What Is It About Paris?

Renee C. Johnson

© Copyright 2010 by  Renee Johnson

Photo courtesy of Pexels.

Photo courtesy of Pexels.

What is it about Paris that makes us act differently than we would in any other city in the world? Is it confidence, artistic muse, history? I can’t quite put my finger on it, but whenever I am in the city of light, I just become someone else.

Take for instance my most recent trip there in October of this year. Normally cautious and awash in southern American sensibilities, I hailed my own taxis, ordered meals in French and only paused at the hungry mouth of the metro entrance before dashing headlong into its belly knowing full well that terrorists were threatening attacks and if the blast didn’t get me, then surely I would suffocate beneath the rubble if such a threat were carried out. But this was Paris, so the rules were different. I would be OK with whatever happened in Gare St. Lazare, but not in staying in my hotel room or spending my brief time there waiting for cabs and sitting in traffic. I wasn’t alone. The train cars were full of people with similar thought processes. It seemed somewhat like a bonding experience as we looked into each other’s eyes, sizing up our neighbors in the seats next to us or standing by the door. A jolt, a loud noise, and we were all tensing just enough to show through thick facades of French stoicism.

I asked the concierge at the Concorde Opera, the hotel I was staying in, to recommend a place for a manicure and to secure an appointment. My nails were showing wear and tear from lugging heavy bags and zipping and unzipping my security pouch for passport and cash. He found a fast appointment at Joffos, just down the street and to the left of the hotel. I was ushered in, coat removed by the doorman, and seated at the manicure station of a lovely young French/Chinese girl who was still at university but working here for her parents who own the salon. (You find these things out while your gnarly nails are being exposed, perhaps in an effort to defray their hideousness.)

Suddenly there is a gasp. Everyone turns to look. A tall, thin, long-haired, outrageous Brazilian with an orange scarf knotted around his slender neck, has a message for someone.

You must have your hair done!” he announces.

We look around. I am at the window. There is no one else to whom he can be speaking. I try to locate someone else to put this declaration on. It is useless.

You there,” he says, clearly pointing at me, “you will have your hair cut, yes!”

It is not a question. It is a statement; a declaration. In a sudden flashback I am in my hairdressers’ chair at home in North Carolina. She has just convinced me to let my hair grow out. No one has touched my locks except for her in at least ten years. It seems like adultery to even consider cheating on her.

But…my hair is curly, really curly,” I stammer, thinking he can’t possibly know this as I spend hours blowing it out every single day. The sudden dampness from quick autumn showers has caused it to become quite frizzy though, a telltale sign.

The lady in the chair next to me says, “He’s Brazilian, he knows how to deal with curly hair.” She is draped in the black cape that can only mean she is either a customer or Batman’s wife. Perhaps the Brazilian called in reinforcements to convince me that I must not continue to pollute the city streets with my hideous appearance. “Besides,” she continues, “it’s only hair. It will grow back if you don’t like it.”

The hair gods have conspired against me and won. The whole salon is cheering me on. I think I hear the theme from ‘Chariots of Fire’ playing in the background. I have no choice; I relent.

They do not wait for me to change my mind. I may as well go to the wash station while the last coat of French manicure pink is drying over the bright white tips hand painted on my nails by the manicurist. She treats it like a work of art; fusses over my attempt to don the cape, making sure my nails are not nicked thus ruining her fine work.

After the shampoo, which I must admit was relaxing, I sit in the Brazilian’s chair.

My name is Roberto,” he says, but with his thick accent and rolling ‘r’ sounds, I mistake it as ‘Humberto’.

No,” he corrects, “Humberto.”

I am never able to hear the difference, but he hands me his card and I see it there, ‘Roberto’. He begins to remind me of Edward Scissorhands, quickly pulling up strands of my wet locks and snipping them so deftly that the scissors seem to become part of his fingers. He runs the snips in and out, angling the edges. On the floor, my locks are spiraling into their native curls as they dry. He parts my hair to one side, then the other. My crown is slightly off center, so a side part works best. He reaches this same conclusion and begins to blow dry the short mass, working expertly with the round brush in one hand, the dryer in the other. He loops the dryer’s nozzle over the shock of hair he is working with, holding it up as he weaves the brush back underneath. Amazingly, he neither pulls, nor scratches my scalp, but he works like a madman. He is also singing “Girl from Ipanema” the entire time.

His cut has framed my face beautifully. I feel amazing! I look younger! He is a genious.

It isn’t until I get back to the hotel that it dawns on me that I must face my own hairdresser at home and confess my sin of not only letting another handle my locks, but in breaking our commitment to growing my hair out. Quelle horror! What will she say?
Guilt washes over me in buckets. Will she understand that it only happened once and that it was in Paris? That it meant nothing? That we do things in Paris that we wouldn’t normally do anywhere else? That my frayed, frizzy ends were repulsing the entire city so much that they conspired to convince me to act out? That I faced the threat of death in the metro, thus causing me to become reckless?

I’ll deal with that when I get home, I say to myself, in some kind of Scarlet O’Hara way that southern girls have been trying to get away from for years. It is convenient to pull out of the bag of tricks when you need it though.

Throwing caution to the wind, I eat carbs. Yes, bread, potatoes, pastries. Those seventeen pounds that I recently shed be damned. I am in Paris with a new haircut and French manicure, I may as well eat cake. Take that Marie Antoinette!

It really could be the revolution. The streets fill with angry youngsters protesting the proposed retirement age hike. Being from America, I don’t think sixty-two sounds bad, but they apparently aren’t taking it well. They seem very orderly though and I snap a few photos.

Strikes on refineries deplete the supply of gas and the trains and buses select more days to strike. Everybody ends up at the Musee d’Orsay on the same day. Where else are they going to go? I weave through the crowds and find a painting that speaks to me; Alphonsine by Renoir. She is my alter ego, the one who allows me to do such things as cut my hair and knot scarves around my neck while throwing out words in French that sound like someone else is spewing them.

I’ve come to Paris via Essoyes, France, where I attended a writing workshop. This village was one of Renoir’s homes, having married a local woman, and both are buried there in their little cemetery full of war heroes and local denizens. My room at the Hotel Les Canotiers was named Alphonsine and a reproduction of her hung in my room. She allowed me to share my prose and attempts at humor. She watched over me at night. Suddenly, I am here in her regal presence, the hands of Renoir leaving little brush strokes that disappear into a full canvas of certainty. She seems to be traveling with me; coming from Essoyes to Paris with me. Knowing she is here makes me feel better. If only I had some eppoisses cheese and a peach kir that Jacky Chenut, owner of Hotel Les Canotiers had prepared for me. C’est la vie!

I have met a countess. She doesn’t tell me that she is a countess, but when she gives me her husband’s card in order for me to have her address, his name is preceded with Comte. My French skills are limited but I recall that clearly as “count”, thus making her a countess. She has invited me to her lovely apartment for a kir (prepared the proper way with cassis) and then to lunch at her favorite bistro. It is in the seventh arrondisement, a Napoleonic unit of beautiful golden stone that is currently being pressured washed to restore its glow. She knows tidbits about every building; what the year stamp means on a stone, that the engraving on another is the architects’ mark. She is delightful! At seventy, she is everything I hope to be as I age, elegant, sophisticated, enthusiastic, and fit. We reach her third floor unit via an antique elevator with an accordion door. It only adds to the charm. The interior is furnished with antiques including a French tapestry of the battle of Troy. After the aperitif we walk just down the street to an amazing corner with the Eiffel Tower on one side and the Golden Dome of Napoleon’s Tomb on the other. She takes my picture at both sides, trying to get the sun’s reflection on the dome which she assures me is breathtaking. Then we proceed to Bristro De Breteuil, her favorite. It is magic. Once again I’m doing things that I would only do in Paris, having another kir, sharing a bottle of white wine with the countess, eating foie gras, grilled sole, chocolate gateau and an entire basket of bread! This is all before two in the afternoon.

Ah, but we walk it off. We walk through the shopping district finding specialty shops in everything from re-caning chair bottoms to chocolates being made from the actual cacao beans, to triple collar men’s shirts, to Chinese décor. Then, suddenly, like the end of a rainbow where the pot of gold has been waiting, is Le Bon Marche. We run in like two children into a fountain on a hot sunny day. Give Liza Minelli her eyelashes and glitter gowns, Liz Taylor diamonds, but give the countess and me purple cauliflower and Italian truffles, a cheese shop that smells like a tangy dairy, hearty textured bread and fat chickens with their gnarly feet still attached. She says she would have loved for me to experience the outdoor market that comes to her section of town but it is there on Thursdays and I fly out of Paris on Thursday morning.

I have experienced the beauty of the Parisian outdoor markets before and I am smitten with them. On the left bank, in St. Germain, I witnessed my first outdoor market. Oh, the excitement! I’ll never forget the baskets of snails and scallops still in their shells; the rabbits lying deflated as if still asleep in the butcher’s case, the pungent tubs of spices, the glorious flowers, ducks arranged in rosettes with their beaks tucked under their wings, vintage clothing hanging beneath a canopy should a sudden rain shower sprinkle down, vagabonds roasting chestnuts over a barrel, the smell of smoke and coffee infiltrating my senses. It is still ablaze in my memory as clear as the day I experienced it.

My taxi is cancelled on the very morning I need to get to the airport. The concierge is apologizing profusely. He doesn’t know what to do. He can’t get another and all of the taxis for his guests have been canceled due to strikes and scarcity of gasoline. The metro is on strike and the buses may or may not be operating, I never quite understood. Ambiguity is definitely a French prerogative. Suddenly, as if a chariot dropped from the heavens, a taxi appears for no one in particular. I grab it and he agrees to take me to the airport. I try to stall him so that others may share this opportunity but the only people who are up and packed are headed in another direction and he is very nervous, keeps saying we must hurry. Protestors have set cars on fire. He doesn’t want to get caught crossing the picket line. He gets me to the right terminal and gives me the broad smile of an angel when I give him a tip. We bestow blessings on each other as we part.

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