Hair-raising experience

The author, her daughters & hair stylistsCoiffure perfect keepsake of the capital of style

PARIS – After years of travel, I no longer make t-shirt and handicraft souvenir purchases. Instead I invest in finer quality mementos like an Italian custom-fitted leather skirt and antique garnet earrings from New Orleans’ French Quarter.

I’m always looking for the superlative souvenir so imagine the excitement at my friend Carla’s return from Paris with a stunning new hairstyle.

“Ah ha,” I think, “a coiffure will be the perfect keepsake to commemorate my upcoming visit to Europe’s capital of style.”

“I didn’t know you speak French,” I say to Carla at lunch while salivating over her new look.

“I don’t,” she proclaims. “But everyone understands a little English. I simply search for words of recognition.” They understand the phrase, “Make me beautiful,” she assures me.

Knowing I don’t want to gamble my new look on my ability to communicate in a language I don’t speak, my long-range plan becomes to locate a French-speaking individual in Paris and plead for help.

While Carla doesn’t remember the name of the salon, she recalls that it’s in the Rue Cler area. “If this is the main street,” she says while drawing a rough map of Paris on a white napkin, “the salon is one block in that direction.”

She tells me that it’s across from a laundromat. “Ask for the launderette and you’ll find it.” “Sure,” I think after pocketing a map Marco Polo would have had difficulty deciphering.

Upon arriving in Paris with my 20- and 22-year-old daughters, we rush through check-in at Hotel Meurice and proceed directly to Jean (my designated French-speaking individual), the very helpful and extremely bald concierge.

“I‘m visiting a beauty salon where they speak no English. Can you write my instructions in French so that I may give them proper direction for my hairstyle?” I ask.

“Oui, madame,” Jean replies. “What is the name of the salon and I will telephone and give precise instructions?”

I explain that I do not know the name of the salon, only its location. So with a slight hesitation in his ever so professional demeanor, he proceeds to translate onto paper, “I want my hair cut short but not too short – a sophisticated look.”

“I do not use hair appliances – no blow dryer, no curling iron; so it must be easy to care for. And I want the color to be natural but with highlights, natural-looking highlights.”

By now, my girls wish to participate in the fun, too, so Jean has to write two additional pages of hairstyle requests.

After negotiating the Metro, we find the hair salon. Its name? Jean-Claude Biguine. I later discover there are several Biguine salons in Paris, but this is the salon responsible for Carla’s new look, so this is the Biguine salon for us. When we enter the hair studio I request coupe and colore (two newly-learned terms translated as cut and color).

After receiving a reply in rapid French, I realize it’s time to hand Jean’s handwritten instructions to Michael, the manager who speaks English, albeit limited English.

Then, much like past hair salon experiences, we’re handed a selection of hairstyle magazines to peruse for our choice of cuts and I’m given hair swatches from which to choose my color. Estelle, Lea and Vanessa work on our hair for the next three hours.

The salon has a neighborhood feel. I note that with the exception of us, most patrons are locals – a good recommendation, I think. When presented my bill, I take a deep breath before calculating the cost for three haircuts, blow dries and deep conditioning masks, as well as color and highlights for myself – in Paris.

The total is $173 (U.S.), considerably less than I pay back home. I plan to tip 10% as suggested in the guidebook but one of the salon’s regular patrons says a one euro (approximately $1) tip is standard for each stylist and colorist with whom you work.

Are we pleased? Erin’s style transforms her from a college girl to a sophisticated young woman. Kathryn plays it safe and asks for a trim only. And me? I am pleased with the cut but the highlights are too dramatic. Nevertheless, the experience is priceless.

“This as my souvenir,” I communicate to Michael, “because there is a such a good sense of style in France.”

Amazingly he understands. “Yes, because we are French.”

* Air Canada and Air France offer direct daily flights to Paris. The Jean-Claude Biguine salon is located at 192, rue de Grenelle (at Square de Robiac), 75007 Paris, phone 01 45 51 11 52. Hotel Meurice is located at 228, rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris, phone 01 44 58 10 10; Web site: www.meuricehotel.com. For more information on France contact Maison de la France at www.franceguide.com.