No, it’s not a museum or a pub or a restaurant.
It’s my nail salon.
Getting my nails painted is one of my life’s great guilty pleasures: it is a bit of a wasteful way to spend money. It makes me feel pretty in a way that indicates perhaps my self-esteem is not as deeply-rooted as it should be.
Mani/pedis are the one thing you can get cheap in NYC. I liked to go sit in the great big massage chairs getting rolled and kneaded while an Asian lady worked away at my feet. There is something uncomfortable about it, but that’s where the guilt comes into the pleasure, right? New York nail salons work with anonymous, military precision. My nails always looked perfect: trimmed short and round, shiny with evenly-coated polish. I could sit under the hand dryers as long as I liked, and I rarely left with a smudge or a chip (sometimes I did. I’m a klutz.) The Asian ladies asked me to pay before my hands were painted, decreasing the chance of digital imperfection (see what I did there?).
None of that is my experience in London.
The salon I go to costs about as much for a manicure as the combo cost in New York – and it’s the cheapest place I have found. There are no massage chairs. The women never file my nails as short as I’d like (I ask them to go shorter three times and then have to give up and accept I’m going to have a lady nail). The polish is a little uneven and doesn’t extend all the way to the edge of my nails. And without fail they tell me the polish is dry and I’m smudged by the time I take out my wallet to pay.
Still, I love it.
First, the salon is called “Your Beautiful.” It’s on the sign that hangs outside, it’s embroidered on the girls’ aprons. As a deep lover of the English language and champion of its proper use, this should probably irritate me, but I find it endearing. The people who work there are from non-English speaking parts of Europe: Italy, Hungary, Poland. They speak two languages and I don’t, and if they don’t quite have their contractions down yet, I forgive them.
I sit in a plastic chair shaped like a hand: my butt is cupped in the palm, my back rests against the fingers – the nails of which are, of course, painted.
I could sit through my sessions in NYC and not be expected to make small talk, but here I am trying to embrace asking questions. These girls want to practice their English, and I need to practice talking to strangers without feeling terror. It’s a win-win. The Italian girl has painted my nails a few times. She told me she is from a small town where everyone is shocked that she moved to London. No one there can imagine a life more idyllic than that of the Italian countryside, but she wants to see the world.
She gets some words confused: “outside” and “upstairs” are hard for her to remember correctly, and sometimes she inverts them: “upside” and “outstairs.” She told me she was planning a barbeque for her day off; until she moved in, all her flatmates ate their meals alone in their individual rooms. Now she has created a friendly group dynamic where they share time together. I believe she has the power to do it. She is incredibly sweet and smiley. She always remembers me and says hello when I come in, even if she isn’t doing my nails.
There is another girl (I think she’s from Poland but I’m not sure) who does a lot of specialty nail work – the women who come in wanting two inch fang-like fingernails (when did this become popular? It’s totally creepster to me). She can freehand tiny intricate paintings on each individual nail, and call me sentimental, but I think she’s an artist. Anytime a person has a talent and can create beauty – even of the miniscule and ephemeral variety – I envy their joy at their own creativity. We should all be lucky enough to have the confidence to embrace our gifts.
It’s just a friendly, relaxed place, and I genuinely enjoy the time I spend there. It’s nothing fancy, but there is good energy, and I always leave smiling, smudged nails or not.
I wonder that this sweet Italian girl traveled so far from her home – in a country I personally love and can’t imagine wanting to leave – to do this rather menial job so graciously. Everybody wants to be somewhere else. I’m here as an immigrant too, right? I guess we all go to great lengths to make our dreams come true.