Barber Shops

One of the little things that I appreciate about Italy is barber shops. I’m not very picky about how I look, but it’s a pleasure to get a good haircut from someone that knows what they’re doing, and who gets to know you. Before Ilenia and I went to California in 2002, I went to a shop run by a gruff old man who did a great job. I would come in, take a seat with the newspaper (he was almost always busy, which was a good sign, I guess), and wait. When he was ready, he would indicate that I could occupy the chair, and he would simply ask “il solito?” – “the usual”, and then he would cut my hair just right. Nothing fancy, no crap in my hair, quick (but never rushed) service and a very reasonable price.

It was quite a shock when we landed back in the states, and my hair got long enough that I decided I’d better find someone to shear it off. Not seeing anything better, I went to the local chain at the mall. When I sat down to have my hair cut, the woman asked me “What number will that be, sir?”.

Uh, what do you mean, what number – I’d like my hair cut – can you do that?

“We use a number system so that our customers can tell us exactly what length they want”.

I like my hair short, but not too short – I think I went with a number 3 or something, but the results were of course nothing like “the usual” back in Padova. He knew exactly what “short but not too short” meant, despite it being a very vague way of putting things.

Indeed, after returning to Padova a year later in 2003, without missing a beat, “the usual” was all I needed to get my hair cut how I like it.

How can you tell which ones are the good ones? It’s got to be a real barber shop – no “unisex hair salon” with twenty-somethings working there. The interior is usually “faded” looking – like it has mostly stayed the same since when the guy started doing business in the 70ies. No flashy mirrored walls, maybe a few pictures or paintings of hunting scenes or sports, or similar manly pursuits. No “beauty products” for sale. A daily paper and some out of date hunting/cars/sports magazines are a good indicator too. The barbers who are true masters seem to achieve this status when they’re in their 50ies or 60ies – gray or white hair is standard. A lot of their clients are that age too – they’ve found a good place and keep going there. You do need to make sure that the barber still has some clients with statistically significant amounts of hair, so that he’s still in practice.

The stereotype that Italians pay a lot of attention to their looks certainly has some foundation in truth, but at least in this case, I’d prefer real barber rather than a “what number?” chop shop chain any day.

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