HAVE YOU ever had your hair cut in a foreign country? For some, particularly women, it's a daunting thought, unless of course you live abroad all the time. I don't know if it's easier for men? It must be, if your coiffure consists of the shortest of crops or even a bald and polished pate, but if you're a woman who cherishes your crowning glory then the thought of surrendering yourself while on holiday to the local Mr Teasy-Weasy must be quite frightening. Indeed I've known expat ladies who will deliberately plan a few days in The Old Country just to get their hair done.
In my early days of living in France (it will be twenty years ago in October), tiring of constantly flicking my hair out of my eyes, I braved the local Sweeney Todd in his salon de coiffure in the village of Labastide Rouairoux, where I lived then. First impressions were pretty unnerving: the previous customer was having a naked candle-flame applied to his scalp and the place stank of burning hair. Not very promising, even though Monsieur Todd was flourishing a sort of funnel made of paper to catch the molten wax. But with true British grit I saw it through, and discovered that this was no demon barber, but a mild and mannerly chap who not only knew how to do short back and sides but displayed an unexpected interest in church music.
In due course I moved on from Labastide to Olargues, the village where we live now, and meantime my hair didn't stop growing, by now in all the wrong places, back and sides rather than on top. Via the choir that I conducted at the time, choirs locally being a yet more buzzing forum for the exchange of gossip and misinformation than barbershops are, we discovered a travelling hairdresser who would come and do the needful in the comfort of our own home. So Sandrine would turn up with all her material, set up in the bathroom and do us both in half an hour, chatting away the while, and all went well to start with.
Maybe there's a supposition among the French that the Brits in their midst live in their own little ghetto-like worlds of inward-looking expatism, never venturing out much among the natives, so that they're very unlikely to know Monsieur X or Madame Z. While this may very regrettably be true in some quarters, it isn't in ours. Sandrine turned out to be too much of a gossip to last long, so we moved on.
And this was at just about the time Sophie Frimousse opened her salon in the village. There's a photo of it up at the top. I was struck by the name. It seemed unlikely that Frimousse was actually Sophie's surname, because it's the French for 'smiley', one of those emoticons, little round yellow smiling faces that people sometimes put in Facebook comments or website message-boards. It would be like assuming that the person who ran a sweetshop with 'Tom Gobstopper' above the door actually was a Mr T. Gobstopper. 'Frimousse' is well chosen, because Sophie is a very outgoing and spirited person and smiles much of the time.
Sophie Frimousse was a real find, and we've never been anywhere else since. I don't trouble her much, not having much hair to trouble her with, and Josephine's style is simple and compact in its elegance, so Sophie gets through the two of us as a job lot in under 15 minutes every six weeks or so. But it's clear that some of her clients demand the Madame de Pompadour Plus treatment every now and again, paying vast sums for creations that the first puff of the Mistral or Tramontane is going to disintegrate into rats' nests, and it shows how little I know about the finer points of Sophie's mastery of French hairstyling when all I can add are the following two comments:
1. Inexplicably, several French hairstyling terms are English: un brushing, for instance, is a blow-dry, assisted by a brush to give some form after un shampooing (pronounced something like 'shompwang').
2. Many of Sophie's customers, particularly the elderly, wait until the full moon before making an appointment. It's firmly believed that hair grows more vigorously with the waxing moon, less vigorously with the waning moon, so that you get best value for your money and your styling lasts longer if you have it done at the period of minimum lunar growth. There couldn't possibly be any truth in this, could there?
During our most recent appointment Sophie was full of a visit she'd recently made to Brighton. Well, not Brighton exactly, she said, but somewhere near. She couldn't remember the name of the place but it sounded like a sneeze. Neither Josephine nor I know that part of the world very well, but we put out several unsneeze-like prompts. Shoreham-by-Sea? Did that sound like un éternuement, a French sneeze? Sophie shook her head. We tried a few more, reciting names remembered from the atlas rather than places we knew. By no stretch of the imagination could Hove or Woodingdean be said to resemble a sneeze. We drew blanks with Southwick, Kemp Town and Peacehaven. Not even West Blatchington drew any response.
I played my last card. I remembered that in the Sixth Form at school, so hardly yesterday, I had once gone on an archaeological walking tour of the South Downs. For me it was less a case of discovering dewponds and Iron Age hill forts than finding suitably hidden burial mounds to have a fly smoke behind. We stayed a few nights at the Youth Hostel in Alfriston, near Eastbourne, and the final night in the Youth Hostel in Patcham...
Patcham! Sophie's face lit up, with an ear-to-ear frimousse. Patcham! That was it! We'd got it! That was where she stayed! Josephine and I looked at each other, via the mirror: Sneeze? Patcham? What had Patcham to do with sneezing?
Ah well. The French don't say Atishoo! to represent a sneeze. They say Atchoum! Atchoum!
Yes, I see. Bless you, Sophie Frimousse.