Upon arriving in Paris in October of 2012, my husband Bill and I immediately transferred to a flight to Bordeaux. We had visited that lovely southern French city in 2009 and were eager to spend more time there.
One of the male flight attendants welcomed me on board with a friendly twinkle in his eye. As I arranged my belongings I chuckled, “How nice to have a man other than my husband pay such attention to me!”
After we reached altitude, the attendant sauntered to our row near the front of the plane. “Madame, it is good to see you again. How are you?” he asked. I was nonplussed at first. I studied the handsome, blue-eyed, dark-haired man who possessed that urbane air typical of Frenchmen of a certain age.
“Quite well, thank you. We’re very happy to be on our way to Bordeaux.” I paused then as a memory flashed before me, “We have met before, haven’t we?”
He smiled again. “Yes, madame, I recall that you and your husband were on my flight a few years ago. I fly this route regularly and I remember certain passengers.”
Memories of the mild flirtation we engaged in on the previous flight drifted into focus. We began a similar banter. He was interested that we were returning to Bordeaux for another tourist visit. We exchanged stories of favorite places in that city. I kept thinking, “Isn’t it about time for Bill to go to the lavatory?”
But, the flight was short and Bill was also enjoying the occasional conversation with our attendant. I couldn’t help smiling at the little glow this Frenchman’s gallantry had lit in me.
The flight over the French countryside to Bordeaux is one of my favorites. I feel like I am flying over a patchwork quilt of greens and browns embroidered with tiny roads and petite villages and thumb-size castles. Fluffy clouds look like tufts of cotton batting escaping from the quilt.
As one approaches Bordeaux the countryside changes a bit. The fabric of the landscape changes to corduroy rows of vineyards and orchards. Soon a silvery ribbon appears, twisting and tangling through the verdant fields. From directly overhead, the silver melts away to reveal the milky silt-laden Garonne River.
This year we reserved a hotel room near the center of the city. I couldn’t resist booking at the Hotel Sainte Catherine, just off the Boulevard Sainte Catherine. Dropped off by our taxi at the edge of the pedestrian zone, we walked the short distance through the shopping district to the hotel. We found our room to be up-to-date and stylish with what used to be uncommon in France…a huge, modern bathroom equipped with an enormous walk-in shower. Fluffy towels, high-end toiletries and a hair dryer ensured we’d have nearly everything we needed during our stay.
As we unpacked our very small suitcases, I made a list of a few things we needed to purchase in Bordeaux. First on my shopping list was a curling iron. This trip I was not planning to suffer bad hair days.
A couple of days into our 2009 trip the temperature skyrocketed and the humidity rose with it. I was frantic to swoop my lank, sticky hair off my neck and into a ponytail. Somehow I had arrived in Europe without a single elastic hair band. Alas, in France, it is not obvious where one can buy such a thing.
We wasted hours searching for hair accessories throughout the downtown shopping district. Finally, in a boutique nestled down a side street, I located a silk-covered elastic band. Adorned with a mother-of-pearl ornament, the band was much more fashionable than the plain one I sought. But it held my hair back just fine. For our 2012 trip, I packed plenty of hair bands, but left my curling iron at home.
Based on that shopping experience, I knew that we wouldn’t find hair products, much less a curling iron, at a cosmetic store, a pharmacy, a perfume shop, a department store or a grocery market. So where do French women buy curling irons?
Downstairs I started to ask the front desk clerk for advice but stopped short. Would a woman who wore her hair casually tousled in a way that whispered, “I spent my two hour lunch cavorting with my…hmmm…sexy flight attendant boyfriend” even need a curling iron?
And how does one say curling iron in French anyway? Maybe while we rambled the nearby shopping area we’d run into a store that carried curling irons.
As it turned out there was a beauty supply store just a few blocks away. We could see through the window that it seemed to be stocked with all manner of hair care appliances and products.
Bill and I entered the store and spotted just inside the door a shelf stacked with many different brands of curling irons. Success! This was so easy! I called out “Bonjour, Madame, Monsieur!” to the two people standing near the counter.
As I studied one of the wealth of choices, the shop girl clattered over to me in her four-inch heels. “Non, Madame, trop chaud!” I must have looked puzzled. She repeated herself, shaking her curly head and appearing quite anxious. Finally, I got it. To Bill, I murmured, “She is saying it is too hot!” I tapped another box. She shook her head.
Finally, I screwed up my courage, “Avez-vous un autre? Pour moi? Pas professionel?” I figured out that the curling irons on the shelf were for stylists and so thought that by asking for something that wasn’t for professionals she would lead me to the curling iron I needed.
She wrinkled her pretty brow and called to the manager at the register. He strolled over to assess our situation. It appeared that he had dealt with this request before. “Oui, madame, tous ceux ci sont trop chaud pour vous!” He waved his arms to take in all of the merchandise. “C’est tout pour stylists professionels!”
Now I understood. All of the curling irons were too hot for me. This was a shop for professional stylists only. They stocked nothing they would trust me to use. The gentleman folded his well-manicured hands at his trim waist, tilted his head to one side and gave me a sad smile.
He read the dismay on my face, because he turned back to the counter, gesturing for me to follow. He scribbled a name on a pad of paper and held it out to me. I read what he had written. Apparently there was a Carrefours supermarche nearby and there I could find a curling iron suited to my styling skills. “Merci, Monsieur, je comprends.” It felt smart to say I understood his note.
The manager took me by the elbow and led us to the doorway. He pointed first at the tram pulling away from the stop outside the door, then down the street and held up three fingers. Only three stops! I smiled and nodded. He wrote the stop names on the slip of paper and handed it to me with a flourish.
I thanked him for his kindness. He responded with a slight lift of his shoulders. “De rien! It is nothing!” As the manager held open the door for us, I glanced back at him and caught the twinkle in his eyes.
Hotel Sainte Catherine is now the Quality Hotel Bordeaux Centre, 27, rue du Parlement Sainte Catherine, Bordeaux, France, 33000. Tel. +33 (0) 5 56 81 95 12