Expat life / Language aquisition

French test #2 Fear and Loathing in the Soleil Coiffure

It was clear to begin with that I needed a haircut.

christopher cooley needs a haircut

The previous couple of times I’d had it done – since moving to France – I’d had a friend cut it. She’d been a hairdresser in Norway before moving to Bordeaux and she’d done a great job both times. Unfortunately she’d moved back to Scandinavia and that’s just too far to go for a short-back-and-sides.

So it was time to ‘submerge myself in the local area’, ‘seize the day’ and experience the ‘true colours of my community’ – Bref: go to the barber’s down the road.

It sounds simple enough until you think about it… then think about it some more… then over think it.

I get nervous enough going to a new hairdresser in the UK:

  • What if they ask you lots of personal questions in a room full of people?
  • What if they don’t ask you anything and there is no radio, just silence?
  • What if your nose itches when they’ve told you to keep still?
  • What if they don’t listen to what you ask for? …Yeah, what if they ‘go rogue’?

These sort of things happen all the time and even when they don’t, that huge mirror will always make you feel slightly awkward. When else are you forced to stare at yourself for half an hour? When else do you see your cold, heartless, passport-photo face endlessly reflected back at you?


funny passport photo


You start to trip out and you ask youself “Is that really me?”

I met a German guy once in a campsite who said he’d been travelling for the past year trying to find himself. I told him to take a mirror into the dessert and to look into it for as long as he could. I said this was an old tribal method of finding oneself but warned him to be careful because doing this had also driven men mad! He thought it was a good idea and practised in the campsite toilets, he said after an hour he started to see little ape-like animals jumping around behind his shoulders and then they merged into one as he refocused on himself and he saw some truth: for the first time he recognised himself to be an animalistic being.


So take all this strange, pre-existing anxiety, add to it the general anxiety I feel when I need to speak French and you can easily imagine that I wasn’t at ease when I walked into Soleil Coiffure… but for ’10€ La Coupe’ what could go wrong?

solieil coiffure

The proprietors and I passed our bonjours and when I went to hang my bag on the coat-rack one told me I could put it on a chair.

I sat. He wrapped a bit of paper around my neck, put a gown around me and said “Je vous écoute.”

That was my queue to speak. I should really have tried to form a proper sentence. But actually should I have? I don’t always do that when speaking English. Anyway I just replied “Court sur les côtés mais long  le dessus.”

He said “D’accord” and it was as simple as that. Not even a French test really – the difference between dessus and dessous does worry me, but in this situation I think the context would always ensure good communication of what was intended to be understood. The rest of the time the barber occupied himself by having a conversation in Arabic with the other guy who worked there. No questions. No silence. All good so far.

It started to get a bit weird when he took out a razor blade. I’d never seen a barber use one before in real life, the only time I could recall seeing it at all was in the film ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ – once again I was ill at easy. But I trusted him and I survived.

There was only one other truly awful moment:

The swivel chair I was sat in had arm rests and I’d rested my arms on them accordingly; my hands, clenched into clammy fists, hung over the edges at the front.

When the barber positioned himself to cut my fringe his crotch rested directly on top of my right hand. Unperturbed, he continued snipping at my hair and talking in Arabic with his colleague. He was wearing thick canvas trousers and that is all I could feel, there was no noticable member, just the frontal fabric around the flies perching on my hand like a stubborn mountain goat. I began to wonder if he was a some kind of eunuch who’d been raised to be a unisex-stylist. What else could I do but sit there and imagine these unlikely possibilities?

I couldn’t move my hand, could I?

…because then he would know that I knew, and even if he hadn’t realised already, he would definitely realise then.

And if I attempted to move my hand it could get a lot worse than it already was. A lot worse that just being slightly awkward:

If I floundered and didn’t remove my hand in one decisive movement, he might think I’d intentionally given him a little rub. He might like it, he might hate it, he might be a eunuch, but none of these outcomes would have been great for me. All I wanted was a simple haircut.

So I did the only thing I could do in that situation: Nothing.

I just kept staring into the timeless mirror, looking into my cold, shark eyes, my face showing absolutely no emotion, no recognition, the fear-inducing look of a sleepwalker. Thankfully it was soon all over and done with. Frankly I’m happy with the result so I guess that the end justifies the means.

Christopher Gj Cooley just had a haircut

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