Getting a haircut in France

While some kids were opening up their French textbooks in the days before we left for Paris, I did some auto-didactic learning about Paris through American and French films. And maybe it’s because all of the actresses in American films about France—Kate Hudson in Le Divorce, Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina and Funny Face—all got these terrific, life-changing makeovers.

And I wanted that to happen to me, little ole Alissa, in real life, in real time, in real Paris, in a real salon.

When I had to fill out applications asking me what I hoped to accomplish in Paris, I would always right that I hoped to be fluent enough to get my haircut in a French salon and only speak French to give directions.

I waited until the last week to do it, but I finally got my French makeover experience.

I wish I had started earlier, though. The one makeover place—that actually gives hair and makeup makeovers, not just haircuts—didn’t have any openings until after Christmas, so my friend Lily will able to get her France’s Next Top Model experience then since she’s staying the whole term. After that, I found out that two other hair academies were on vacation, so there weren’t any students to give me free hair cuts, and three other academies or salons were booked until after Christmas. So I was all the way down on the bottom of the list when I called this one academy that only offered haircuts, no colors, and made you pay 10 euros.

Asking for the makeover was half of the problem. All of the places had advertisements for “models” so whenever I asked I would have to say, “Um, yes, hi, I would like to be a model?” and that’s an awkward sentence to say in English, let alone French! For the first two places I tried, I walked in there with the list of some random blog’s recommendations for cheap hair makeovers, so I would say “I would like to be a model” but also point to their spot on the list to have backup. But once I got tired of running around Paris, I ended up just calling these places and having to explain myself in French. And then listen to their rejection in French.

But finally, I found a place and got a time slot. I just said I wanted to be a model and the woman on the other end of the phone knew exactly what I meant—“Of course, come in at 11 on Monday” she said, “Au Revoir!”

Well, that was easy, I thought to myself as I listened to the dial tone. I hope that’s a good sign of what’s to come.

It kind of was.

For starters, I showed up at the place with Lily, and there really wasn’t a reception area or a front desk when we immediately walked in, so we were being awkward and they were being blasé French right from the get go. But once we were ushered it, it seemed like in the next minute I confirmed my arrival, paid 10 euros, gave them my coat, put on my cotton bathrobe (and it’s sash—can’t forget the sash), and was sitting in a chair.

The first thing I noticed was that there were all old ladies with grey hair getting their hair cut.

Not the most promising sight.

The "Before." DUH DUH DUH.

The “Before.” DUH DUH DUH.

And my student haircut guy (never got his name and he never asked for mine) was this tiny Asian guy with beautiful, delicate features and a tiny black soul patch. He was wearing black cargo pants that did the whole zip-off-shorts thing … which he paired with pointy black dress shoes.

Again, not the most promising sight. This was, after all, the guy who would ultimately be responsible for my style.

I’ve gotten my hair cut at beauty schools before, so I wasn’t surprised when an older guy wearing nicer black shirts and nicer black swishy pants (swishy pants! Really! With black dress shoes!) came over and started asking my little Asian haircut guy where my split ends were and where the dead, dry hair ended and where the highlights ended.

I was a human pop quiz, y’all.

The instructor had fantastically shiny Disney prince shoulder-length hair, which I got to admire while he got all up in my face and studied me for a couple seconds, looking at me from every angle and even picking out a strand of hair and twisting it between his fingers. I really wasn’t kidding about being a human pop quiz.

“This is your first time here, right?” he asked once he moved out of my personal bubble.

“Of course,” I answered.

“But you know what we do here, right?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, “I do.” Believe me, I do.

“Great. Ok, okay,” he said, and then looked over to little hair cut guy. “It will be the ends. But now, shampooing!”

The little hair cut guy, who literally has only said “come” to me by this point, said it again and gestured towards the sink area.

Shampooing? We’re not discussing my haircut? I wondered as I followed him.

Lily, who had been awkwardly waiting in the non-waiting area, hissed, “So what’s up? What are they doing?” when I shuffled by her.

“I have no idea. I think they’re only cutting a little,” I whispered, which was ridiculous because no one had given any indication that they spoke English.

“All right, I’m gonna go to Starbucks. Text me when you’re almost done,” she whispered back, and then she was gone and haircut guy was impatiently pointing at the chair in front of the sink.

I sat down in the shampoo chair and closed my eyes as he wordlessly rinsed my hair with warm water. That, I was used to. But the shampoo was freezing, the equivalent of being sprayed with freezing cold water—which I know because my hair was rinsed off with freezing cold water, which has never happened in a hair salon. And, even worse, I was done after the shampoo. No conditioner. And with my thick curly hair, let me tell ya, you need the conditioner. Especially if you’re going to be brushing it afterwards.

I did not make any friends.

I did not make any friends.

Aiiiiight, it’s your funeral, I thought as I followed him back to the chair.

When I was seated, he started combing—not brushing—my hair. Now, my hair was in its normal crazy curly state when I came in, so he should have known what he was working with. He didn’t even spray a detangling spray or anything!

It really was his funeral—and mine; his was going to be death by hand exhaustion and mine was going to be death my embarrassment.

But in reality, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. There were a couple tugs and a couple knots, but nothing I couldn’t handle (or hadn’t already handled in previous trips to the salon). Usually during the brushing part of the hair cut experience, the stylist always says something like “You have so much hair!” that is meant to be positive but really isn’t.

I didn’t hear it this time—but I’m not 100 percent sure that’s because of just the language barrier. My haircut guy wasn’t that social and didn’t ever interact with the other haircut girls; while I was waiting for my hair to dry, he just leaned against a table and flipped through a magazine.

So he brushed my hair and starts sectioning it off in clips and I started to get excited. I still wasn’t really sure I completely understood what the instructor said they were going to do to me, but I signed up to get a surprising makeover, didn’t I? So I watched the little haircut guy in the mirror as he … started cutting off maybe two inches of hair. And that was it. Every section he took down, he’d cut just my split ends off.

And when your hair is as long as mine was, it really isn’t that much—and definitely not enough to count as a real French makeover.

I was trying to quietly not freak out about how small my French makeover would be when the haircut guy called over the instructor. Shit, I thought, that means he’s done and wants to get approval.

Haircut guy says something to me, and I just have no idea what he’s asking. I was so surprised he said something other than “Come” or “Sit” that I forgot to pay attention and there weren’t any context clues words to help me figure out what he just said. I heard “right” and “left” but don’t know anything else.

“What?” I asked.

He kind of hits my knee—not hard, but in an oddly familiar kind of way. It’s the kind of smack you’d give to a friend if she was talking about someone and that person just walked in. A “hey, pay attention” smack, if you will.

And then it clicks. He wants me to uncross my legs for the instructor. Sheesh. But I do it.

Disney hair prince comes over. He snips some pieces, measures the bottoms of the front pieces, and walks around in a circle. “Nice work,” he finally says to haircut guy, and then looks down at me. “C’est tout,” he tells me—“That’s all.”

I looked at the mirror, at my reflection, at my barely noticeable haircut, and muster up all of the French haggling vocabulary and courage that I can muster.

Little haircut guy and Disney hair prince. And me, crossing my knees like an oaf.

Little haircut guy and Disney hair prince. And me, crossing my legs like an oaf.

Non, ce n’est pas tout,” I said—“No, that’s not all.”

Disney hair prince raised his eyebrows, or at least I think that’s what’s going on under the heavy bangs. “You don’t like it?’ he asked.

“No, I do,” I earnestly told him him, even turning and giving haircut guy a smile.

How do I say this? And not get like the salon equivalent of the restaurant spit trick? “But I signed up to be a model. I want … a new identity.”

Why the hell didn’t I look up the French word for “makeover” I yelled at myself. Or at least make sure there’s a ‘France’s Next Top Model’ with the drastic makeovers. 

They didn’t look that confused by my sudden spy lingo. “You have a new identity, and it is beautiful,” Disney hair prince tells me, gently brushing my hair as he points at my reflection in the mirror.

I’m almost tempted to pick up the scissors and hack off some hair just to get this moving. “Yes, it’s beautiful, but I wanted a good French haircut for when I leave to go to America next week,” I said.

This is diplomacy at its finest, kiddos.

Disney hair prince taps his lips. “Okay, then,” he says, and leans forward in front of me, his eyes meeting mine in the mirror. He takes out his comb and starts brushing my hair so it’s covering my face. And it isn’t until he’s reaching for the scissors and taking a clump of hair that I realize what he’s going to do. And by then it’s—

“Say goodbye to your forehead,” he says, and cuts through what used to be the sides of my hair like he’s cutting a paper snowflake.

What a lame reference to “Say hello to my little friend,” is my first thought.

And then I realized, Holy shit I have bangs now. 

New identity, indeed.

Beetlegeuse hairdryers!

Beetlegeuse hairdryers!

“Eh?” Disney hair prince says, smiling and holding the handful of hair that he just cut off.

“It’s perfect,” I say, grinning. Bangs. Bangs. Okay. I have bangs.

“Perfect,” he grins back, and then walks away, still holding the handful of my hair.

I tried not to think about why he would need that hair as haircut guy steps in to trim the bangs.

Haircut guy burns holes into my eyes as he snips snips snips and I’m not sure if it’s because of concentration or he’s pissed that he has to do more work. He cuts off another four inches of hair now, almost for the hell of it.

My hair is now shoulder-length and shorter than it’s been since … elementary school, when I cut my hair to make my growing-out-my-bangs stage complete. It’s kind of a Bettie Page kind of look … if Bettie Page had thick curly blonde hair that was brushed out Hermione Granger style

Now that I got the haircut out of the way, I’m looking forward to the finishing. I didn’t bring a hair dryer or straightener over with me, and I didn’t buy any either. It’s the first time in four months that I will have straight hair and I’m stupidly, superficially excited to remember what my hair looks like straight and compare it to what it will look like straight now. I’m already trying to guess if the blowdry process of the hair cut will be shorter than what it usually is, now that there’ll be less hair.

I don’t find out. Little haircut boy tells me “come” and “sit” at this Medusa lamp-looking chair. It’s like a chair from Beetlegeuse with big red light bulbs coming out of its arms. He turns on a button when I sit down and I immediately feel heat coming out. So it’s a dryer, I think—the kind of dryer you’re supposed to sit under if you got your hair colored.

And so I just sit there for the next twenty minutes or so. No magazines are even in sight, except for the one haircut boy is lazily reading. Lily left to go to a Starbucks and work on a paper, so I amuse myself by texting her I think I’m almost ready. I tell her I got bangs and shorter hair, but that’s it.

My hair is going to look horrible, I think. Like I said, I have thick curly hair, and whenever you brush curly hair you’re going to brush out the curls and be left with these kind of thick, frizzy strands. Pre-haircut, I would brush my hair maybe once a week, and even then it’s before I would take a shower. I get Hermione Granger hair if I brush my hair. And now, they brushed my hair and then threw me under a dryer, so I just know it’s not going to be a good hair day even though I went to a salon.

The "after" pic I took at home, not at the salon.

The “after” pic I took at home, not at the salon.

This kind of pisses me off, but not enough to speak up. I did pay for a haircut, so maybe a blowdry is extra? Or isn’t guaranteed? There’s a small part of me hoping that they did this just to get the hair dry before they style it, but that part withers and dies when haircut guy finally gets me—“Your hair’s dry, right?”—and shuffles me over to where Disney hair prince is combing the hair of a beautiful elderly French woman with a sleek, thick shoulder-length bob.

Lily’s arrived at this time, and she’s smiling at my hair and telling me I look good and taking pictures. And I feel good and confident about the haircut, just not about what they did with my hair after it was shorn. I kind of hope Disney hair prince will be my Prince Charming and say I’m fit for a blowdry now.

Disney hair prince gives me the once-over. He half-smiles and then turns to his client. “This is what I am going to do. Your hair is thick like hers, so it will puff out too”—or, at least I imagine that’s what he’s saying, because I understand up until the “thick like hers” and then he mimes having puffy hair and I try not to get insulted.

“Yes, I love it. It’s pretty,” she says, looking at haircut guy and not me, so I’m not exactly sure who she’s complimenting.

“Great. Thank you,” Disney hair prince says, dismissing me with a flick of his comb. I wonder if it’s the same comb he used on my hair as I follow haircut guy back to the chair.

“Thank you. Have a nice day,” he tells me, and then practically runs away from me down a random corridor.

“Thanks…?” I call out after him, watching him walk away.

I mean, I had watched the old ladies finish up, say thank you, get their coats, and then leave—so I knew there was no tipping here. But still. It was like he couldn’t wait to be done!

Lily patiently listens to me explain basically everything I’ve written about here, and by the time I’m done we’re back in the Metro station, ready to go over to Rue Mouffetard so I can give her the unofficial Hemingway tour as a thank-you for coming with me to get my haircut. I’m at the point where I’m complaining about how bushy my hair is now that they didn’t style it, and she just says, “Why don’t you put it up in like a little hipster bun at the top of your head?”

The Metro "After" pic. Thank goodness.

The Metro “After” pic. Thank goodness.

And I do, and she takes a picture of it and shows it to me, and just like that my crankiness has been cut off, like my hair just was. I really like how I look now that my hair isn’t triangular. I start imagining hairdos, wondering whether I’ll be able to French braid my hair now—turns out I still can, but a regular braid is pretty small—and I feel much better about my French makeover.

It may not have been exactly what I was expecting, but it was still a makeover and it was still a story.

I’m still trying to figure out my hair. The first shower I took, I had to unscrew the cap of my conditioner bottle and put back about half of the conditioner I had squeezed out—too used to having long hair, I guess. My hair only takes about an hour to dry, as opposed to three, but I’m still trying to figure out how to walk down a street and not have my bangs flying in every direction.

It’s also a little hard because, like I said, I don’t have a hairdryer or a straightener and I only have four days left in Paris so it’s not like I’m going to go out and buy one. That’s a good thing about waiting until the last minute to do this, I guess, because I definitely would have just sucked it up and bought a blowdryer if this happened in the beginning of the program.

But each day is a new hairdo and I love that I can think that now! I had to fight to get this haircut and you can bet your butt I’m going to make it work!