French Manucure
I had a manicure a few weeks ago. But this was no ordinary manicure. It was my first ever. And it was French.
By the standards of the Korean-owned nail salon in Brooklyn where I had it done, a "French manicure" means lavishly structuring, reshaping and painting one's nails so they look "natural." The intended effect is to make the nails look as though nothing has been done to them: the pink part of the nail is polished pink and the white tip of the nail is painted white.
To achieve this effect, my manicurist filed my nails, smoothed them with an emery board, trimmed the cuticles, massaged my hands, rubbed lotion into them and had me soak my nails in a soapy solution.
Then she built me a new right thumb nail (mine was short and jagged) with a silk wrap, which involved gluing a small square of silk to my nail and hardening it with an array of polishes, powders and sprays. Once constructed, the new "nail" was cut, filed and smoothed like the rest of my nails.
At this point, the manicurist asked me to pay $14. They like you to pay before painting your nails, the reason for which became obvious later when I left the salon and my nails still hadn't completely dried. I couldn't pick up or touch anything.
Having prepared my 10 mini-canvases, my manicurist was ready to paint. She applied one thin coat of pink to my reconstructed right thumb, then a coat to the index, the middle finger, the ring finger, the pinky. Then she applied the same treatment to the lefthand nails as the right ones dried. Returning to the right hand, she applied another coat of pink to each nail's surface - thumb, index, middle finger, ring finger, pinky. Again on the left.
Now it was time for the mistress manicurist to finish her apprentice's work. So my by now adored manicurist left me to her more severe master, a forbiddingly efficient professional and a far cry from the first, sunnily cheerful manicurist.
The mistress selected a bottle of French Tip White and went to work, swiftly painting a neat, thin band of white to the end of each nail. And when she was finished, she went back and applied a second coat to each nail. The last thing she did was to finish each nail with a clear coat of shiny enamel.
And now I was ready for my nails to dry. The mistress led me gingerly - like an invalid in a sick ward, hands fluttering helplessly - to a seat in front of a special nail dryer, a contraption I had never seen before, which blows cool air onto the hands and accelerates the drying process.
Twenty minutes later, and voila!, I was ready. A gorgeous new woman with the most perfectly real nails you've ever seen in your life. For the rest of the day, I couldn't get over myself. Every few minutes I would admire my fresh new nails in their pinkly unadorned beauty and not regret one minute of the hour and double manpower required to make my French-manicured nails look so natural.
Now, why do we here in America call such a baroquely perverse process "French"? Why, for that matter, do we have French drycleaners, French silk, French fries, French maids, French vanilla coffee, French dressing and French kissing? Why, oh why, is there a Brooklyn deli in my neighborhood called "La Bagel Delight"?
Obviously, we Americans have certain ideas about French culture. We see it as a sophisticated, elaborate if not hyper-articulated, difficult, elegant, romantic and deeply incomprehensible creature. It represents an aesthetic ideal that simultaneously draws us in and repulses us.
True, these adjectives may not realistically portray French culture. In fact, our formula for what constitutes things French has probably never existed in France. No matter. Our fantasy about French culture is more important to us than the reality. We've created it to satisfy our own need to be perversely overwrought.
Want proof? Just look at my hands.

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