French Fashion Boot Camp

She stood in front of us, scanning the room…and she didn’t seem to like what she saw. We were 15 new recruits to France’s largest airline. An airline that brands itself on the best France had to offer: style, class, sophistication. And it was her job to whip us into shape.

We were issued our uniforms created by a top French designer during our first week of training. So there we sat, as stiff as our new white satin collars,

bracing ourselves to be broken down by this Parisienne in her Channel suit.

She set her designer leather handbag down, took off her silk scarf and tied it to the handles, crossed her arms and sighed.

She started in first on the uniform itself. Or actually, on the colleague who had not pressed his shirt that morning. She ridiculed him in such a way that in the 4 years I wore that navy blue dress, I religiously ironed it the night before being on duty.

She then looked out of the corner of her eye and mention that slips were “Proven├žale” … Loose translation… Only unsophisticated peasants from the countryside wear slips under their skirts… As discreetly as I could I tried to hitch up mine from JCPenney’s that was visibly showing.

Next: shoes. For the women, we all wore a heel. Our shoes had to be shined, I got in the habit of shining them nightly. We were told not to drive in our work heels, but to have another pair ready to slip on and off when we drove.

Hair. Rule number one: if it was long enough to touch your collar, it had to be worn up. My hair at the time reached my waist so I learned very quickly how do a chignon that would pass inspection AND that could be done with eyes half closed before the 5AM shift at the Charles de Gaulle airport in the outskirts of Paris.

Nails: short and trim. Flashy and long were frowned upon. Clear or nude colors were best.

Jewelry. Small and discreet were de rigueur..

Make up. To ensure that we all knew how to do our makeup, we were whisked out one by one to have an individual makeover from Lanc├┤me, the goal was not to sell us products but to individually teach us what was the most flattering for us AND was in line with the company policy.

….smoky eyes were not an option.

The things you learn in boot camp can influence your behavior for a lifetime. To this day, I still prepare my clothes the night before and can do my makeup and hair in under 7 minutes. When you have been trained to start work at 5am and have been expected to look chic without one hair out of place…you learn to get ready…fast.

20 years on and working a corporate job in a different company, I once had a non French manager remark to another that every morning I was made up. I smiled a secret smile. Like a former soldier who still wears his hair short and presses his trousers, French women, especially former hostesses, usually have the “look.” The hair is done, the makeup is just so and there is just a je ne sais quoi of … style, class and sophistication.

Adding insult to injury

In addition to buying a trombone, another recent purchase was a pair of Nordic walking sticks. There seems to be an endless stream of purchases that can embarrass your teenager if you are so inclined.

For those who don’t know Nordic walking, from a distance, it looks like a tired cross country skier walking through a field without skis, dragging his poles behind him.

But since I tend to go walking as soon as I wake up, my teenager rarely sees me in my full Nordic walking regalia much less dragging my poles around our public park. My regalia includes old yoga pants and a corporate sweatshirt I got on a retreat, black coat and a fleece hat.

I just have to slip my orthopedic insoles into my Clark’s and strap on my poles and I am ready to go!

In my younger days, that little voice inside my head worried constantly about what other people might think. I would have never, ever been caught out in public in such a mismatched array.

But since hitting middle age, that little voice now sounds more like a heavy smoking truck driver punctuating my thoughts constantly with an “aw, fuck it.”

Luckily, since on weekdays I wake up between 5:30 and 6:00 to go walking the only people who actually see me are usually hanging off of a garbage truck.

Today was a different story. It was a long and taxing week at work and I forced myself to stay in bed after waking with a start at 6:00 am on a Saturday. I got out of bed about 10am and I ignored the urge to just sit on the couch and watch Netflix, I forced myself to get dressed and walked out the door.

Nodding to my neighbors who are used to seeing me in full makeup and high heels, I stroll on by at a healthy clip, sucking in my gut. Coming around a corner at the entrance of the park, what did I see? About 25 middle age women in sweatpants and knit caps… Strapping poles!!!

I had found my people.

They were taking a break and I didn’t think twice about approach them. Turns out they are a local Nordic walking club AND they had a trainer with them. One lady pulled out her phone and took my email address so she could send me the details. They walk together every Saturday morning. As I continued on my way, I could hear them say that they would see me next week. Either they are very friendly or they are a new cult that recruits new members via Nordic walking….

When I got home, my teenager was up…and already playing on his PS4. Since he is playing online, my motherly questions.. what time did you get up? Did you eat? How do you feel?… All come in a stage whisper. He usually just nods or emits a grunt. After I gently kissed his forehead, he actually smiled up at me, muted his mic and asked while pulling the headset off of one ear “How was your walk?” I smiled back. “Really good, … I really think I found my people.”

Practice Makes Perfect

Basements in Ohio do not have good reputations. News of discovered torture chambers across the State have been making headlines for decades.

It seems only appropriate that my parents had installed our music room in the basement.

Go practice” is forever associated with my apprehension of descending to that dark room that held my mother’s sewing machine and our standup piano.

A timer would sit by my side and tick nervously for 20 minutes like a doomsday clock while I gazed gloomily at my sheet music.

I hated to practice the trombone. Or the piano. Or any other torture instrument that was assigned to me that day.

“Someday you will thank me…” would be the words my mother would say to my back as I slinked up from the basement to go sigh dramatically in my bedroom.

Now 30 years on, I, on a Sunday afternoon, am voluntarily getting out my trombone to practice.

My inner teenager is grumbling but I know it is good for me. Like eating broccoli.

My son decided this would be a good time to escape to his room. On a positive note, my practicing in the living room seems to be the only way I can get him off of the PS4.

So. Music stand and sheet music in place… Right, now all I have to do is play. But play what?

I can’t seem to decipher any of the notes.

Since this was 2018 and not 1980, I could now cheat by searching online for an app that could help. In two minutes, I had downloaded an app called “i see notes”, took a photo of the sheet music and I had my phone play my music for me. In a very tinny way, but at least it got me started.

I’m embarrassed to say that I wrote “1” “3” and “5” above the notes… Showing me the positions on the slide. Hey, the next band practice was in 4 days and I was determined to play at least a couple bars in tune.

And so I practiced. Over and over. Until I saw a hand holding a camera around the corner. Great. I’m probably now on YouTube under “get a load of MY mom.”

I sent him up to read a book that wasn’t assigned and continued to play, loudly. Don’t mess with people from Ohio, we know how to torture.

In the Death Car

Maybe it was walking through the school yard gates that made me grip my bags a bit harder. How many girls had gripped their bag harder, bracing themselves for what awaited them through those gates? The difference was they were all under 10, I was pushing 50.

But I had liquid courage rattling in MY bag…..

A small bottle of champagne, a music stand and a trombone was all I was packing for my first band practice. I had gotten there early, hoping to warm up without too many witnesses.

Philippe, the band leader, was already there preparing the room and setting up the mics. He eagerly handed me my sheet music that he carefully prepared himself. I nodded and started to panic. It was if I was handed a document in Chinese. I couldn’t remember how to read sheet music! I had no clue what the notes were!

Oh, nightmare.. practice was starting in 20 minutes.

I quickly put my horn together and slipped out into the night. I went behind a prefabricated classroom and started to do scales. As discreetly as you can on a slide trombone… Like an elephant trying to blow its nose. Good. Scales. I remember how to play a scale. I’ll impress them with my ability to play 9 notes! Dear Lord, I’m going to die in there.

When I walked back in, the other band members had arrived. They started to take their places, so I slowly gravitated to stand near the banjo player.. hoping it would make me look good..

Luckily for me, their dedicated roadie Eve had played trombone in the past but was too shy to play on her own. So she brought her horn to practice for the first time with me. When I started to practice a scale, she looked at me in wonder and said, wow, can you show me the positions? I could have kissed her.

Everyone took their place and we started with “Monkey Man.” And we stopped after two notes. Philippe cleared his throat and walked over to us. “Fa fa so te do” he sang over and over till Eve and I got it right. Sweat was pouring down my back, trying to play it right.

The band started playing again and Eve and I started to be a bit more confident, we had that fa-fa-so-te-do down pat! Oh shit. There were other notes to play. We looked at each other and just started making up notes..and started dancing. Until Philippe walked over, playing his guitar and gave us the conductor laser eye.

If you have never played in a band, the conductor can yell at you by just raising an eyebrow. Philippe had raised two. We stopped and sheepishly went to the drink table. Philippe stopped the rehearsal and said “the trombones don’t get to drink yet.” At that point, the banjo walked across the room to stand next to the backup singers.

When a banjo abandons you, you know you are in trouble.

Dying a slow and embarrassing death, it was appropriate that the next song was “In the Death Car.” Philippe did his fa-fa-so-te-do trick again for Eve and myself, even though he didn’t seem to be singing it as cheery as Julie Andrews did in the Sound of Music. Eva seemed to play better than myself so I just started faking it, pretending to blow in my horn and move the slide… Just like in high school.

The last song that had the trombone part prepared was “Love Potion number 9.” We limped through that one OK and I was relieved when our bit was finally over. We finally could go to the drink table. I poured a large dose of champagne into a coffee cup and handed it to Eve. “Drink.” She did and then I did. Risky thing to do in flu season but screw it. We survived the death car and we were still ALIVE.