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French Do

Editor’s Note: This past May I had the pleasure of teaching a Travel, Food and Wine Writing Class in Provence for The Writer’s Workshop. During the class, the students experienced the magic of Provence: wonderful restaurants like Maison Drouot in St. Remy de Provence , fabulous wineries like Domaine de la Mourchon and fascinating historic sites like the St. Paul de Mausole mental hospital where Vincent Van Gogh painted The Starry Night. I’ll be sharing the stories they wrote over the next few weeks, exploring the beauty, history, food and wine culture of this amazing place.  I’ll be teaching a similar course in Rioja, Spain this spring (May 21-27): http://www.thewritersworkshop.net/classes/travel-writing-classes/.

By Anne Stanfield

I woke up on that Tuesday morning in Vaison la Romaine keenly aware that today was going to be hair cut day.  My hair had exploded overnight.  I went to bed looking like myself and woke up looking like Marge Simpson but my hair was sideways not straight up like hers.  I had a picture on my phone of a hair salon my friend had texted me that morning.  It was one of 22 salons in this small village of 6,000.

I went to Vaison la Romaine the last week of May, 2016 with a group of eight friends.  The village is an hour and a half north of Marseille in Provence.  I was looking for a new adventure by exploring an area of France I had never been to.  When I left the United States, I was in need of a haircut.  I decided to get this done in Vaison la Romaine.  If the hair cut was bad, it would grow out in a few weeks.  I wasn't too concerned about communicating my needs even though my French was elementary.  I was counting on the people in this village knowing English a little better than I knew French.

I left my hotel early that morning.  It was market day.  Every Tuesday is market day and has been since 1483.  I maneuvered around the deeply rutted cobblestone streets which meandered down a steep hill.  I was staying in the old part of the village which dates back to the first century.

I crossed the Roman bridge, built over the Ouvèze River.  The bridge links the old village with the new.  Immediately upon crossing, the market began.  Stalls filled the streets. They were so thickly packed that I could not see the store fronts.

I was besieged by colorful fabrics, vegetables, meats, cheeses that begged to be bought and eaten on the spot, and bright pottery of every shape, size and hue.  I knew I was getting sensory overload.  I took a breath and wandered through the market stopping occasionally to show my picture to merchants.  No words were spoken.  I looked at them imploringly, pointing to the photo. They looked at me, smiled, and threw their hands in the air, shaking their heads, "No."  I realized these merchants were not from this village.  They came from all over Provence to sell their wares.

Finally, after searching hours for the salon in my photo, I sought out a side street that was not as busy.  I had not been able to find the hair salon.  I needed to sit down, drink a café au lait and re-group.  I would have to find another hair salon.

I found an outdoor cafe on a semi-quiet side street, sat down and ordered.  When my waitress came with my café au lait, I showed her the picture of the salon and tried to ask her if she knew where it was.  She gestured to me that she spoke no English. 

She turned from me and beckoned to a girl sitting at a table nearby to come over and help.  The girl spoke more English than I spoke French.  I showed her the picture.  She didn't recognize the salon but offered to call them for me.  I asked for 2 p.m.  They only had 7 p.m.  That was not going to work for me.

I tried to let them know I just wanted to get my hair cut as soon as possible.  Simultaneously, they both pointed next door.  There was a hair salon next to the cafe and, from the woman that spoke broken English, I understood they both got their hair cut there.  The salon was closed for lunch and would open again at 2 p.m.  It was 1 p.m.  I thanked them profusely, paid for my café au lait and headed back to my hotel for a lunch of cheese and meats I had purchased while wandering around the market.

At 2:10 p.m., I came back down that winding hill and walked into the hair salon.  There was one stylist working on a woman when I entered.  It became apparent immediately that she spoke no English.  Why would she?  She lives and works in France.  I should have practiced my French a little more, I thought.

As I frantically leafed through my English to French dictionary, another hairstylist walked in.  I was trying desperately to look up how to say "do you have time to cut my hair?"  This hairstylist got my rudimentary attempt to communicate, smiled and nodded to me.  She led me to the shampooing station.  The basin tilted backward and forwards, up and down to accommodate my head.  I've never seen that type of basin in any hair salon I've been to in the United States.

As she washed my hair, she kept exclaiming "Beaucoup!  Beaucoup!", while pointing to my hair.  We both laughed.  Once the washing was done, we moved to the hair cutting station.  She tried to ask me how I wanted my hair cut.  I tried to tell her to make me beautiful.  We were getting nowhere fast but we laughed a lot.

She went to the appointment desk and came back with a hair stylist paperback book translating French to English.  I scanned the words and phrases, no, I don't want my hair foiled; no, I don't want my hair colored or tinted.  Finally I found:  "J'ai confiance en toi."  I trust you.  I pointed to that phrase, too tired and stressed to try to pronounce the words.  She beamed from ear to ear.  "Oui!"

She did make me beautiful.  I left the salon with a magnificent French haircut.  I stopped next door at the little cafe to find the waitress who had helped me.  As soon as I stepped inside the darkened bar, she spotted me and clapped her hands.  "C'est bon!!"  I nodded in agreement and went back up that hill confident that the adventure I had set up for myself was a complete success.

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