I feel I’m playing a starring role in an indie comedy about someone with terrible luck, I do two things. First, I try to laugh at myself. If that fails, I remember something Mary told me, Nora Ephron’s philosophy: everything is copy.

No experience is wasted if it becomes material.

Combining the coping tactics of humor and inspiration, I developed a new joke over the year. My life in France. Take the frustrating daily dose of inconvenience and make it into a catchy or ridiculous title, stick My life in France on the end.

Voilà. My memoir.

We found it hilarious, this clash between typical starry-eyed French memoirs about the lavender fields of Provence or the patisseries of Paris and the titles of our imaginary exposés. If something annoying or pathetic happened to me, I couldn’t wait to tell Mary. Suddenly it was worth it just for that little bit of comic relief. me-scarf mary-chateau

When you put some of these “titles” together, it creates a pretty fair idea of the average daily experience. So, without further adieu.

Peeing in the Dark: My Life in France

Crying on a Train: My Life in France

Snails in the Salad: My Life in France

Backpack Full of Cheese: My Life in France

Soggy Baguette: My Life in France

Closed on Sundays: My Life in France

Encore du Vin? My Life in France

Singing in the Car with a Turkish Man: My Life in France

Uphill Both Ways in the Rain: My Life in France

Blisters & Bruises, or, My Ruined Feet: My Life in France

30 Uses for an Eggplant: My Life in France

Listen, We Have to Stop Buying Artisanal Jams: My Life in France

We Missed the Bus: My Life in France

Beans on Toast: My Life in France

I Accidentally Walked 17 Miles: My Life in France

Why Did I Buy Hair Perfume? My Life in France

Do You Really Need a Tutu? My Life in France

Accidentally Drunk at Lunch: My Life in France

Do You Know the Queen of England? And Other Questions I’m Asked: My Life in France

The Honey Cake And Other Regrettable Homemade Desserts: My Life in France

Bags of Vegetables on My Handlebars: My Life in France

in which I ‘faire des bêtises’

It’s weird to put myself in a new category: teacher, the mysterious breed that one is always shocked to see in a public place.

Recently I spent the whole day in town, working on lessons and then meeting Mary for dinner and drinks. I had my laptop and a stack of books, my hair in a bun. I glimpsed my reflection on the way into a popular bar, whining: “I look like a teacher.”

“You are a teacher,” Mary reminded me.

Oh, right. I’m now the kind of person who watches Blue’s Clues-wannabe videos: a jolly thirty-something man singing “this is my favorite pumpkin” in an attempt to teach autumn vocabulary.

But I’m rolling my eyes. And that’s the secret. Teachers have lives. We may be writing lesson plans, but we are also making Korean bibimbap and dancing around the kitchen to the Ying Yang Twins.

I think I have successfully maintained a professional image in the classroom. Out of it, though? If they only knew…

Faire des bêtises is a French phrase I enjoy. It’s a more charming way to express you’ve done something stupid. It also describes my morning.

It was my first day back after les vacances scolaires. I had stayed up late the night before, watching more pumpkin videos and planning drawing activities for the younger students; writing practice dialogues for the older ones. I woke up very early this morning, after four alarms that incorporated themselves into my dreams (which quickly turned to nightmares). I double-checked that everything was ready to go: lesson elements organized with time estimates and saved to a flash drive in appropriate file formats. I left no time for morning rituals like drinking water or using the bathroom. I chucked a mini pumpkin in my purse as a last-minute prop and hoped for the best, setting off in the freezing fog for the brisk 1.5km power walk to school. Physically, of course, I felt like actual death, but I was prepared.

I neared the school just before starting time, expecting to greet dozens of students streaming inside. But there was no one.

Lights off. Doors locked. I had a horrible feeling I had missed something…like the date school started again. November 3rd. It would help if I had looked at a calendar once in the past two weeks. The early bird gets the…headache from lack of sleep?

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Me: tired, amused, relieved

Back home to pajamas and tea.

Later, I ventured out to get groceries, always a complicated undertaking. (It’s at these times I most miss my car). On my way back, I was starving. You don’t see people walking down the street eating, here, and though I usually try to observe social decorum, I just went for it, rifling in one of my bags for a covert (and generous) handful of moutarde chips. It was at that moment the heel of my boot slipped and I flailed with all the groceries, my five-ten frame dangerously nearing the frozen ground, the handful of chips so close to my face I could smell the spices, now crushed to little pieces in my palm.

I had to laugh at how it must have looked. In case anyone was wondering, I am not a French woman.