Madame Paule


paule‘Last week another man came into my shop and said he wanted to buy my chairs,’ Madame Paule says.
‘I sent him away of course, they are not for sale. Now they want my chairs, next are my arms and legs.’ She waves her hand dismissively.

Her shop is vaguely pink, with two or three little palm trees, golden mirrors and chairs which are indeed beautiful.  Miami, circa 1960, is how I would describe it. ‘Which one is your favourite?’ I ask.
She points to one and tells me to try it.
‘Your legs are too long,’ she says and she adjusts the chair with a mechanic pump.
‘Comfortable, right?’

Even if it wasn’t I wouldn’t have the guts to say no. When I entered her realm, I wanted to hang my coat over a chair, as it was after hours and the salon was empty, but no: ‘The coat rack is over there,’ she said.

She started her salon almost 30 years ago. ‘I had six girls working here, they used to stand in line outside my shop before I opened. Now I work alone, except for the weekend, when I have a trainee.’
‘It’s the crisis. People no longer come in from the banlieus to visit my salon.  It costs money, the metro, they have to get a babysitter, etcetera. And there are a lot of afro hairdressers in this neighbourhood.’
‘I’ve seen them, but they look awful, compared to your salon: noisy, messy, and crowded.’
Oui, c’est autre chose. But what can you do about it?’
I offer a few suggestions: Lower prices? More marketing? Are you on Facebook?
She sighs. ‘No, I’m not on Facebook. And I can’t lower my prices, because the prices of my products have gone up, and so has the rent, the VAT. Besides I don’t want to use cheaper products: I only give my customers what I love myself. If you give something to somebody, you have to give something you love.’ That was life lesson number 1, and there were many more to come during the forty-minute interview.

‘Do you think about quitting?’
‘No, because the moment you think about that the little pains will come, you’ll get stiffer, and start to age.’
‘And do you have children who might take over the shop?’
‘My son maybe, my daughter no. And it’s a shame: she’s a talent. But she doesn’t want to, because she doesn’t like the idea of having to wait for customers, she doesn’t like the lost time.’

‘Do you only cut afro hair?’ I ask.
‘No, all hair, not only black. At this moment I even cut more Europeans than black people.’

That’s a new – or possibly a very old – definition of Europeans: white people.

‘How come?’
‘Maybe also because I listen. Some of my customers say: put a sign on your door that says coiffeur/psychologist. I always feel how my customers are doing, I can feel it when I touch their heads. If they’re stressed – as they often are – I massage a bit and I listen. When they leave, they are at peace, always.’
She walks to the kitchen in the back to get us some mango juice, very healthy, she says. I have another look at her shop and see a pile of books, one by Guy de Maupassant on top: Madame Paule’s shop doesn’t have the usual glamour magazines to read while waiting. ‘What was that?’ I ask when she returns. I point to a picture of a film crew in her shop.
‘That was for a movie, Café de Flore, with Vanessa Paradis.’
‘Was she nice?’
‘She is okay, cute,’ she says tactfully.

Change of topic.

‘Is the government good?’
‘Well, they do their best. You know we should let them do their job. If you tell a child all the time to “do this do this do this”, does it work? No. Leave them alone. They have only been there for two years now! It’s like a plant, it grows, give it some time. This crisis is global, the French should be patient. But they can’t because they’re used to luxury, while they should know that in life sometimes it’s up and sometimes it’s down. People accept the highs, but don’t accept the lows. C’est la vie.’
She pours me another glass of mango juice.
‘What do you want to know about Europe? It is a good thing, because now we have to show solidarity with the others. It’s like life: today I’m good, but tomorrow I might be hungry, might have problems and then people will help me. When you unite, you’re strong. There’s always someone who can lend a hand.’
‘What does it mean to you personally?’
‘Difficult to say… I’m not interested. I don’t have the time to follow it. They do what they should do over there in Brussels. But since the euro everything has become more expensive,’ she laughs.
‘Your prices too?’
‘Hardly,’ she says. ‘But 6 francs 50 sounds so much better than one euro, don’t you think? So much richer. And what has also changed is that there are a lot more foreigners in the neighbourhood. We’re close to Gard du Nord, and the train to Brussels or to England, the Eurostar. Many Romanians, oh là là  you have to be careful because they steal, they are so quick!’
‘Do you feel European?’
‘Yes, I think I do. If I live, sleep and eat in a country, then it’s my country. I’m from Martinique, but I will always respect France, the country that welcomed me. And that is not what everybody does. Many eat from France, they take it all, but they still criticise. “Go away, I think, take the same train or plane that brought you here and leave!”