With an imminent trip to the UK that would involve mixing with humans, rather than just our usual animals, I decided to take a proper look at myself in the mirror, to make sure that everything was in order. But it wasn’t. It was all rather desperate and quite a shock. The first point to notice was that I’d applied mascara to one set of eyelashes but not the other. There was little improvement elsewhere.
Doubtless the reason for this avant-garde look was because I’d been interrupted by an emergency mouse situation in our bedroom that morning. Brutus, our portly cat, had arrived triumphant with his latest trophy and dropped it at my feet. Unfortunately this dubious breakfast gift was still extremely alive, and scampered off towards the skirting boards. On hearing the pitter-patter of tiny rodent feet and Brutus lumbering after it, Aby and Max, our two Australian Shepherds thundered upstairs to join in the pursuit. The resulting affray involved Max knocking over three chairs and squashing Brutus, and Aby bashing her nose on a hot radiator. The mouse, on the other hand, had a successful morning and got clean away. So, rather than reducing the home’s rodent population Brutus, once again, had increased it. Not an unusual occurrence, but it did explain my lack of attention to cosmetic detail.
Then I looked at my hair. What a horror! I can usually fix the facial anomalies, but not the hair, so something would have to be done. Normally Jack, my husband, is quite helpful in these situations saying something supportive like, “Darling, I notice you’ve dyed your roots grey again. That must involve a lot of skill.” It’s just his subtle way of saying, “Good Lord your hair looks terrible, go and get it sorted out.” I’ve learnt to cope with his whimsical approach, and those words are my prompt to call Réne, my hairdresser. However, this time Jack had let me down. He hadn’t spotted the gradual decline of my hairstyle and colour. In any event, it was clear that something had to be done; the skill of Réne was required.
Réne used to be a rather famous hairdresser in Nice. Or so he tells me. He spent much of his time in Provence creating coiffure masterpieces for extremely rich Russian ladies who had a penchant for ‘big hair’, which included wigs and extensions. He plied his trade successfully for several years, building enormous bouffant styles, adding a splash of colour where required, and always enveloping the end result in clouds of concrete-hold spray. However, in spite of the high rates, and generous tips from grateful Slavic clients, the cost of living became too challenging, so he decided to move to a more affordable part of the country.
Réne made the right decision by moving to our part of the Midi Pyrénées in terms of the economics, but I have my doubts that his creative artistry will ever be tested in the same way here. For example, the couture ‘beehive’ style, so favoured by the Russian beauties of Provence, would be somewhat incongruous to us country folk. Our version is likely to include real creatures where, fresh from a day’s travail in the orchards and meadows, it’s fair to say that that the odd critter can become accidentally entangled in one’s locks. With a bucolic lifestyle that involves the tending of farm animals and heady trips to the market, we have no need for sophistication. Rather, the demands for one’s hairdo in these situations are short (ideally), neat (if possible) styles that can be trapped by a scarf or cap. Poor Réne. It’s a bit like asking Rachmaninov to play “Chopsticks.”
However there is one area where, as far as I’m concerned, Réne can exercise all of his skills, and that’s on the application of colour.
I’m saddled with a head of unfortunate wispy hair that, at best, can be described as ‘mousey’ in colour. Neither a lustrous brown nor a radiant blonde, it is bleakly uninteresting. To make matters worse, as I have become older several strands of whitish-grey have started to appear, which has resulted in a down-grading of the shade to a somewhat dire ‘salt n’ pepper’. Over the years I have been to numerous hairdressers to have it coloured, but often with decidedly dodgy results. Favouring ‘streaks’ rather than ‘full head’ coverage, I’ve watched the ‘specialists’ at work, slogging away with rolls of bacofoil binding up locks of hair with dubious colours. The outcome has been much expenditure by me, with often highly questionable results.
I have regularly come away with colours that ranged from brassy blonde to purple-black, and once it had a distinctly pink tinge. Although, in that instance the hairdresser told me that it was really red, and that I was getting mixed up because I was colour-blind. But then I hadn't asked for red, or pink.
So you can imagine my excitement when I came across Réne, who turned out to be an expert ‘colour technician’. For years now he has saved me from my natural shades, transforming them into an acceptable mix of dark-blondish which has given me a nice natural look. So, in need of a quick fix, I reached for the phone to make my appointment at the new salon he had recently moved to. Its name is ‘Paul Lacoste’.
With only a window of one day to get my hair revived and a ton of things still to do, I asked the receptionist for an early appointment to make sure I had Réne’s undivided attention. Her response was not what I wanted to hear.
Receptionist: “Madame I am sorry but it is not possible to book an appointment. You must come and wait your turn.”
Me: “Oh dear, but why? I have always been able to make an appointment before.”
Receptionist: “Not here madame, our clients always have to come and wait their turn. This way we do not waste any time if ladies do not arrive for their appointments.”
The girl did have a point. It was, after all, the first time I’d been to this new salon, and I hadn’t been aware of their irritating system. I tried again.
Me: “Right, well never mind. Could you please tell me when Réne starts work so I can come in early to see him? I need to have my hair cut and coloured.”
Receptionist: “Réne madame? I am sorry we do not have a Réne working here.”
Me: “Yes, actually you do, he started work with you last month.”
There was an abrupt silence on the other end of the phone which was interrupted by a furious ruffling of papers then:
Receptionist: “Ah yes, but no madame you cannot.”
Me: “But why not?”
Receptionist: “Because he is on holiday for two weeks madame.”
Momentary floored by this bombshell, and with no time at all to make other arrangements, I took my heart into my hands.
Me: “Okay, well can you tell me when Monsieur Lacoste starts work please? I will try to have an appointment with him instead.”
Receptionist: “We do not have a Monsieur Lacoste working here madame.”
This was becoming tedious.
Me: “But he is the owner of the salon isn’t he?”
Receptionist: “Ah no madame, haha! There are many salons with this name. Perhaps you want Michael (which sounded like Mick-I-L). He can help you. He begins work at 9.00am.”
Me: “Right, very good, I’ll be there early.”
And so, with great trepidation, I arrived outside the salon bright and early for my non-appointment. It was with a total unknown, and I hoped against hope that I wouldn’t come out with a head of purple hair.
There was only one man with a pair of scissors in his hand so I concluded that it must be Mick-I-L. First impressions were somewhat disconcerting. It wasn’t the fact that he was dressed top-to-toe in black that worried me; it was his own hairstyle. He was completely shaven either side of his head, leaving a thick band of dark brown hair which ran from front to back. This section was rather long and pointy at the top, and obvious care had been taken to make sure that it lay exactly as intended. I felt it probably needed regular care and attention. As he turned his face towards me, his Mohican strip bouncing gently, my eye was then drawn to his moustache. In any other country I might have ventured to suggest that it was a little on the large side, primarily because it flared out either side of his nose like flippers. But, here in France, it would undoubtedly be considered a magnificent feat of facial hair growth. It was clear that Mick-I-L was extremely proud of it.
Luckily he was nearly ready for me and I watched nervously as he splashed a few more splodges of extra brown hair dye on a lady who had clearly asked for her ears to be coloured with the same tint. I made a mental note to for ask mine to be left out. Mick-I-L then set an egg timer, popped it onto his client’s lap and floated across the room towards me, gesturing at a vacant chair.
I always find the conversation with one’s hairdresser about styles and colour an uncomfortable one. Firstly you have to stare at yourself in the mirror, a pastime that I generally prefer to avoid. Then you have to find new and inventive words to describe the impossible. My hair is never ever going to look as I would wish, so I always end up saying things like, “I know it’s not possible to….but…” or, “Could you try to make it look something like….” These tricky considerations are even harder to convey in French. I thought about pulling out a photograph of a beauty with a fabulous hairstyle that I thought would suit me, but I decided not to because of the incident that followed the last time I'd tried. The stylist had barely suppressed a guffaw and then proceeded to give me 16 or so reasons why this couldn’t ever be possible. So, instead, I bumbled away in French attempting to explain what needed to be done with the cut and colour.
The first problem was that while Mick-I-L made a play at being interested in what I was saying, he was actually staring adoringly at himself in the mirror. Part of me was impressed by this because he was able to waft his comb in my general direction without poking me in the eye, as he described the wonderful things he was about to do. He even managed to lift a lock or two of my hair as he talked about colour, but I think we both knew that he was simply killing time before the next moment of his own personal grooming was due.
Luckily for me, Réne had a file for each of his clients, so after several fruitless goes at telling Mick-I-L my name I grabbed a pen and paper and wrote it down for him. Furnished with this information he flounced off to his cabinet and produced a sheet of paper containing a list that looked to me like a chemistry experiment. Apparently colours come in codes these days, and mine was on it. After the swiftest of glances at my hair Mick-I-L sucked his teeth and decided that I must have a ‘full head’ and shot off to a back room to prepare his equipment. This gave me the opportunity to have a quick look around the salon. I was alarmed to see that the lady who was having colour applied when I arrived now had nut-brown ears, and the place was filling up rapidly. With no other stylist in evidence, and a zero tolerance attitude towards the making of appointments, I feared that we may end up with customer chaos.
Mick-I-L eventually trundled back, pushing a trolley laden with paint pots, and a suspiciously stiff-looking Mohican strip. Then, with commendable dexterity, he managed to continue to stare fixedly at himself, whilst simultaneously applying two different chemicals to my hair, one lock at a time.
There were three reasons why this took an inordinately long time to complete. First, every time a new client came in Mick-I-L downed tools and said ‘Bonjour’, as we all did. This is customary in our part of France and one of the things we love about living here, although on this particular occasion it was a nicety I could have done without. The next challenge was that by the time he was halfway through painting my hair, he had racked up three more clients. This meant he had to flip between each of us attempting to attend to each customer’s needs without getting us mixed up. At this stage I still hadn’t seen lady number one at the basins and felt sure her hair must be dreadfully dark by now. But then, I mused, perhaps she liked the roast-chestnut-cum-teak look.
The final problem involved the cotton wool. Mick-I-L’s favoured method of hair colouring was to use rolls of cling film to trap each painted tress, separated by a sausage of cotton wool. Unfortunately his cotton wool sausage-making capacity was rather limited which meant he had to make frequent trips back to the paint room for further supplies. Each time he re-appeared his hair looked extra perky leading me to suspect that it was all an excuse to re-peak his pride and joy.
Nearly two hours later Mick-I-L announced to himself in the mirror that the job was done and would I like to read a magazine. By this stage I was mentally exhausted and would have preferred a nap, but I grabbed a copy of Belle Santé (Good Health) wishing that I felt the same.
Mid-morning came and went and I was still cooking. The salon had now transformed into a mine-field with timers detonating on clients’ laps. This caused Mick-I-L’s Mohican to wobble as he exploded in a flurry of movement, flying between each person, punching the ‘off’ button on their laps. Wary of this manoeuvre, I’d taken the precaution of putting mine on the ledge in front of me, hoping that he wouldn’t head-butt the mirror in his enthusiasm to extinguish the ping. After nearly two hours of this, and several re-timings, I was strongly considering taking the colour off myself when Mick-I-L spun across the room with somebody else’s hairdryer in his hand and announced that I was done. Melanie (the hair washing girl) was instructed to wash my hair and I rose stiffly to join her at the basins.
As one might expect, with so many cotton wool sausages in my hair and enough cling film to cover a double bed, it took a while to remove it all. Melanie then proceeded to shampoo my hair, not once but three times. Nothing if not thorough I thought. Then I heard Mick-I-L shout from across the room. Melanie loomed over my nostrils and said, “Massage madame.” This came out more as an instruction than a question so I nodded with grace, hoping my neck could stand the backward bent position that is favoured in most hair salons, and the Tower of London. I needn’t have worried. For the next ten minutes Melanie proceeded to treat me to the most wonderful massage I have ever had. The clamouring sounds of pings and dings coming from the various timers just faded into the background, and my frustration melted away as I luxuriated in this soporific experience. She finally finished, and I sat there dreamily, ready to accept anything that came my way. I peered lazily across to Mick-I-L who was zipping between even more clients, perhaps a little less dapper now, nevertheless still filled with enthusiasm. Then I saw lady number one at the till and to my happy surprise realised that her hair looked very nice indeed. Even her ears had been restored to their normal colour. But the dings continued to sound relentlessly and I feared that Mick-I-L was beginning to show signs of strain. With scissors still flashing around with commendable speed it seemed, however, that there hadn’t been any recent requests for colour. Mick-I-L’s Mohican was beginning to sag.
I was just recovering from my dopey state when he looked towards me and shrieked, “Massage!” I felt he couldn’t mean me but wasn’t easily able to move my now U-shaped neck to see if I had company at the basins. Mick-I-L bounded up behind me grabbed my head, slapped more slippery stuff on my hair and began another massage. I made a feeble attempt at reminding him that I’d already had one, but ended up mumbling unintelligibly as the relaxing movement of this de-stressing manipulation overcame me.
A further ten minutes later and Mick-I-L announced that it was now time to cut and dry my hair. By this time I was so floppy I could barely move. Incapable of speech, and with all previous thoughts of time wasting completely forgotten, I slithered off the chair and staggered back to my seat.
Time really was getting on now, and even Mick-I-L had finally realised that he needed to crack on with things. With a mastery of multi-tasking genius he managed to say his ‘Bonjours’ and ‘Au revoirs’ to other clients whilst simultaneously cutting my hair, glancing worriedly at his Mohican and checking his moustache. He also found time to give me a lecture on the type of shampoo and conditioner I must use which was parfait for damaged, brittle hair. How kind.
I finally left the salon a little after 4.00pm. Remarkably, my new colour looked great, and I was very pleased with the style he had cut. How he had managed all this whilst mainly looking at his own hair, rather than mine, I’ll never know. But I was very grateful. And after all that time and effort did my husband notice? Not a chance!