Rogue Carver on the Loose in Italy
Part 15, Ode to the Italian Barbershop
Over the course of my life I have experienced many a haircut and many a shave – the haircuts have been primarily at the hands of numerous barbers in various countries, with a few self-inflicted buzz cuts along the way, but practically all the shaves have taken place in front of my bathroom mirror, plastic razor in hand, steamy glass just a foot or two before my eyes. Once in a great while I’ve splashed out on a barbershop shave, but the experience generally makes me wonder why I didn’t just wait until I was back in front of my foggy mirror.
However ‘those times’ were not in Italy, for here barber shops are an art form in themselves. For a start, everything is clean, gleaming… I mean spotless. Clippers are sharp and purr with an impeccably maintained precession; scissors cut like razors, and razors cut like only expertly-honed razors can. Mirrors sparkle; floors are kept swept as are the countertops displaying neat rows of accoutrements awaiting their master’s hand. Interesting, significant and tasteful photographs, mementos and memorabilia adorn the walls and the lighting is just so. The big comfortable upholstered swivel chair facilitates and assists in presenting head, face and neck at the precisely the right angle for the man to do his work… and mercifully there is neither hint nor trace of music of any kind.
And so, gents, should you be contemplating a trip to Italy in the near future I suggest you forgo the pre-flight haircut, let your head grow shaggy and face sprout, because once you arrive you too can indulge in this prosaic Italian ritual and I’m here to tell you that you will thank me for the advice.
Hopefully your barber will somewhat look like this:
He’ll draw upon a decades of cutting men’s hair. He’ll run a barber’s shop that could easily double as a café such is the spotless nature of his establishment. Chrome will glint from unlikely corners, clippers will purr, the place will look and feel formal, comfortable and relaxing; you’ll feel comfortable and relaxed – you’re a man at ease in a man’s world, and let’s face it, there are few such refuges these days, but while reclined in the seat of a barber’s chair in Italy you can literally rest assured that for the time being at least you hold center stage at the epicenter of one.
To begin with there will be no convoluted nonsensical conversation about style, he’ll simply assume, quite rightly, that you have entered his establishment to have your hair trimmed. From there a quick motion with your fingers will indicate the length and from then on in you can sink back in your comfortable barber’s chair safe in the knowledge that your hair is now in the hands of a master of his craft.
Yes, he’ll use clippers in order to slash through the bulk, but once the decimation is finished he’ll set to with a pair of scissors that he’ll keep in rhythmic motion even when no hair is being cut, diving in like a swallow at dusk to remove a tuft here and a stray hair there with a deftness and agility that beggars belief: never a nick, never a snipped earlobe… and all with quite mesmerizing speed. After a while you’ll find it tempting to simply rest your eyes, ease just a tad further back into your plush chair and let the maestro get on with his work.
From time to time you may become aware of a slight external easing of your head very slightly this way or that, up, down, perhaps to one side or the other, but never abruptly, in fact with each deft move you’ll find yourself becoming more and more relaxed, the pressures and stresses melting away with each snip of the scissors… razor sharp scissors snipping away just millimeters from tender earlobes, but you will never harbor the slightest doubt that harm could possibly come your way, for should you choose to open your eyes you’ll be instantly reassured by the stature of the man holding the scissors, perfectly poised, in control and fully attentive to the work with which his hands are engaged.
You’ll no doubt be surprised at the attention he puts into the final finishing details of your trim, the care he devotes to shaving the unruly hairs along the back of your neck, the repeated refinements he makes to the fine tapering towards the nape and above the ears. But eventually he’ll attract your attention and you’ll look in the mirror and find yourself giving an approving nod: ‘yep, that’s exactly the cut I came in for’.
But now the real fun begins… it’s time for the shave.
Adjusting the seat into an even more reclined position he’ll begin the elaborate process by gently massaging a warming herb lotion into your skin. Aromatheraputic vapors will fill your senses as your cheeks, chin, upper and lower lip, and neck begin to glow a rosy warm. Next comes a long and luxurious massage as the barber skillfully works up a thick luxuriant lather the consistency of which, when you peek at yourself in the mirror (as you invariably will), resembles double thick whiter than white whipped cream.
The next part could be classed as slightly disturbing, and would be if you were not confident (as by this point you most certainly are) that you are safe in the hands of a skillful master of the blade, because if you are still peeking you’ll see a frighteningly sharp straight edged razor heading straight for your throat. Obligingly you’ll keep perfectly still; conforming almost subconsciously each time the barber’s fingertips gently infer an invitation to adjust your head this way or that to facilitate the cool edge of the razor as it glides across your well lubricated skin.
The cheeks are attended to first, then the neck, then the chin. Finally the area around the mouth, the lips – first the lower, then the upper. Deftly the barber moves the loose skin to conform with the unforgiving blade, molding the surface with his fingertips to provide the perfect angle for the razor to do its work.
Once the entire face has been shaved he’ll repeat the process once more, but this time he’ll work the razor upwards against the grain for a smoother than smooth finish. It won’t take as long as the first time around but once he’s finished your cheeks will resemble the proverbial baby’s bottom.
It will actually come as a surprise when he’s finally finished, you’ll even feel a little sad when the warmed moist towel removes all trace of soap from your face, when you’ve been patted down with a rather pleasant aftershave, and when you’ve completed the financial transaction. But when you re-enter the world you will, and I promise you this, feel like a million Euros.
Until next time, here’s to all the Italian barbershops and all the Italian barbers who keep such a fine masculine tradition alive and very well indeed!