Pavlina doesn’t look a day over 34, even though she’s 40. Her thin blonde hair rests playfully on her fragile shoulders, falling across her face every now and then. Her big blue eyes look earnest yet friendly and the corners of her mouth curl up when she smiles. In her grey turtleneck and plain jeans, she looks a bit conservative, but looks can be deceiving.

‘I have started to play the bass guitar,’ Pavlina admits. ‘I used to sing, but not anymore. I play in a band called Fittipaldi is Dead.’

Is he? I think of Emerson Fittipaldi, the famous Formula 1 racer.

‘I don’t think so. Still very much alive’, she says with a wink. ‘My dream was always to understand the lyrics of my favourite musicians. However, in school I only learned German, French and Russian. That’s why I went to the US to learn English.’

Where did you go?

‘New Jersey, the Garden State. I went there when I was 23, to work as an au pair. I was only there for six months, but it was enough to learn the basics. Back in Prague I worked at a hostel, where I expanded my English vocabulary.’

From the age of fourteen, Pavlina studied hotel management at high school. After working in hotels, she decided to change her life and do something totally different. ‘I always dreamt of doing something more creative. When I started working at this salon, at James’s Hair, as a receptionist, one of my friends said: “You wanted to do something creative; why don’t you ask James if you can be a hair dresser? So I did. I got to follow James during training every Monday for three years. And after I did a course to become an official hairdresser and only then was I allowed to work as a hair stylist.’

The salon’s canteen is small and a bit uncomfortable, a strong contrast to the hip, well-lighted salon in the front. Shift rosters are posted on the walls, and pictures of Pavlina and her colleagues, give the room a little bit of colour.

‘We are not like the salons in the big department stores,’ Pavlina explains as she pours me a drink.

‘There, you don’t know your clients; they’re just shoppers that come for a haircut. We actually depend on our regular customers, and I love that. Some of the regular customers have been coming to me for years; they’ve become real friends. We’ve witnessed first pregnancies, children growing up. You really grow with them, it’s scary but nice.’

Can you be creative in your job?

‘If the opportunity arises, cutting hair can be a very creative job. The point is that there are not many people who want these creations on their head’, Pavlina says, forming an imaginary hair-do above her head. ‘We’re not the cheapest salon, which means we attract a lot of businesspeople. They do like to be trendy, but not too much. I only do the red, green and blue a few times a year.’

How are hairdressers looked at in the Czech Republic? In some countries hairdressers are perceived as uneducated – they can cut, and that’s it.

‘I think it’s the same in the Czech Republic. The so-called intellectuals talk about hairdressers with disrespect, because they think we’re poorly educated. However, most hairdressers in our salon have had years of education, either at the hair dresser’s school or in other fields of work. I won’t say hairdressers are like intellectuals, but they learn from people and life.’

Do you remember what it was like before ’89, when the Czech Republic was still a communist country? Has your life changed a lot since?

‘For sure it has. First of all, we can travel now. Before, you could only travel to Russia and Eastern Europe without permission.’

Do you remember the first time you were in Western Europe?

‘Yes, I do. I was studying hotel management at high school and we visited a four star hotel in West Germany. We were all like “Wow!”’, Pavlina re-enacts, her eyes growing bigger. ‘Everything was so clean, we had never seen such luxury.’

Now, the difference between the countries is smaller, right?

‘In Prague it is, but you can still see a clear difference when you cross the border from, let’s say, Germany to the Czech Republic. Somehow the border regions of my country still look unclean, while in Germany everything looks anew.’

The people coming to James’s Hair Salon are a very colorful bunch. About a 50/50 split between Czechs and foreigners. ‘There’s the International School of Prague and every year James visits the welcoming day at this school to represent our salon for new expats. It’s really smart, because it attracts a group of new potential customers. It’s a shame that most of them leave after a few years.’

You have travelled a lot and work with many foreign people. Do you feel European?

Pavlina shrugs her shoulders in differently. ‘Yeah, I think so.’

You’ve lived in the US so you can compare the two worlds. What is Europe like compared to the US?

Pavlina’s face grows gloomy. ‘I wanted to learn English and see the lifestyle in the US, but honestly I didn’t like it that much. Here you have good public transportation, even in the smaller cities. There you always need a car, especially in the suburbs where I lived. And they tell us it’s unsafe to ride a bike, they told me I could get kidnapped.’

I look at Pavlina in disbelief. Really? That’s nonsense. Perhaps Americans are just very controlling?

‘Yes, they’re really afraid. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my host family, they have wonderful boys. But that’s the way things go there. Let’s say I was cooking and I realized I ran out of butter. I would have to drive half an hour for a stick of butter. Can you imagine?’

So in Europe the distances are closer and people are less controlling? More relaxed, maybe.

‘Yes, and a lot more liberal. That’s why a lot of Americans live here. I mean, the only city I truly fell in love with was San Francisco – for me it seemed to be the most European city of the US. They have a bar called “Café Prague” there. I came there after living in the US for six months, and you won’t believe how happy I was seeing Czech newspapers and talking Czech to the waiter.’

In 2004 the Czech Republic joined the EU. Did it change anything in your life, or in the country?

A long silence. Pavlina takes a sip of her tea. ‘Hmm, not really. We still have the Czech crown, so nothing’s really changed. The Schengen treaty did make it much easier for us to travel, that I like.’

But you used to live under control of Moscow. Now Brussels is monitoring you. You went from being part of Eastern Europe to becoming part of Western Europe.

‘Well, some claim that president Zeman is actually moving more and more towards the East, back towards the reign of Russia and I agree… In ‘89 I was 14, before I wasn’t interested in politics at all. I was in my first class of high school when the velvet revolution started and back then we didn’t know about the real past of the Czech Republic – because we grew up in the communist regime. For us it was “normal” seeing Soviet people here, as they had been here since we were babies – we just wanted to play. We didn’t know that there was something not normal with our country. Almost everybody was communist, you know? Plus, the velvet revolution happened mainly in Prague. The smaller cities like the one I lived in were touched, but you didn’t feel that anything was happening, though in our school things changed a lot, starting with the dismissal of the school principal.’

So you didn’t celebrate the change either?

‘I was actually surprised, as I didn’t know anything about politics. We didn’t learn anything about the Cold War at school, I wasn’t even aware of the difference between the West and the East. I wanted to study hotel management because I wanted to travel, but I didn’t realize that I couldn’t even go to the non-communist countries without permission. I wanted to learn English, I thought that was normal. No one told me that the Soviets suppressed us.’

A knock on the door; Pavlina’s next customer has arrived. She takes a quick glance in the mirror, smoothing her hair with her hand. As I leave the salon, I see her amicably greeting a heavily pregnant woman. I smile. Who needs to worry about past events, when you can daydream about the future?

(interview by Mark, written by Sophie Moerman)