The past two days have been ones when I've been glad there's been no one to take a picture for me; they mark two firsts. My first haircut in England (which isn't necessarily daunting, but there's a bit of an unknown to it) and my first "real tennis" lesson.
I had this idea when I came here that I would let my hair grow out and see what I thought after four months (I have pretty short hair); I made it two months before I remembered why I've stopped having long hair (and frankly, it wasn't that long). I had scoped out my neighborhood for places to get my hair cut; I had also looked online for reviews of salons, but online reviews don't seem as popular here. (Hotel reviews seem to be the one exception, though even most of those are written by non-Brits. My favorite hotel review so far, clearly written by someone not from the UK, was a whole rant about who they couldn't get table service in the hotel pub. They had to order at the bar and then their order was brought to them which seemed to be a source of great consternation for these reviewers. Obviously they hadn't read a single travel guide-- there is no pub that I know of in the UK that works in any other way. In fact, table service [i.e. having your order taken at the table an all the other normal waiter functions we're used to in the US, like drink refills] is sort of a new concept in the UK-- though it is becoming more common at restaurants [table service. Not drink refills. Don't expect a free refill. Anywhere. For anything.]. But not pubs-- there is no table service at pubs. If lack of table service is a big deal, you really shouldn't visit the UK.) So, online reviews being no help (and, a glance at the Tony and Guy service list demonstrating that a haircut there-- the place was recommended to me by the woman who cuts my hair in the US-- was out of my price range), I decided to go to the place in my neighborhood that always seems busiest. Busy seems like a good sign; I tend to avoid restaurants that never have anyone in them (I assume the locals are avoiding it for a reason-- though this doesn't really apply in Oxford. There aren't too many restaurants that aren't busy.), so I figured a salon should work the same way. After much deliberation (this actually went on largely before the day I picked a salon because I had been thinking for a while that I wasn't going to be able to take the whole growing out process), I went to Fusion.
It turns out that asking for an appointment at a salon in the UK is more complicated than asking for one in the US. There are the regular questions-- what do you want done (cut, cut and color, etc.--thankfully, I didn't want color because that would have been followed by half or full and I haven't figured out what that means yet. I only know there are distinctions because I've seen price lists which have both.), what time and day-- and then there is the question of what kind of stylist you want. There are levels to choose from: graduate stylist, stylist (also called classic stylist), creative stylist, and senior stylist. Sometimes the manager counts as an additional level as well. And, how much a haircut costs depends on which kind of stylist does it. (It can also vary depending on length of hair, but this wasn't really an issue for me.) I went with a graduate stylist, which is the most inexpensive option (I was assured that the graduate stylists had been well trained... though I'm not sure what that indicates exactly. Trained by whom? Where? "Well trained" seems like a relative term.). A basic haircut by a graduate stylist in Oxford is still about 30 pounds (this seemed to be a pretty standard base price at every salon I looked at in Headington-- it only went up from there). I was able to make an appointment for a couple hours later (which was surprising, but I guess Wednesday afternoon isn't ever a really busy time at a salon), so I went to run errands and then returned.
My stylist was Laura. She was really methodical in explaining how much hair she was going to take from each part of my head (I am still trying to grow my bangs out-- or fringe as it's called here-- so there was a discussion of how to make that blend a bit while they go through this somewhat awkward in-between stage), making sure that almost every cut she was going to make was pre-approved. This might be because she's a graduate stylist which means she's only been out of school (she called it college which I think indicates she's had some pretty formal training beyond the basic beauty school) for a short while, less than two years. (The terms seem to indicate both how long the stylist has been out of school as well as how much additional training a stylist has had. Basically, the more complicated a cut or color job wanted, the higher up the ladder you would go to ensure it's done well.) It might also just be how the salon works since no one seemed to be in much of a hurry. (That might be a cultural thing too.) She might have been that methodical because I looked nervous. I generally have the opinion that it's hair and it'll grow back-- then again, I've been taking a lot of pictures and I don't really want to create lasting memories of me with a terrible haircut. And, the whole booking process was just different enough that it threw me a bit (for all I knew, they were laughing at me in the back for being dumb enough to go with graduate stylist) that I was a little worried about what was going to happen. When I think about it though, their system does make more sense, even if it is more complicated-- the levels of experience aren't nearly as well denoted in the US.
It all turned out well. I got a lovely head massage while she was washing my hair. And, the haircut is really quite good-- a tiny bit shorter than I probably would have wanted (the "fringe" got cut a little to make it blend which means it'll be that much longer growing it out-- and now it's just slightly too short to tuck behind my ears as I had been doing) but that's not a bad thing in the end. It might mean that I can make it another couple months before getting my hair cut again which is good since getting a hair cut in England is more expensive than in the US. I can't afford to do it as often as I would there.
I'm glad not to have photos of my hair cut since no one looks good in progress; but even happier that I don't have photos (or video) of my first "real tennis" lesson. I've written about going to watch real tennis-- and in lieu of being able to play actual tennis (or, lawn tennis as it seems to be differentiated here-- even if the court isn't a lawn court. Just saying tennis works too-- unless in the context of a "real tennis" lesson when it all starts to become confusing), I've decided to learn how to play the game which is its origin. I think learn might be optimistic-- there's only one "real tennis" club in Oxford and that club only has one court and that court is booked a lot. And, I think it would take much more than the few lessons I'm going to be able to fit in to really learn to play. But, in just one lesson, I did get some of the basics.
I had a one hour lesson scheduled with Craig-- my somewhat distractingly cute instructor. He was really encouraging and kept telling me I had good from, but I suspect he was exaggerating a bit. I will say that the fact that I play tennis helped a bit-- mostly because aim seems to be incredibly important in real tennis (I should stop using the quotation marks...it's not like that's not the real name) and I do know how to hit a ball with a racquet and make it go in an intentional direction. However, that is made harder by the fact that the racquet head is much, much smaller and the racquet itself is much, much heavier.
It's also asymmetrical-- flat on one end so that it can better scrape along the floor. Because the ball often bounces that low. (I think you can see the asymmetry better in the second picture.)
The ball itself is also heavier. They are all handmade-- and this means that the stitching creates a ridge on the ball.
So, not only does it tend to not bounce up, the ridges mean that it doesn't necessarily take a true bounce. Of course, the fact that it's coming off the walls like it might in racquetball doesn't help that whole bounce predictability either. So, while I can aim pretty well when I actually get the racquet on the ball, the potential for missing altogether is pretty high.
Craig started me off with forehands-- but that doesn't just mean hitting the ball from the forehand side. No-- it means that he would toss the ball towards the dedans overhand, let it roll down and then I would have to hit it.
It's much harder to hit a ball when it's coming from behind, especially when not only do you want to hit it, but also aim it towards the tambour and/or grille. The tambour is a section of the wall that has an angle to it-- if the ball hits it, it tends to shoot off wildly, making a return quite difficult. The grille is a small section of the wall, an inset box really, which if hit is an automatic point. (I hit it twice! I managed to hit the tambour quite a bit-- it's a bigger target.) In my head, this translated to having to go down the line with my forehand a lot. (There is no "line" to go down, but that's the direction.)
From here, Craig when to the other side of the net and fed me forehands-- this was unfortunately the point where spectators showed up. They got to watch the part where I missed the ball entirely. (It took me a few feeds to get the sense of how low the ball would bounce when simply coming off the floor rather than rolling of the overhang. I was swinging above the ball for the first few tries.) Then, the two guys who had been standing in the dedans decided they were "putting me off" so they left-- and totally missed the moment when I actually did hit the ball and get it over the net. I'm sure they were in the lounge talking about the silly American girl who couldn't even hit the ball-- but maybe it was them being there. I was better once they were gone. Being able to hit the ball flat is a great advantage in real tennis-- and flat is my natural shot, so that also helped me though there were some times when I hit with topspin (which is funny because I don't really have a topspin shot at all in actual tennis). Topspin shots have the opposite effect in real tennis of what an actual tennis player would expect; rather than create net clearance, it sends the ball into the net, pretty much at the bottom of it. It's not so much that I was intentionally creating a topspin shot-- I think it's that the racquet is so much heavier that sometimes it was hard to keep in the correct position and so the resulting motion made me come over the ball. But, I think Craig has the impression that I have a pretty good topspin tennis shot, so why delusion him?
We did the same process with backhands, only the goal here was to hit cross court (a term which makes more sense than down-the-line since there is a court to cross) since that again aims the ball towards the tambour and grille. Craig kept commenting on my backhand technique and how good it was-- surprisingly better than my forehand (I think my forehand is my better shot in actual tennis...). It might be that hitting cross court is an easier shot than going down-the-line in general. My forehand cross court did look pretty good-- it's just that that's not the smart shot in real tennis. And, I have a pretty big follow-through on my forehand-- the follow-through is not a help in real tennis. Hitting a real tennis shot is a lot more like hitting a volley-- and, I do like my backhand volley better than my forehand one.
From forehands and backhands, we moved onto the serve. The serve is strange in real tennis-- it doesn't really matter how you hit it. Underhand, overhand-- either is good. What matters is that you have to hit the overhang on the opposite side of the court. And then the ball has to hit in the service box, but that's really not a problem since it's so much larger than the service box in actual tennis. Getting the ball in the service box was easy for me. What isn't as easy is that the idea on the serve is to aim for the crevice between the wall and the floor pretty close to the service wall side. That makes it almost impossible to return the ball. (Craig put out a basket where I was ideally aiming-- I did manage to hit that twice as well. And, I came close a lot-- close created a pretty good serve.) Once I got used to tossing the ball lower than I would for my actual tennis serve, I was pretty good. Serving is probably the strongest part of my real tennis game (though, my shoulder was quite sore later. I haven't served at all in a couple months and doing it with a significantly heavier racquet than I'm used to was clearly not something my poor shoulder was prepared for. Fortunately, some extra-strength ibuprofen seems to have fixed that.). Returning serve, on the other hand, I'm pretty awful. (Again, interesting since I think the return of serve is the best part of my actual tennis game.) Ideally, when returning serve, you would take the ball as it comes off the wall. It turns out, it's really hard to predict where a ball is going to be when it's coming off a wall and is coming from behind you. For a while, Craig was serving to me so that the ball was falling from the service wall overhand and landing in front of me-- that I could return. But, no one would serve that way intentionally in real tennis (at least not on a first serve-- there are two serves in real tennis as well, though not nearly as much need for the second serve) because simply rolling the ball of the overhang makes the serve a pretty easy shot to return. No-- the server would ideally create a shot that rolls off the overhang, bounces on the floor and spins towards the back wall necessitating taking the ball out of the air before it bounces a second time on the floor (which would be a winning point). I can create that serve, but I can't return it. Frankly, when it looks like tennis (the ball hitting the floor and bouncing in front of me), I'm pretty good. But, since that happens rarely (really, only when Craig is intentionally feeding it to me that way), overall I'm not a natural at real tennis. It's really unnatural to think about spinning around to take a ball from behind-- which is why when we played one game at the end, Craig beat me at love (He didn't even try to let me win a point, which on one level I appreciate since I don't really want to be given anything, but on the level where I'm competitive and don't like losing, it kind of sucked to not even be able to get a point, especially since I don't think Craig was having to work too hard to beat me.).
On the plus side-- Craig does keep insisting I have good form. I'm going back for another lesson in a little more than a week and we're going to start by playing actual points so I can get used to the completely random bounces. I guess if he were lying to me about technique, we wouldn't be starting with actual game play next time. And, this could actually have a good effect on my actual tennis game-- "watch the ball" is a mantra in actual tennis, but there's just no way to play real tennis without constantly keeping an eye on the ball, especially since it's bouncing off overhangs and walls and moving in unpredictable ways. So this should help my focus. And my footwork-- the unpredictability means you can't be flatfooted. Ever. And, it may help my volley as well-- or at least my half volley (there isn't much rushing the net to take a volley out of the air in a traditional way-- while taking the net in actual tennis is often an advantage, it is a serious disadvantage in real tennis since it leaves the corners, grill, tambour and walls all vulnerable.). At the very least, it felt good to hit a ball again-- which I managed to do more than I missed. That probably makes it a successful first real tennis outing.