I was in France earlier this year staying in a tiny village for a week. It was a beautiful part of Brittany (hard to find a "not beautiful" part mind).
I was so relaxed that I started to look for some amusement, something which would add to the experience of village life. We'd had a coffee at both tabacs (bars), we'd become best friends with the height challenged young girl in the boulangerie: "un baguette s'il vous plait".... "oui".... merci".. au revoir" "au revoir" - intimacy is simple really. It's all a matter of inflection. Anyway, for my amusement I decided to book myself in for a haircut at the local salon.........................
Le Coupe de Chapeux
I am prepared for my 10 am appointment at “Mille et une Coupes”, the village hairdresser. Clean socks and underwear, hair washed, and a fresh t-shirt. I don’t want to smell like the tourist that I am.
I’ve borrowed a French phrasebook and jotted down four phrases I hope will be useful. They’re on a piece of paper stuffed in my back pocket. As I walk from the door my head is full of useless snippets of French. “Yesterday I went to St Malo”; “Je suis Australian”; “ Next week we go to Normandie”.
Even as I run through each of these I know they are full of gaps. I don’t have any past or future tense. I have no adjectives except a few colours. No sentence is likely to be longer than 3 or 4 words. How will I fill in 30 minutes?
I think back on my most recent hairdressing experiences and reassure myself that silence is normal in the hairdressing salon. My reference point is my Vietnamese hairdresser in Brisbane where I have the same conversation each visit, sometimes repeated twice within the half hour.
The walk from our rented farmhouse takes me through a series of streets lined with planter boxes in full bloom. It’s spring.
I’ve only allowed 5 minutes to get from the outskirts of the village to the main street. My fussing over my preparations has put me under a bit of pressure. Luckily there are no traffic snarls here. I’m more likely to be confronted by a hay-baling tractor crossing between fields.
J’arrive at exactly dix heures - I am aware of the French concern with neatness and punctuality. My hand reaches for the door handle and I have a last minute urge to turn on my heel and escape. Too late, I have been spied. I push on the fading yellow door. It’s a bit sticky but responds to my gentle shove.
The hairdresser is a young woman in her early thirties. She’s thin. Glasses, conservative blouse and trousers, shoulder length blonde hair carefully coiffured. She’s with a middle aged client hair swathed in gladwrap and curlers.
We make eye contact, my apprehension reflected in her look. Bonjours exchanged I make my first attempt to use my rehearsed list of words hidden uselessly deep in the arse-end of my trousers. “Le cheveux” I say pointing to my head. She smiles, her face relaxes.
She motions me back towards the door. I’m confused. Suddenly I think I must have made some terrible mistake – perhaps I’ve come to a ladies only hairdresser or maybe there’s a special room for les hommes, a stupid thought because from here I can see the whole salon and there is no other room. I turn in a circle looking for the answer and in doing so meet a coat hanger being offered me by my host. She’s offering to take my coat. “Merci” I say, the first of my many “mercis” – my standard response to almost any enquiry or comment.
At last I’m sitting in the chair wearing a black plastic coverall. I’m feeling a little more confident after my “le cheveux” success and add “le coupe” to “de cheveux” hoping for recognition of my mastery of the word for haircut – a little superfluous given that I’m sitting in a hairdressing salon, in front of a mirror and a bench lined with combs and clippers. She looks at me blankly. We both agree to pretend not to notice this hiccup in our rapidly developing rapport.
I think she then asks me how I want my hair cut. I use my second word from my list.
“Moyen” I say.
Success! She nods and seems to understand, but while medium sounds clear enough to me she wants a little more detail. She turns to a tabletop piled with hairdressing magazines and extracts one with someone on the cover who looks like Brad Pitt. I glance in the mirror and observe that there is very little similarity between the reflected and the offered image. Now were turning pages looking at more Brad Pitts, all beautifully manicured and presented, hair cropped short and gelled, or full and perky. There’s one very gallic looking chap with long black hair tied back in a pony tail. He doesn’t look like he’ll ever need a haircut and I certainly will never have hair like his. I point at a suave image of a young man in his prime and laugh in embarrassment wondering how this weathered visage staring at me from the mirror could ever hope to look like that.
She closes the magazine. I have no idea what we have agreed upon. I sense we both share a common hope that we’ll arrive at a mutually satisfactory outcome.
We begin. She snipping, me clutching my phrasebook, searching my muddled brain for a circuit-breaking phrase which will unleash a flood of conversation. She speaks to me in French and shares a conversation over my head with her other client who is eyeing me off suspiciously. I recognise the word “Juvigne”. It’s the village we are in.
“Oui” I say. Yes we are staying in Juvigne.
“At le Rach-ait” I add. They repeat “le Rach-ait” to each other trying to figure out what I’ve just said.
“Oh, le Rachet” they finally translate. Down the hill on the right?
“Oui” I chime in.
We’re on a roll.
“Je suis Australian”, I say.
“Australienne” They repeat.
“I speak English” I say. That’s really helpful because they both agree they definitely don’t.
We try again.
“Oleedai?” asks my hairdresser using one of the four English words in her vocabulary.
“Oui, vacance” I reply taking every chance to prove my credentials as a linguist.
“Do you like Juvigne?” I think they ask.
“Oui” I reply.
“The flowers?” the older lady asks.
Yes I say and stumble around trying to search for words to add – the streets, the houses, the fields …… My head is stuffed full of English words. I want to say: “I am enjoying your village immensely, particularly the historic houses and the beautiful church, not to mention the serenity and the charming rustic village life”.
But all I can muster is another “oui” and watch myself pointing out the window and waving my hands around as if conducting the local choir.
I’ve probably insulted them because the village has made an enormous effort to create a spring display of flowers at every corner and in every street. I suspect my choir conducting hasn’t quite communicated my appreciation of this.
I mumble a few more incoherent words interspersed with the names of our hosts and add, in English, the fact that we’ll be here for another week and then go to Normandy.
I don’t now whether it’s the mention of Normandy, perhaps a great rival, or perhaps I have just managed to demonstrate that any further productive conversation will be futile, but a deep silence falls over the salon.
For a while I continue to finger the phrasebook but each heading I turn to offers no help. There are a multitude of phrases for getting a taxi, booking a hotel room, ordering in a restaurant, shopping for fruit and vegetables but, though I pore from cover to cover, nothing, absolutely no mention of conversing with a hairdresser. What a terrible oversight!
Meanwhile, my locks continue to fall, my pointy skull emerging, my face appearing younger but something tells me no Brad Pitt or Gerard Depradieu will be magically conjured from the hands of mademoiselle hairdresser.
A car horn toots. A man emerges from a delivery van across the narrow street. I notice a distracted look cross my hairdresser’s face. She is watching, perhaps even longing for the deliveryman to notice her. It occurs to me that this attractive young woman is stuck in this village of 400 people with little future. Is she a wife? Does she live with her family? How does she cope with working alone in this salon six days a week with the same ageing clients cycling through each week; the view of a cobbled street and an ancient stone wall opposite as her constant companions? I too am trapped by my language deficiency and can’t possibly begin to ask the questions which will help satisfy my curiosity.
Suddenly a familiar figure is peering through the window miming drinking a cup of coffee and giving me a thumbs up. It’s my mate Richard, come to rescue me.
We three inside laugh.
“Un café” I say
My first words in the past 15 minutes. They nod and seem to agree that this would be a good idea. A mirror appears. The back of my head is offered for inspection, a ritual the same the world over with little meaning. What can you do if you don’t like your rear view? Ask for a new one? Suggest adding some hair back to lessen the view of your rabitty ears? No need to use my third phrase, “un petit plus”, there’s nothing left to take.
I think we’re finished. She brushes loose hair from my neck. I stumble to my feet grabbing my phrase book. She offers me my jacket. I mutter my favourite double word mantra.
“Oui. Merci” I say.
I pay. We smile. Another round of “merci beaucoups” and I’m on the street.
I’m relieved. She’s relieved. The gladwrap unwinds in the window behind me.
“My name is Steve”, I think to myself in French and add “What is your name?”
It’s too late. I’ve wasted my last phrase.
I head up the hill towards the tabac to join Richard for an espresso wondering if the experience might have been different if we had known each other’s names.