Letter from Ottawa

They stood around me, heads bent and tilted at an angle, hands clasped in front of them. “Oh my goodness! I can’t believe it!” I looked up at them and smiled. They added, “You must have to get up really early in the morning! It is just so thick!”

I added, “And curly too! Yes, I get up at 5.”

“Well, you’ll never have to worry about going bald.”

“Haha, yes, not a chance! I’ll probably injure my hand from holding the blow dryer for hours though.”

“Oh, you poor thing! Not only thick but curly too!”

The little old ladies looked up from under their dryers as the hairdressers examined my curly mane. Then the janitor arrived with a broom to sweep away the black carpet of hair all around my chair. There was more head shaking as they murmured unanimous incredulity to each other.

Now I have been the subject of such scrutiny before. Thick black and curly hair is apparently an unusual thing for the people of the western hemisphere but here in Ottawa it took on the proportions of mass hysteria, I was on stage, I was a star! I inspired awe and was offered sympathy. I was letting my thoughts proceed along the lines of Canadians being essentially different from Americans. And then I asked my hairdresser if they also did eyebrow waxing at this place. She nodded and calmly told me that she needed to prepare the machine.

“Hmm…machine”, I thought to myself. Just how different are they! An eyebrow waxing machine! I couldn’t really imagine such a thing and started getting somewhat nervous. I wasn’t sure I wanted a miniature hedge trimmer around the delicate eye area. But I didn’t want to appear ignorant about the latest in eyebrow waxing technology. My hairdresser reappeared after what felt like an interminable wait. I was getting more anxious by the minute. How long did it take to prepare this machine? What were my eyebrows in for, a major shearing, weed-whacking? What?

I asked her what “preparing the machine” entailed. She said, “You know, warming it up!” I couldn’t resist ay longer and asked, “So here in Canada you use a machine to work on people’s eyebrows?”

It was her turn to stare at me as if my thick head of hair enclosed a wide and yawning empty space…”Er…for the wax?”

And so it hit, with immense relief! She was just talking about warming up the wax, phew!

“What did you think?” she asked with a smile.

It was an interesting experience at this salon that catered mostly to seniors in a tiny shop in my parents’ apartment. I needed to be spiffied up for my new job on Thursday and there was no time for me to find another place. So with great trepidations I had set foot inside this salon, hoping I wouldn’t end up with a cloud of short, wispy hair, meticulously curled around my head in a helmetic arrangement.

One by one the little ladies trickled in. All grey haired and upwards of seventy. They all carried in baked goods of all varieties as the ladies at the salon exclaimed about how weighty and spoilt they were becoming. I overheard tales of grandsons and great-grandsons. Their hairdressers listened with interest. Even in this group recently deceased Anna Nicole Smith was a hot topic of conversation. “Can you believe it? Now there are 3 people claiming to be the father of the baby!”

“Sure, they’re all after the money!”

“Who is the father of her son that died before?”

“Oh some guy she married when she was 16.”

“What’s wrong with these people? Back in the day you knew what you wanted, you married once and stuck with it.”

“Wonder who the father really is?”

“My great-grandson told me they can run a paternity test. DNA tests can reveal everything you know, it’s really quite amazing, he told me. He knows what he’s talking about. That kid is only 11 but he knows his stuff!”

That discussion evolved into one that sought to evaluate the relative merits of Anna Nicole Smith versus Paris Hilton. There were no sympathizers for Paris in this tough crowd.

I buried my head in some Canadian magazines. I had never leafed through Canadian magazines before. I assumed they read American magazines just as they drove American cars. But no! There were a whole slew of Canadian magazines to choose from – Chatelaine, Maclean’s, Elle Canada. Maclean’s cover lamented an educational crisis suggesting that all Canadian university degrees were tainted because almost half the students polled confessed to cheating. They thought nothing of it and neither did the professors. That was an intriguing story. I hadn’t heard of anything like this happening in the US. Or was it just something that hadn’t been exposed yet in the US?

Maclean’s is a Canadian business magazine, possibly comparable to Business Week. I expected some more articles on the Canadian economy or Canadian politics. But here too Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama were the big newsmakers as was George W Bush’s pathetic SOU address. I tried to think of the times I had actually seen Canadian politics discussed or written about in the United States. I drew a blank. It probably happened – never. In fact, back home, when I tell people I am headed for Ottawa they ask, “Where’s that?” I tell them that it is only the capital of Canada, just to hear – “Oh really? I thought it was Toronto!” I doubt this bit of information I impart to them on a regular basis ever registers because they like to ask me in elevators and such, “How was your trip to Toronto? How are your parents?”

I picked up Chatelaine next, a woman’s magazine, the kind that I was going to be my next employer. So I decided to look at the kinds of things they talked about. Two articles caught my interest. One was a rant against all Type A women. The rant was prompted by Condoleeza Rice’s recent declaration that she gets on the treadmill at 4:30 AM in the morning every day and never misses a single day. It was against all these power hungry Blackberry weilding women who could multi-task with tremendous ease and pride. The author of this article wanted a world ruled by Type B individuals, to cordon off these Type As in a pen somewhere as they typed away their lives on little communicating devices. She ended the essay with a note about how easy it would be for Canadians to lead a Type B revolution, with their politeness, courtesy and general lack of ambition…her words not mine! Here was a Canadian author lending credence to the cliche of Canadians resembling decaffeinated Americans. Well, make of that what you will!

The other article was one that asked that as parents it was our responsibility to teach our children how to clean. The author had not been trained in the art of getting down on her knees and scrubbing and so she had a tough time of it when she left home for college. She was against the hiring of cleaning services. She suggested getting back to basics. Things that make you go hmm! The advice one gets in America is to outsource everything one can afford to outsource in favor of retaining ones sanity. Been considering a maid service myself. My 12 hour days leave no time or desire to get down on my hands and knees to give the 3 bathrooms and the kitchen a good scrubbing and the carpet a masterly vacuuming job. If I can gear up to extricate all the clothes out of the dryer, fold them and put them away, neatly, I feel mighty proud. Could I deputize my daughter for housekeeping duties? I don’t really think so. I suppose I wouldn’t make a good Canadian chatelaine.

My hairdresser wrung her hands. She was in pain. She managed to make me feel guilty. I looked around me once again and saw her other colleagues twine wispy grey hair, not much longer than two inches, around tiny little curlers as the seniors turned their critical heads this way and that, patting at imaginary stray wisps. They just weren’t used to the hard labor that my hair required. I decided to tip her handsomely. She actually did a good job with my hair. I was all set for my Type A, blackberried and aircarded laptop job. One has to look good wearing an electronic leash.

I left the salon looking my best and slightly in awe of the quieter and gentler life that one notices in Canada – a friendly neighborhood salon, an aging, baked goods delivering clientele that one couldn’t help but admire. These ladies still cared about how they looked. They put on several layers of clothing, heavy boots, hats, gloves, scarves and walked over to the salon to engage in some warm conversation over cups of coffee and through mists of hairspray. Life always being lived to the fullest, at any age.

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