French Manicure

At 11pm last night, the UK left the greatest post-war peace project ever created. Those who voted for this move have yet to know exactly what their actions meant. Did anyone - really, anyone - ask enough questions in 2016 before a simple yes/no vote took place? The scary part is that, despite all the post-referendum debate, so many Leavers still prefer ignorance to knowledge, their stance having transfigured into a folkloric ‘courage’.

In the late seventies between school and university, I went to New York for the first time. I spent a fortnight of evenings being fed shepherd’s pie at my aunt’s house on Long Island (when all I really wanted was to visit a diner), and my days prowling around Manhattan, drunk on its difference from the mundanities of Essex. For me, one of the city’s fascinations were its nail bars, staffed by Korean-American women who sat perpetually hunched over their customers’ hands, only looking up when something odd entered their peripheral vision.

I quickly became one of those somethings. A young, strangely dressed, lone female with seemingly very little to do but gaze around the streets would scrutinise their treatment list intensely, hover, and then walk away. And then come back, before walking away again. I did this several times at several nail bars, each time too shy to walk in. The women who strode past me wore camel coats, wide silk trousers, pussy-bow blouses, patent shoes. I was dressed in jumble sale clothes - mainly forties and fifties stuff that I’d altered or reshaped, but all distinctly and purposely eccentric. When I walked away for the last time, the door opened and a ‘nail girl’ beckoned me in.

At this stage in my life, I had never used a hairdresser’s, let alone a nail salon. When my hair became too long for a headache-free ponytail, my father would slap a piece of carpet tape along its bottom edge and cut the tape off with my mother’s dressmaking scissors. That was what we called a trim in our house. I also used a shampoo which stuck split ends together, thus doing away with the need for regular salon visits. Except that it didn’t. But I lacked the nerve to face anyone who might look at my uncultivated long hair and bully me into having something fancy done. You’ve seen those 1970s Top of the Pops recordings - adolescent grooming (in the original sense) was negligible; eyebrow-plucking hadn’t even been invented.

So there I am, a hirsute eighteen year-old Brit somewhere downtown, about to have her nails professionally painted for the first time. I didn’t want showy talons and knew that a French manicure was something classy, so I requested one. The woman spent what seemed like ages cleaning, filing and buffing my nails, all the time shouting happily in Korean to her co-workers, who invariably shouted back at the same pitch, and all without any loss of focus on their work. They were industrious, efficient and utterly confident. They completely ignored the ten or so silent clients whose hands were star-fished on the little counters.

Then it was my turn to be shouted at. ‘Pay now!’ I was ordered. My nails were clean and nicely shaped but they remained un-lacquered. Maybe this is it, a French manicure, I thought. It’s certainly natural-looking…maybe not worth the price, but you live and learn. I paid, gathered my things and opened the door to leave. The woman hurried over. ‘Stop!’ she yelled. We then had a conversation in which each of us showed how puzzled we were by the other. I thought that payment indicated the treatment was complete; she thought it impossible that someone could ask for a French manicure without knowing what it entailed.

She did, of course, share this with her colleagues. They laughed. A lot. They translated the story for their non-Korean-speaking clients, who also laughed. Me, I had to go back to my little counter and spend another thirty minutes having pink and white varnish painted on my nails until everybody’s laughter wore out and then occasionally erupted again when the English tourist’s idiocy was recalled.

The reason for taking payment before painting was - of course! - that you don’t ruin the manicure by handling money when the varnish is still wet. Forty years later, my levels of sophistication remain fairly undeveloped but now I always ask endless questions when I don’t know something. As the commemorative Brexit 50p coins leave the hands of patriots for eBay this morning, I am sad to see the UK embrace benightedness as a treasured national quirk. A manicure is a small matter but apparently, so is leaving the EU.