Passing through Charles de Gaulle Airport last month on my way from Poland to the Seychelles last month, I had a spare day, so I went into Paris to get my hair cut.
I was feeling tired, ugly, old and depressed, and the last haircut I'd had in L.A. hadn't helped. Besides, a cut you get at home is just a cut. But there's the promise of magic and new life in a Parisian clip.
My sister has often said that she got a perfect cut near the Hotel George V on the Right Bank. She couldn't remember the name of the salon, but she gave me directions. "When you come out of the Metro at Avenue George V and the Champs Elysees, walk south," she said. "The salon will be a block or two down on the right, if it's still there at all."
"How much will it cost?" I asked.
"I don't think I paid more than $100," she said.
That's all I had to go on. I didn't want to visit the Louvre or climb the Eiffel Tower, so I didn't take a guidebook (though I did have a map). And I didn't carry a phrasebook so I could test Parisians' tolerance of my high school French.
I did, however, take a scarf, because I wanted to look like a Frenchwoman. After numerous trips to France, I'd developed theories about the French. They drink coffee and smoke cigarettes to stay trim, willingly sacrifice their feet to high heels and learn scarf craft at the breast, I guess. They never fail to make me feel homely. A scarf, I thought, was the least I could do for my self-image.
With just 24 hours in the City of Light, I decided to shoot the works. I booked a deluxe double room at the Hotel Montalembert, a chic spot on the Left Bank, for $375 a night.
I checked in at noon, then ate in the little first-floor restaurant, seated on a royal blue banquette. It was a "ladies who lunch" sort of meal: chicken salad in a light citrus vinaigrette, with a glass of white Burgundy wine.
The decor, as in the rest of the Beaux Arts hotel, was a mix of elegant antiques and New York minimalism. A couple in their 60s sat next to me like tasteful French salt and pepper shakers. He was handsome in a Francois Mitterand way; she had a smoke-gray suit and brown hair in a French twist.
They'd have fit well in my room, which had a beautiful Louis Philippe armoire and a bedstead banked with four square pillows piped in yellow. A balcony overlooked the Rue Montalembert. The bath was small, but all mirrors and marble.
I'd never occupied such a room on visits to Paris. On my last trip there about five years ago, I stayed for 13 nights in 13 low-priced hotels to research a travel story on budget accommodations. Having largely avoided the tony area near the Champs Elysees because I felt I'd never fit in, I really knew only the bohemian Left Bank.
But I was older now and ready for a taste of the Right Bank.
The Montalembert is on the edge of the old university quarter just four blocks south of the Pont Royal. I crossed the Seine there and headed northwest through the Tuileries. It was almost a mile up the Champs Elysees to the Avenue George V, but the day was pleasant and I wanted to walk.
At the creme de la creme Hotel Crillon on the Place de la Concorde (where deluxe doubles cost $600), I took a peek at the Jardin d'Hiver tearoom.
I was thinking about my sister as I approached Avenue George V. I could see her in this poshest part of the Right Bank, effortlessly fitting in.
But my mind was not on her directions. I turned the wrong way at the George V Metro stop, onto the Rue Washington, where I found Coiffure Mersall salon, more modest than I'd expected but precisely two blocks down on the right.
"Quel miracle," I thought, and stepped in.
There was no waiting line and just one stylist on duty, a vivid-looking woman named Nadia. She put a splotched plastic wrapper around me, frowned and said in English: "Who cut the hairs? Who did this terrible color?"
"Someone in Los Angeles, but I'll never go back there again," I mumbled.
" Alors, how will I make you look?" she asked.
"Young?" I replied hopefully.
"Madame," she said, now fully indignant, "it is better to look well than it is to look young."
This was so wise and aptly put that I submitted completely to her ministrations. When the wrapper came off, I thought I looked like Julie Andrews without her wimple in "The Sound of Music." I did not like the cut, though I paid Nadia the $40 she asked and spinelessly told her she was an artist.
"Not very many people know how to cut the hair," she said.
That night I had dinner at Le Telegraphe, a pretty bistro near my hotel, with two friends from L.A. who were visiting Paris. They said they liked my hair, but how could I trust them? They were in love and on vacation.
Still, since I got back, everyone says they like my hair. Maybe it's growing on me. Or maybe I am growing into it, in the way I've grown into the Right Bank. Next time in Paris, I'll stay at the Hotel Crillon and find my sister's salon, where I'll have another surprising transformation.
Hotel Montalembert, 3 Rue de Montalembert, 75007 Paris; telephone 011-33-1-4549-6868, fax 011-33-1-4549-6949, Internet http://www.montalembert.com. Doubles $300 to $400.
Coiffure Mersall, 30 Rue Washington, 75008 Paris; tel. 011-33-1-4563-7950.