Grace in the form of a mani/pedi

I’m at the halfway point of a workation in Europe. 14 days: 7 work, 7 leisure – my favorite kind of mix. Just enough time off to be able to enjoy the different scenery but not so much as to feel like a Eurotrip That Requires Planning. I like my trips to center around beautiful vistas that require no more than 50 minutes of leisurely strolls to reach and hours in a café people watching or reading a book with a healthy amount of boozy hydration. I typically prepare for these trips by:

  • Booking a flight;
  • Finding a hotel that is at the sweet spot of location/good vibes/3.5-4 stars/respectful to my bank account;
  • Ordering myself the Dr. Witness Top 10 guidebook from the city in question which I never end up reading but it looks good on my bookshelf as a momento;
  • Arriving at the hotel and asking the receptionist to plan my trip for me – what would he/she do if it was their first time in the city and they hated rushing?
  • Arriving at the hotel and asking the receptionist to plan my trip for me – what would he/she do if it was their first time in the city and they hated rushing?

During today’s breakfast I decided that the best way to spend my last 6 hours in Rotterdam would be to get my first mani/pedi since pre-pandemic. Is Rotterdam renowned for its nail care? Nope. Was I aware of any notable salon? Also no. But I had seen one 78 seconds’ walk from the hotel that had good vibes so good enough for me. Munching on my bagel and smoked salmon, I pondered why it was that in Montreal, despite knowing all the salons my friends swear by – some of them have even volunteered to personally introduce me to their favorite estheticians who will, by all accounts, change my life – the notion of pampering myself filled me with dread, but here in Rotterdam, I was eager to do an activity that used to give me joy. My second latte revealed the truth: I felt safe to reveal myself in a strange city, as there was no choice of me ever crossing paths with the estheticians ever again.

I’ve bought into society’s dictum that a person’s outward appearance is a reflection of their self-worth and a reliable indicator of how society can and should treat them.

A well built physique is a status symbol. It reflects you worked hard for it. No money can buy it. You cannot borrow it. You cannot inherit it. You cannot steal it. You cannot hold onto it without constant work. It shows discipline. It shows self-respect. It shows patience, work ethic, passion & dignity. – The internet

How else to interpret my 40lbs weight gain during the pandemic as an indicator that I have no self-respect? My reluctance in getting a mani/pedi as proof that I have no dignity?

While I was waiting for my time slot at the salon, I watched the two clients before me. Two women, one my age, one slightly older. The younger woman was teasing the middle aged woman about the full-blown excavative work being done one her feet – the kind of comment that would have plunged me into a shame spiral. Instead the older woman giggled and shrugged; they were speaking Dutch, but if I had to guess her reply was along the lines of “what? These are a working woman’s feet.” I became obsessed with her feet: tired, clenched, veiny, swollen. And yet the pedicurist working at them worked with single handed focus, massaging them over and over with care. Excavation or no, the pedicurist had a job to be done, and the middle-aged woman was clearly enjoying her pampering. The more the pedicurist worked her feet, the more the woman’s feet seemed beautiful in their ugliness. Each vein a sign of her life lived till now. The swollenness proof that she stood long days, providing for those she cared about. The gradual relaxing of her clenched toes an indication that for all her hard work, she was willing to let go her day’s worries to the pleasure of being cared for. Seeing her smile at her colorful toes, pack them up into her sneakers, and walk out of the salon with a bounce to her step, laughing with her younger friend, made my heart sing.

My turn came. I felt a wave of vulnerability taking my feet out of my shoes – this was to be the first time they were touched by a stranger in over 24 months. What judgments about my lack of self-care would the esthetician make based on the level of crustiness of my feet? Should I explain that I walk 2h a day and the corns on my toes are a new development since I turned 35? That the dry skin of many blisters isn’t my fault, I’ve always had sensitive feet? Laughingly joke that the hairs on my big toes are a result of a scaled back social life because of the pandemic, but of course normally I would pluck and primp my big toes to have an appearance that is appropriate for the outside world? Or just sit in silence and let the esthetician work? I chose the last option. For 90 minutes she worked my hands and my feet with gentle concentration giving me the same attention as she had her previous client. I caught her smiling and nodding with satisfaction after her last pat down of my feet – her first outward sign that she had seen the state of my feet initially. Rather than judgment, her smile seemed to indicate a satisfaction of having restored my feet to their unique form of beauty.

Sitting in companionable silence with the estheticians with the radio playing an eclectic mix of hits, from Tina Turner to Ed Sheeran to Brad Paisley, it occurred to me that maybe dignity is accepting oneself as one is, and deciding one is worthy of care. I’ve vague memories of a life pre-pandemic where this was a lesson I had well understood, but the pandemic stole much from all of us, including my sense of self.

Rebuilding that sense of self begins with neon pink nails, I’ve decided. They are loud, they are shiny and they are very me. A me I look forward to rediscovering.

Anyone know how to take flattering hand selfies?!


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