The French Connection
Some days it’s hard to find happiness in what can be a gloomy world.
Pick up a newspaper or scan your preferred electronic newsfeed and you’ll likely see a series of dramatic headlines, proclaiming the end of our planet as we know it. The global population explosion will soon have us unable to feed ourselves. The oceans will rise significantly in a matter of a few decades, leaving untold billions of people stranded and homeless in the aftermath. Political scandals have become normalized, with a parade of elected officials having their transgressions regularly revealed on the front pages. The chasm between rich and poor will inevitably lead to a global civil war, resulting in a complete breakdown of society.
Whew. It’s tiring just writing about it. All of these are major issues of our time and each one needs serious attention. There is, however, a reason to be optimistic about our future. I had that idea strongly reinforced by a very unlikely person in the most unexpected of circumstances.
In 2006, after saving for what seemed like an eternity, my wife Rosanne and I took our family to western Europe for a vacation. With our kids taking second languages in school and our belief that travel is an excellent means of education, we jetted off to Frankfurt, landing in the late afternoon of July 9th. The airport luggage carousel was a great source of entertainment for our kids who were delighted when our first suitcase rolled off the conveyor. One by one the other passengers collected their bags, and it took a while to realize that five of our six checked pieces were missing in action and wouldn’t be accompanying us when we left the airport. Not life altering but a major hassle nonbetheless. With the exception of my eight year old son Hunter (who, arguably, cared the least of the four of us about missing clothes and toiletries), we started having visions of wearing the same pair of socks for several weeks. It was going to be difficult to enjoy our holiday without the normal array of shirts and pants, but British Airways assured us that they would find and deliver our missing luggage to our rented Paris apartment.
Soccer fans may recall that the World Cup Final was played on the 9th of July, and with France being one of the final two we wanted to watch the match on their home soil. Although disconcerted by the absence of luggage, we were determined to make the best of things and hey, on the upside, traffic on the autobahn was extremely light. After crossing into the land of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité”, a petrol station with a lunch counter served as our front row seat to the beautiful game, as we joined a group of locals huddled around a small TV. It was an emotional finish as Italy drowned the French hopes of victory, but we carried on into the night as our goal was to find a hotel room somewhere near Paris, before travelling to the city the next day.
Reims, 1 AM. Exhausted from jet lag and the trip from Frankfurt, we finally secured lodging and collapsed into bed. Tomorrow would be a great day, I felt, and drifted off into a deep sleep.
The morning brought sunshine and warmth, so with Rosanne, Hollie and Hunter just awakening, I headed out to find the nearest patisserie for a breakfast of decadent pastries. I enjoyed a leisurely walk along the canal and, armed with a box loaded with more calories than the population of a small town would need, strolled back to the hotel relaxed and looking forward to what the rest of the trip had to offer.
And then the wheels fell off.
As I opened the door to the room, the kids bounced off the bed to see what sort of deliciousness was hiding in the small bakery box. While they were deciding which tartlets would be theirs, I looked over and noticed Rosanne getting ready for the day, using her hair iron (thankfully she had kept some of the necessary bathroom items in her carry-on bag) to flatten and smooth her normally curly long blonde hair. But something seemed wrong with the otherwise serene scene. In an instant, I recognized the problem. Calm and orderly preparations don’t ordinarily include smoke rising from your mates head.
Horrified, I said “Honey, there is smoke coming from your hair!” She replied with a smile, “Oh it’s OK, that’s just the oil I use for straightening my hair”. But it didn’t seem that way to me at all. Without thinking, I surveyed the scene. Hair iron - melted plastic shroud. Smell - burning hair. Voltage converter - cheap. The high quality version was still in our luggage that was on European tour. Consuming my mind - dread.
I quickly convinced her to stop. Initially dismissing my concern, she ran her fingers through her hair, expecting to feel soft, supple and straight locks. She didn’t. Instead, her hand was greeted by crispy, burnt, dry crumbling hair. Not just the ends of the hair, but right to the scalp. Her smile evaporated and she looked like she had been kicked in the stomach.
Now, let’s take a moment to refresh the context. Here we had a family that had spent two weary arduous days getting to the starting point of our dream vacation, only to be told that the majority of our luggage was taking a different trip than we were.
Rosanne’s jet lag and frustration, mixed with the reality that her hair iron had adopted a scorched earth policy, resulted in a nuclear level explosion. I recall a few key phrases, including “This isn’t the vacation I signed up for!” and “Oh my god, it’s ruined, my hair is ruined!”. I know there were more but have involuntarily blocked them from my memory. The kids had retreated and were literally hiding behind the bed, scared for their lives and asking if we were going home. Had the space behind the bed not been full, I would have dived back there myself. If you think hell has no fury like a woman scorned, try lighting their hair on fire and see what happens.
The next few hours are a bit of a blur. We decided that no, we weren’t heading home and set about trying to figure out the next steps. While her dream of walking the Avenue des Champs-Élysées with large sunglasses framing her golden tresses had been dashed, Rosanne is smart, pragmatic and determined. She recognized that she was heading to the fashion capital of the world and that there must be a decent hairdresser or two to be found. Glancing at her once ravishing mane, my first thought was “You can’t see what I do” but thought that saying it out loud wouldn’t be particularly productive, so I determined calm agreement was the best course of action.
While I didn’t realize it when I had booked our Parisian quarters, the apartment was located in a trendy “up and coming” arrondissement, which in turn attracted many hip young people. Wandering the area, we stumbled across a beauty salon that was busy and filled with a wide variety of clients, with as much variety in their hair styles. Our ability to converse en francais with the staff was as limited as their English speaking talents, but with some hand signaling and a bit of interpretive skill from Hollie, a young woman invited Rosanne into her sanctum. It wasn’t until later that I realized she didn’t seem the slightest bit surprised by my wife’s circumstances. Indeed, the look on her face seemed to say “Oh, no problem. I have people setting their heads alight three times a day”.
Then, waiting. The tension that the kids and I felt was tremendous, but a couple of hours later Rosanne emerged. If I was shocked when I initially saw the smoke rising from her head, I was even moreso when I saw how well the young salon artist had managed the challenge. While quite a bit shorter than before, the hair was work of art. Healthy, shiny and, most importantly, wrapped around my SMILING wife’s face! The process had involved cutting, scalp management and the use of a hydration product no doubt developed by a 14th century alchemist that could turn the Gobi desert into a rainforest.
And it worked. Unbeknownst to us, the attendant we had encountered had skill and experience well beyond what I had imagined possible. The rest of the holiday was fantastic and we brought home many lasting memories.
That lesson from July 10, 2006 has stuck with me. No matter how daunting a challenge, no matter how much you feel something is irreparable, someone will have an answer. Now, you may say, overpopulation or melting icecaps are far more serious issues than burnt hair, and you’d be right, but that’s not the point. Look back in history. The Great Depression. World Wars. A huge hole in the ozone layer. Nuclear cold war. Acid rain. Deforestation. All of these posed significant threats in their time (some still do), and populations were certain that the end was nigh. But what was missed was the human capacity to fix things, to improve, to evolve.
So today, what is the most appropriate response to climate policy? Or the electrical grid being held hostage by cyberattack or ending up redundant? Where do the answers lie? I have some thoughts on the electric side of things but definitely don’t have all of the solutions in a secret journal. What I do know that whether the problem is large or small, there are always people with innovative thinking and skills that we aren’t aware of, going about making things better one day at a time. It’s always been that way. As individuals we are all far from perfect, but collectively we’ll figure it out.
So stay positive and don’t be afraid to look for solutions wherever you are and whatever your circumstances.
And when you travel, pack your clothes in a carry-on bag.