Love and truth at the beauty parlour
It’s rare, in Paris, to get a warm welcome. Shopkeepers are indifferent. Waiters are hollow-eyed and perfunctory. The ladies who give facials are sometimes nice but so full of severe admonishment on the state of your skin their kindness gets lost in the lecture. Even close friends prefer to interact with cool detachment, a slight, always-there irony that lands on your cheek like the briefest kiss. In Paris, I constantly am reminded that blasé is not just a French word, it’s a way of life.
But as I have learned there are exceptions, small pockets of warmth where Parisians can shake off the indifference. There is the local cafe, where the owner will plunk down a café allongee and talk about politics. Pharmacists are lovely, remembering the names of your children and your ailments. But best of all are the hairdressers, people so strong and kind they recall gentle love after a visit from the Visigoths.
“I love my hairdresser so much,” says my friend Zoe, fighting tears. “I am so lucky to have found him.”
The hairdresser-client relationship is by definition highly charged because this is a culture in which beauty is not just prized, it is honored. Every couple of years France’s mayors chose a new Marianne, a woman whose face represents the spirit of the revolution. Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve have been models and even intellectuals weigh in on the decision. When talk show host Evelyne Thomas was chosen several years ago, there were op-eds in Le Monde about it.
Men want to look good too (more on that later) but sometimes it feels like France’s honor lies in the loveliness of its women. Women smoke to keep thin. Skin care sales in France remain the strongest in Europe. Most famously French women spend roughly 17 percent of their clothing budget on lingerie.
Somehow, amidst all this pressure, the beauty salon has emerged as a safe zone. It is a place where French women, who never let their guard down, do, for a moment, let their guard down. They slump in the big chairs. They pick up a copy of the glossy tabloid Gala. They stand outside the salon with foil in their hair, smoking cigarettes and gabbing on the phone. It is as though the awkwardness of of the situation has released them from the strictures of beauty. There is no way to be stunning in a nylon smock, so, gratefully, no one tries.
Antoine de Paris, coiffeur to Coco Chanel
Such is the allure that, although I have never been particularly focused on my own beauty, I now have two hair dressers. There is Yasmin who babbles on in her husky smokers voice and does a pretty good 15 euro blowout. Then there is Jerome my visagiste, a professional who matches ones facial structure to ones hairstyle. He is more of a tough love kind of guy.
“You want what?” he shrieked recently.
“I want to cut it all off,” I said.
“All of it?” he asked running his hands over my head protectively.
Jerome works in a posh hair salon near Place Vendome and in the French way of service expects me prostrate myself before his expertise. Yet, he also is a consummate professional. Once I had a wedding in Beirut and he shellacked my hair with so much hairspray it survived a four-hour flight, the rehearsal dinner, a rainstorm and the wedding. He looks at me now like a man betrayed.
“If I cut it short you will go home and decide you don’t like it,” he said.
“I’m not like that,” I responded, honestly hurt.
Under any other circumstances this calm, but pointed exchange would draw attention. If it were a clothing store, for example, customers would look furtively and smile into the clothing racks. But this was a hair salon with its mysterious geniality. Suddenly the woman in the chair next to me leaned over to offer her thoughts.
“Have you talked to your husband about this?” she asked, waving her rolled up magazine around the top of my head like a wand.
“That’s because he wouldn’t like it,” said Jerome merrily. “All American men like women with the long hairs.”
“Ah,” said the woman to Jerome. “He might like it.” Then she patted me on the shoulder as though I were her slightly dim niece. “Try it,” she added warmly. ”You know, the thing about hair is it grows.”
A possible theory is that the French aren’t actually that off-putting, but that I, as an American, expect to feel mindlessly welcomed wherever I go. That I am thrown when the waiter at Pain Quotidian doesn’t smile at my kid or when the stranger in the elevator doesn’t wish me a good weekend. On one hand these small, spontaneous, possibly fake, but who really cares social interactions oil the wheels of life. But on the other who wants to go around town grinning at strangers like the village idiot?
Besides when kindness comes it is all the sweeter for its rarity. My eyes brim with gratitude. I nod to Jerome and he begins the task of cutting off all my hair. When he is finished, it is, in fact, very short but I sort of like it. He looks at me and says, “It’s cute. Cute.” That’s about it. He is not about to toot his own horn.
I stand up and the woman in the chair next to me shakes her head. “I don’t know,” she says. “It was nice before.” But then as though remembering she is in a hair salon finishes the thought. “It looks modern.”
I shake my head. In France, even in the hair salon, where the truth is somewhat gentler, it always comes out.
Me, after the cut
Getting your hair done in Paris
The French have a reputation for messy, slightly oily hair and it’s totally unjustified. Women in my neighborhood are coiffed, and even in the more bohemian areas of Paris pony tales and updoes tend to be carefully thought out.
Coloré par Rodolphe. 26-28 Rue Danielle Casanova, Paris. This is where I go. They do a nice job with cuts, less so with color.
If you really care about your hair and you really want to spend some serious money I recommend Christophe Robin in the Hotel Meurice. They do a great job.
For a run of the mill blow-out Vog, salon de coiffure, does a fine job and you can usually walk in and be served right away, which is relatively rare in France.
For children’s cuts we go to to Bruno Liénard. 7 Rue Comaille, 75007, Paris. He is so wonderful with children, kind and patient and he take reservations through his Web Site. Buyer beware, a kids cut is 29 euros. Also great for kids is Bonton, 5 Boulevard des Filles du Calvaire, 75003, Paris.