Last Tuesday, 15 days after déconfinement, I finally got my hair cut.
Silviu and I are different in many ways, but we are similar in that we do not take as much care as we should of our crowning glory. Silviu is worse than I am. He visits the salon every 4 to 5 months a year. The last time he stepped into the hair salon before the lockdown was in the fall of 2019. With the 2 months of lockdown, he accumulated 7 months of unruly and frizzy curly locks.
As for me, I am slightly more disciplined than he is. The last time I got my hair done was four months ago, in mid-January, just before Chinese New Year. I usually schedule a visit to the hair salon every 2.5 months, which is already longer than the industry advice of 1.5 months to 2.0 months for people with short hair. Short hairstyle needs higher maintenance since the hairstyle loses the shape quicker—just a little growth in hair weighs the style down, losing volume and body. During the lockdown, I was modified by the limp and lifeless locks every time I looked in the mirror.
On the 12th of May, the second day after déconfinement, Silviu called up our neighbourhood hair salon to fix two appointments, one for him and one for me. He wanted just a simple haircut and the earliest appointment he could get was a week later, in the evening. I wanted a cut and a colour and had no preferred hairdresser. In addition, to ensure that I got my hair groomed as soon as possible, I was willing to shift my teaching schedule around to fit in the appointment. Regardless, I still had to wait two weeks before I could secure an appointment.
Orsay Hair Salons
In a short stretch of 50m on the main street, there were four hair salons! Four hair salons!
When I moved to Orsay, one of the first things that immediately caught my attention as I walked on the main street in the city centre—the number of hair salons in this little city of less than 17,000 residents. In a short stretch of 50m on the main street, there were four hair salons! Four hair salons! This is not counting the hair salons on the other streets of the city centre!
For me, it seems that there are too many of them for a sleepy town like Orsay. A little city with its scatter of restaurants that closes by 10pm every night, including Fridays and Saturdays, and only a fistful of restaurants that opens on Sundays. Do the Orcéens, what they called the residents of Orsay, go to their hairdressers every week? When do they visit their hairdressers? At night? I don’t see that many activities in the daytime. Regardless of my concern, it seems that there is enough clientele for all these hair salons in Orsay as all of them are still flourishing, since my arrival in Orsay, four years ago.
1 Hair Salon = 790 Residents
What about the bigger French cities? There should be even more hair salons catering to the city dwellers, who are likely to pay greater attention to their locks. How many hair salons in this country of 67 million? According to an industry report, France has 85,700 hair salons. That is equivalent to one hair salon to every 790 residents. As for Singapore, there are 6,200 hair and beauty salons, equivalent to 1 hair salon to 922 residents. Does that mean that the French visit their hairdressers more frequently than the Singaporeans? France is not the country that has the highest number of hair salons in Europe. It’s Italy. With a population similar to that of France, Italy has 104,000 hair salons, that is 1 hair salon serving 580 residents.
Hair & I
Do you have a hairdresser to whom you have been going for years? It seems that many women or men have a close relationship with their hairdressers. These clients are loyal, and they tend to stick to their hairdressers for years. Is your hairdresser also your confidant, your psychologist or your counsellor?
For me, I do of course care about my looks, but perhaps not as much as many people do. Since my hair is quite short, and I know what I want—in terms of length, coverage and colour—and I relate my preferences clearly to the hairdressers, I don’t think there is much room for the hairdressers to go too wrong with my hair.
I am always game to try new hairdressers, even in countries where I do not speak the language. For instance, when I was in Spain doing my Masters, or when I first arrived in France, when hardly any French words crossed my lips. I also got my hair cut in Romania, in a country where I don’t even speak a word of its language. However, in that instance, I got my mother-in-law to help me to get my message across. That said, there is the saying…” Lost in Translation.”
As such, I am not very particular about the hairdresser I go to for a haircut. For me, the pricing plays a more important factor.
In France, a haircut for women with short hair in the Paris metropolitan area, including Orsay, the city I am living in, averages around 40€. However, like in several Western countries such as the US, Australia and France, one can get cheaper cuts at Asian-run hair salons, especially in the Asian quarters, and personally, I think the quality of the cuts is comparable.
If I visit a hairdresser in the Parisian Chinatown in the 13th arrondissement, I can probably reduce the cost by 25-30% for a haircut. With a cut and a colour, I could be saving up to 40€.
As it takes me an hour to get to Chinatown from Orsay, I prefer not to go to Chinatown for just a haircut. What I normally do, is to fit in a trip to the hairdresser whenever I have to go to Paris to teach. Since I do not always teach in Paris, and even if I do, I may not be able to squeeze out time between lessons, to drop by the hairdresser, I do not visit the hairdresser as much as I would like to.
As I was saying, my last hair cut before the lockdown was four months ago. My usual pixie cut, right after I stepped out of the salon, resembled more like a helmet, after the lockdown. Instead of voluminous, layered chic pixie hair cut, the locks were lifeless and heavy.
The extra inches at the nape looked like straw bristles of a broom, and strands of wayward silvery hair straying in all directions.
Luckily the English lessons I had to give during the lockdown were given online, and the students could only see me in 2-D. My reputation would have been at stake if they had seen me up close and personal!
Hair salons are one of the few commercial establishments that are allowed to open after 55 days of closure. To ensure that sanitary precautions such as social distancing and personal hygiene gestures continue to be respected, hair salons have to operate under strict conditions.
At 08:45 a.m. sharp, I walked up the two steps leading to the entrance of the hair salon. I was about to place my hand on the door handle to push the glass door open, when I stopped myself. I noticed a newly put up paper sign taped on the door, asking the clients to wait at the steps while a staff would come and open the door for them.
Through the glass door, I could see two ladies, wearing cloth masks, standing behind the plexiglass separator placed at the reception counter. It was another new addition to the salon. One of them, a younger lady in her twenties (let’s called her Mademoiselle A) came towards the door and pulled the door inwards, leaving it ajar. After saying the customary “Bonjour,” she asked whether I was the one scheduled to have a hair colour. After answering promptly with a “Oui,” I was let through the entrance.
Once I stepped into the salon, Mademoiselle A pointed, with a sweep of her hand towards a pump bottle of hydroalcoholic hand gel placed on a table on the right side of the entrance. Without further prompt, I moved towards the table and helped myself to the gel. She then walked towards me, a piece of common black, kimono style client gown in her hands, and helped me to it. I noted that I was not the first client. Another client was already there, sitting in one of the styling hydraulic chairs lined up in front of the styling station. I was then directed towards and seated at the other side of the styling station, two chairs away from the first client, about four metres away.
A few minutes later, the other staff member (let’s called her Madam B), an older lady in her late forties to early fifties, and whom I saw before in my previous visits, came and asked me about the hair colour that I preferred. It was the first time I had to speak in French, wearing a mask. My initial apprehension was that my heavily English-accented and hesitant French, spoken through a mask, would make it hard for interlocutors to understand me. However, she did not seem to have much trouble understanding me, and I could hear her clearly.
Throughout the whole conversation, Madame B placed herself constantly behind me. Later, even when she started to colour my hair, she would stand behind me. I find myself not an observant person, generally disinterested in things that are not within my direct line of vision or having an immediate impact on me, unlike Silviu, my other half. He is inquisitive about everything around him; when it’s not my best day, I would describe him as being nosy.
Before Corvid-19 lockdown, I never paid attention to where a hairdresser position herself during the colouring process. Perhaps, the back is the usual position during colour application. Thinking about it, that spot seems to be the most practical one. From that spot, the hairdresser can select and pick up any horizontal section of hair with the tail of a comb and apply the colour to the whole length.
We were less than one metre apart. However, even if I did sneeze, cough or spit while talking, I don’t think the droplets could bend backwards and land in her mouth or nose. Besides, I am not the most loquacious person in the world, especially in French, with a mask on, and thus minimising the chances of saliva landing on her! The mask that I wore on that day was a mask distributed by the city municipal the week before. It was a reusable mask, that could be washed up to 10 times. But, unlike the disponible masks, the reusable mask was much thicker. I found it a tad stifling even when I was stationary, and it definitely did not encourage talking.
Before getting to the salon, I was wondering how the hairdressers would manipulate the elastic ear loops of the mask while engaging in their craft. Did I have to remove the mask at the salon? Was I to keep the mask on by pressing it on to my cheeks with my fingertips, while the ear loops were removed temporarily as the hairdresser manoeuvre around my ears? The questions were answered when the hairdresser removed an ear loop at a time, while simultaneously placing two strips of self-adhesive skin-colour bandage tape at that end of the mask, securing it to the side of the face. The procedure was repeated on the other side.
After the colour application and a waiting time of about 30 minutes for the colour to settle, Mademoiselle came back to me and directed me to the shampooing station. It’s the best part of a hair salon visit – the shampooing. Of course, the quality of the experience depends mainly on the hairdresser, and this hairdresser has good shampooing skills.
The water temperature she chose was just the right one, without me having to ask her to adjust it—a couple of degrees higher than the tepid water that most hairdressers use. Her strokes were firm, yet gentle as she worked the shampoo into a lather. When she was rinsing my hair, I could feel her hands firmly bunching and smoothly straightening out my hair, with the right pressure. Not a single abrupt tug of my scalp during the whole process. And the massage was heavenly…the smooth rhythm of her fingertips on the scalp, then the nape…regrettably it finished too soon.
While I was being shampooed, a new client came in. He was asked to sit at a shampooing chair that was one away from mine. I also noticed that Madame B had donned on a different mask while cutting the hair of the lady client who arrived before me. The hairdresser had changed from the cloth mask to a full-face shield visor. Later, when it was my turn to have my locks snipped after the shampooing, Madame B continued to wear the shield visor.
I figure that the shield visor provides better protection to everyone. Hair cutting requires closer physical contact between the client and the hairdresser, as compared to hair colouring. At times, it can be just down to a few inches between the client and the hairdresser when the latter works on the fringes.
After my hair was done, instead of the customary assistance in removing the gown sprinkled with hair clippings, I had to remove the gown myself and was told to deposit the gown in the tall laundry basket next to the reception.
Through a square hole, cut at the bottom of the plexiglass separator at the reception, the hairdresser passed me the point-of-sale terminal so that I could insert my debit card, and type in my 4-digit pin code. The bottom half of the terminal, where we usually place in the hollow of our palm, was wrapped with cling film. The hairdresser mentioned that an additional 2.5€ was added to the fee, to cover the extra expenses incurred because of the new measurements. She also added that the terminal was disinfected after every use.
During my 1.5 hours at the hair salon, there were not many comings and goings. It could be due to the time of the day, or the implementation of strict social distancing measures. There were only three customers and two hairdressers in the salon at any one time. The fourth client—an old lady in her seventies—dropped in soon after the departure of the first client.
The hair salon ambiance was definitely different. A certain buzz, the buzz of non-stop activities, was missing. The familiar sounds of a hair salon could still be heard: the background rock music playing, hairdryer vrooming noise, sound of water running from the faucet at the shampooing station, chats between the clients and hairdressers. However, the sound level of these activities dropped by several notches.
One of the explanations could the limited number of people allowed in the hair salon at any one time. Before the lockdown, there would be at least 4 staff members present at the salon at same time, and the salon could easily accommodate six to seven clients. With the social distancing constraint, all clients have to make appointments and walk-ins are no longer entertained. I gathered later, that the salon staff has split into two teams. If the client has a request for a specific hairdresser, her appointment time will have to be based on the shift the hairdresser is on.
The compulsory wearing of a mask is also likely a reason for the perceptible decrease in the typical salon hubbub. Masks muffle our voices, and thus reduce the sound level of the conversations about hairstyle, family life, love life, holiday plans etc. Moreover, if people are like me, they would prefer to pare down unnecessary communication since extra efforts have to be made to listen and speak over masks.
Then, there was the look, a hair salon look. The traditional cosy salon look was absent. The setting looked more institutional, more clinical. Before the lockdown, there was a certain clutter, an orderly type of chaos, associated with a hair salon.
The usual array of hairstyle and fashion magazines were no longer haphazardly placed on the styling counters—they were actually not seen anywhere in the salon. I understood later, from a phone conversation between one of the hairdressers and a client who called in for appointment, that these magazines would no longer be available to clients, and clients have to bring in their own reading materials. The occasional half-empty coffee or teas cups of the clients lying on the counters were not seen either. I was expecting a cup of complimentary coffee when I first came into the salon but was not offered any—guess that service has also been removed.
The one or two gowns, or hair towels strewn on the counter or the styling chairs, the characteristic multi-drawer salon trolleys packed with hairstyling tools were all conspicuously missing. The various decorative wall shelves, used to display various hair products such as conditioners, shampoos, and hair mousse, were now adorned with colour-tinted plastic bottles of disinfectants.
I walked out of the salon contented and bemused. Contented because a bothersome weight has been sheared off, and that my naked nape, which was covered with irritating bristles only 1.5 hours ago, could actually now enjoy the caress of the cool morning breeze.
Bemused because the whole experience was technically a run-off-the-mill visit to the hair salon, yet, at a deeper level, it felt like an alternate reality.