French Manicure: A New Era Definition

“Come to the edge.”
“We can’t. We’re afraid.”
“Come to the edge.”
“We can’t. We will fall!”
“Come to the edge.”
And they came.
And he pushed them.
And they flew.
– “Apollinaire Said” by Christopher Logue


Maybe it’s just me but I’ve always had a particular impression of French Literature majors: on the intellectual sort of things, sophisticated, artsy types who can recite poetry ad infinitum. So, I was taken aback when the smiling soft-spoken young girl who was giving me a manicure told me she had studied French Literature.

She had just joined the nail salon I usually go to – and being acutely interested in people – I wanted to know more about her. Truth be told – she took me by surprise. All stereotyping aside, it is not customary to meet a college graduate in your neighborhood nail salon. And I wanted to hear her story.

Her mother, a gynecologist at the local state hospital on an Ionian island and her father a navy engineer, insisted on giving their only daughter the perfect education: private tutoring during high school and endless hours of forced studying so “they” could ensure the coveted college degree. Five (very long for her) years later, she graduated and announced she wanted to do something different and open her own business in the beauty industry. Her argument cracked bones: Her gynecologist mother’s base salary at the state hospital after 24 years of service is a little bit more than what her daughter is making by working 10 hour shifts in her second year of training as a beautician supplemented by a modest rental property income inherited by a distant aunt. Our heroine lost the debate with her parents. They gave her an ultimatum and promptly disowned her when she refused to budge.

Hindi tearjerker movie from Bollywood or the real generational clash in a challenging financial crisis where stereotypes need to be broken and molds to be re-invented?

I did not want to argue the economics of a system that allows low base salaries and black holes of grateful patients giving cash envelopes in appreciation of medical services. I did not even want to bring up perceptions of “esteemed professions” and status as I do believe that work – great work – is to be admired at all levels.

The young woman looked me in the eye and said as firmly as I’ve seen and heard anyone say: “I like this very much. I will open my own business – I want to have several spas in a few years. I want to be the best in the market…” We had a long discussion on how she could hypothetically use her French lit degree in her business (the nail salon with poetry readings?) or what would happen if she simply decided to teach and those prospects seemed horrendous – from getting a teaching job to tutoring. She told me how she really struggled with fulfilling her parents’ wishes and we talked about respect, expectations, familial duty and love and the time flew by.

I walked out of there with another nugget to add to my life lessons having one of those inevitable-for-everyone epiphanies about the fleeting nature of life, love and duty.

We tend to think we know best for those we care for. As parents we strive to give the world to our kids fighting our own demons, insecurities, biases and perceptions. As counselors and mentors we applaud initiative, drive, passion and boldness. And I know that meaning – that peculiar inner voice in your head that tells you what is right for you – if it’s loud and strong and clear – is your best guide.

I have no idea if the young aspiring businesswoman will make it and judging from the unemployment stats, her French Lit prospects would be no better. Is she doing the right thing by chasing her dream – even if it sounds quixotic? Are her presumingly loving parents doing the right thing cutting her out? Is it possible that they are even more loving than what she thinks because they are forcing her to fight and struggle on her own for what she wants?And then, how will the injury of rejection and denial heal? And will she be resilient enough to withstand the pressure, the hard work, the challenges of business?

It has been a strange summer. The Aegean blue – bewitching seductress – juxtaposed to the global financial crisis – a Damocles sword – have been teasing and cajoling our collective moods, and for lots of people on this side of the planet, their sense of self-determination, sense of hope and  future prospects have been been seriously wounded. Yet, it is up to us to fight and go on – and for some when there are no other options left, going forward is a one-way street in spite of, beyond, and towards the goals only you have set out to conquer. Your choices, your life…

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