Chez la coiffeuse in Paris

The following story was published in The Australian in July, 2009.

When it comes to the art of coiffure, there’s no place like Paris!

Flowers in Le Jardin des Tuileries
Flowers in Le Jardin des Tuileries

I’ve always had a fear of the unknown hairdresser. It dates back to my teenage years, when a certain Monsieur Moliere (alias Gary Gallagher) of a long-forgotten, and probably long gone, Auckland Salon, high-handedly and before my dismayed eyes, turned the almost shoulder length locks I’d been nurturing for bouffant into a bowl-cut bob just hours before the school ball. Ever since, I’ve avoided the high-handed, the flamboyant and, yes, even those with French names, for the coiffeur who knows that trim means trim. While I haven’t often been surprised beyond my wildest dreams when I’ve faced the mirror at the finish, neither have I been shocked beyond belief.

It was combination of desperation (vanishing colour, barbed-wire halo) and a touch of recklessness (a Parisian coiffure – pourquoi pas?) which took me to Chez Gerard on Rue de Richelieu, that Friday. Then, too there was that name – the name of the patron saint of mothers. Surely I was in good hands?

Seated in one of Monsieur Gerard’s chairs was a giant strawberry bouffant (the kind I’d coveted for that school ball.) It swivelled to face me.

“Oui, Madame?” The voice was deep and slow with a breathy lift at the end.

“Euuuhhh, Monsieur Gerard?” I said with a shrug that I hoped would convey both “Are you Monsieur Gerard and/or where is Monsieur Gerard?”

Monsieur Gerard, explained Madame, had been trapped chez lui by the Metro strike. But Madame was Monsieur Gerard’s colleague, her clients, too, were housebound, so she was free. She unpeeled from the chair and swished towards me on high black boots. Quelle chance! Quel bonheur! Madame would do my coiffure! After all she had time! As I could see, there was nobody there, she had nothing else to do!

“Colour” she plucked at the barbed wire halo “Treatment? Trim? Blow wave?”

Before I could open my mouth, she had wrestled me into a plastic cape, whisked me to the basin, upended me and was plastering my head with a terrifyingly unknown dye. No time to argue, no room for protests, or instructions, Madame was deep into the story of her life and times.

…She had begun work in this salon, at the age of fourteen and had been coiffeuse to all the ladies of the quartier and the Ministries around Palais Royal for forty years…

Back In front of the mirror with the French equivalent of Who in my lap and a clock ticking in the distance, I stole a look at my hair. I  looked  like Krusty the clown’s. But before I could shriek Madame settled beside me and continued her story

…La Greve – the strike – nobody wants to work these days – imagine – these Rail workers want to retire on full pay at fifty-five – they’ll ruin the country …

The alarm rang and it was back to the basin

…It’s just the same with young hairdressers these days – they don’t work like they used to, they want more pay, more holidays …

I was heaved from the basin and propelled back to the mirror where my reflection was obscured by Madame’s black torso. I was distracted from the snip of scissors by her next chapter

… Madame would like to retire after all she has a daughter – grand daughters, a husband, she’s no longer young, but what can she do – nobody wants to work …

The story was lost in a whirlwind of hot air. Then suddenly there was silence.

Madame stepped aside “Voila!”

I looked. I gasped but I wasn’t shocked beyond belief. It wasn’t a bowl cut, nor was it a bouffant  It was chic and très très français. I was surprised and delighted beyond my wildest dreams.

Le Jardin des Tuileries

Located between the Place de la Concorde and the Palais du Louvre, Le Jardin des Tuileries is one of the most popular, lively and beautiful public gardens in Paris.

Le Jardin des Tuileries
Le Jardin des Tuileries

Established by Catherine de Medici in 1564, Le Jardin des Tuileries  was a playground and a hunting ground for the royals and the aristocracy. Over the ensuing century it was home to stables, a riding school and even a zoo.

Le Jardin des Tuileries became a public park after the French Revolution and by the end of the 19th century it offered all kinds of entertainment, with acrobats, puppet theatres, donkey rides and small boats sailing on its ponds.

Two notable historic buildings stand in Le Jardin des Tuileries.  Designed by architects Firmin Bourgeois and Ludovico Visconti and completed in 1852, L’Orangerie was commissioned by Napoleon III as a greenhouse. It is now a museum of art and its specially designed oval gallery showcases Monet’ s best known work,  Les Nymphéas.

The twin of L’Orangerie, Le Jeu de Paume, was constructed in 1861 to house Napoleon’s tennis courts. During World War two it was used to store works of art expropriated from Jewish families. From 1947 to 1986, when they were transferred to the Musée D’Orsay, it was home to a large collection of Impressionist paintings.

Le Jardin des Tuileries  is yet another great Paris escape. Even though Parisians come in their thousands to enjoy its ponds, its fountains, its flowers, its trees, its cafes and restaurants, its entertainment and its art installations,  there is always a tranquil spot to be found somewhere.

Belle Epoque beauty in Galerie Vivienne

For a glimpse of Belle Epoque Paris, take a stroll through Galerie Vivienne.

The Librairie in Galerie Vivienne
The Librairie in Galerie Vivienne

Some of the most beautiful but most often over-looked features of Paris are its Passages and Galeries. These small, elegant arcades which date back to the beginning of the 19th  century, were inspired by the Arab Souks and covered markets of the Middle East and North Africa. This is evident in the architecture with its arches, rounded windows, domes and Egyptian tiles.  It is also reflected in the original purpose of the galerie which was to allow shopkeepers to display their wares, shoppers (especially Parisiennes Bourgeoise) to browse or buy and pedestrians to pass from one area to another, under cover from the weather and away from the clamour and dirt of the streets.

Most of the Passages and Galeries are located on the Rive Droite, or Right Bank, in the Premier Arrondissement. But the best one of all is in the centre of a square bounded by  landmarks of Palais Royal, La Bourse and La Place des Victoires and La Bibliotheque Nationale.

Galerie Vivienne, between Rue Vivienne, Rue des Petits Peres and Rue des Petits Champs, was the brainchild of Marchaux, then  Deputy of La Chambre des Notoires. It was begun in 1823 and opened to the Public in 1826. With its beautiful mosaic floors, its wrought iron staircases, its glass rotundas and its exotic, Arabian decoration, not to mention the  sophisticated boutiques, bookshops, salons de the and cafés, it was a favourite Parisian haunt until the Second Empire, when the galleries were superseded in popularity by the Grands Magasins or Department Stores.

Today, Galerie Vivienne is home to a number modern boutiques but still has some authentic, old Paris, shops which sell letter paper, etchings, pictures as well as the fascinating and impossible to leave, antique bookshop Librairie Jousseaume. It still houses elegant cafes and salons de the, like A Priori, where the chocolat chaud and the cheesecake are legendary.

The Passages and Galeries take the tourist away from the glaring, blaring, fast-paced Paris of the 21st century and back to another age of quiet charm and gracious quiet surroundings, to another, older Paris.