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Haircuts from Hades

Valerie Schneider

Catching a glimpse of myself in the plate glass window provided a frightful start. I had thought that I looked fairly decent when I left the house, but there it was…a horrid hairdo, oh-so clearly reflected in front of the newly-arranged spring fashions. I’ve found that my time here is becoming measured by the long string of bad haircuts that I’ve procured. “Well, this one is not as quite as bad as the one you got from that girl in Anzio,” Bryan offers encouragingly. It’s really discouraging when they’re evaluated in degrees of badness.

I’m not quite sure why it seems to be my fate to go through life in poorly-clipped locks. I am especially confused as to why it’s such a problem here in Italy where fashion and style are so highly regarded, and where there are parrucchiere (hair stylists) on nearly every corner. I’ve seen plenty of gorgeous gals with glorious hairdos. I’m just not one of them. Sigh. Not that I had terrific luck in New Mexico. I had one stylist who was known as “the cocktail queen” because of her adept use at concocting styling libations from as many as five different products. Who can ever reproduce that here? When I finally found a guy I liked, I was willing to drive forty minutes across town and shell out any price. The three-week wait for an appointment was fine with me. I was utterly devoted to him until I moved here.

Maybe it is the language issue. Trying to describe hairstyles in my native language is hard enough. Doing it in Italian, even with visual aids, can still leave a surprising amount to be lost in translation. I’ve found that some choose to ignore what I am describing and cut it any dang way they please. Such was the case with Roby, a stylist my friend Roberta, a former model, swore could perform miracles. “Guarda che bella!” she exclaimed about her new ‘do. Roby is bravissimo! He’s fabulous! I’ll go with you to help choose the style, she offered eagerly. Why not? She had recently decided to sheer off her long locks in favor of a shorter cut. Finding someone who cuts short hair well is even more of a challenge, so I agreed to the outing. We sat on a plush sofa, pored over books while sipping caffe` and watching the clock click off nearly an hour beyond my scheduled time. Like doctors, hair stylists are never in orario. They know they wield power and people will have no choice but to wait.

We narrowed it down to two photos, Roberta chatting familiarly with all the employees. I was ushered to The Sink Arena, an elevated semi-circle where the shampooing and conditioning takes place. Like a patient being prepped for surgery, I was carefully scrubbed for an interminable time and then rinsed. A conditioner was applied and I was allowed to sit upright while it was to be left to sink in and perform its duty of softening and healing my hair. Then the Shampooist, for that is her only job function, went off for a cigarette and promptly forgot about me. I was still marinating when Roby was ready. I was hastily rinsed off and escorted to the Master’s Chamber, this time fully circular and exposed by glass and mirrors so that all other clients no matter where they were in the shop, as well as all the passersby, could watch while skillful surgery was being performed. Just a tad intimidating, I must say.

Roberta showed him the photos and explained what I wanted. He nodded, said “si, ho capito,” then stretched his arms upward and exclaimed, “Leave it to Roby! I will make you beautiful!” He then got the scissors flying about, taking off huge chunks from the back of my head and working his way around to the front until I had so little hair left that I could only describe what remained as stubble. He gelled it, spiked it, and stood back with his arms crossed over his chest, proudly admiring his work. Roberta let out a little squeak, put on a brave face and uttered a weak “bella”. I dunno. Maybe I should have known better than to let a guy with a shaved head cut my hair.

About a month later, Roberta proclaimed that she had ditched Roby and had found a new, utterly wonderful stylist that I should try. That is when I came to realize that my friend, though beautiful and bright, is what you might call a hair whore. She takes a real “love ‘em and leave ‘em” approach with parrucchiere. She flits from one to the next, the current stylist “the best ever”, at least for that month. She rarely stays around long enough to form a real, meaningful hair relationship with anyone. She also visits the parrucchiere almost weekly, signaling to me that one does not go to the hair salon merely to obtain a necessary service, but as a recreational activity.

Women tend to go to the salon for a break. They want to feel pampered and primped up, to be told they’re gorgeous…but that this color or that type of cut will produce even more beauty. The colors are a frequent draw; it is rare to see an Italian woman without dye of some sort, regardless of age or degree of grayness. Indeed, gray hair is practically nonexistent among the female population. Coloring requires frequent touch-ups and therefore frequent trips to the salon, so it is worked into one’s schedule as entertainment. Gossip, coffee, or, if your stylist is really high-class, maybe a glass of wine, are offered up freely. I have seen some that have brought in lunch for clients obtaining intricate, time-consuming dye jobs. One salon provided video and photo sessions along with fashion shows for their clients during the summer months, so everyone could pretend to be a supermodel. Another offered laptops with free internet so you could surf while stewing in your dye. And I thought all I needed was a mere haircut.

Taking matters into my own hands didn’t produce very desirable results, either. Thanks to the wonders of genetics, I followed my grandmother and mother into the world of prematurely gray women at the ripe ol’ age of 19. No woman, regardless of how much she loves her mother, wants to become her mother. Therefore, I have been applying semi-permanent hair color for years in order to not look twice my current age and to not accentuate the resemblance to my mother any further than necessary.

I went to the profumeria, where they sell hair care products, cosmetics, costume jewelry, and a few token bottles of perfume in keeping with the store’s name. I found the brand I normally used at home and perused the shades. I have noticed that colorings here, while bearing the same brand and logo, have different tints that I am used to - definitely more vibrant and “fake”, usually tending toward reds. I consulted the side panel where it shows, “if your hair color is thus, the result will be so”. Nowhere did it foretell the color that my locks would ultimately brandish. I didn’t even leave it on for the full recommended time (meno male for that, as they say here), and when I rinsed and towel-dried, I was greeted by the mirror’s reflection of bad tidings…a purple hue in the magenta range. For four longs weeks.

For his part, Bryan was amused and thought it looked good, saying since so many women around here sport unusual, unnatural hair coloring, my purple hair was just one more step toward becoming a local. Whatever.

After my super-short ‘do from Roby, the no-holds-barred signora who was my next-door neighbor commented, “You really shouldn’t go to your husband’s barber for a haircut”. Uh, thanks. On deeper thought, however, maybe I should go to his barber. Vinicio has been clipping and shaving the good men of Ascoli Piceno for forty years. His shop occupies the space formerly used by his father and retains many of the original features of the old barber shop. His hand shakes a little, but Bryan is always pleased with the results. He also procures a very close shave, still skillfully done with a straight razor. His total bill never exceeds €17.

Mine, on the other hand, never comes close to €17. If I could get them to just do the cut and only the cut, maybe I’d pay close to that amount. But that is not how it is done. The shampoo is required and there is a cost for that. To give you your money’s worth, they froth the heck out of your hair, massage your scalp for a good five minutes, rinse and repeat the ordeal, then slather on a handful of conditioner. The neck-cramping sink moves up and down to ensure that water trickles down your back and soaks your shirt. The cost of the cut varies depending on the stylist and time involved to perform the cut, as well as the complexity of the style. Switching scissors or using a razor seems to elevate the price. Styling is also a requisite – because how else would you know what the cut is supposed to look like – so there is another ka-ching. The gel, mouse, paste, hairspray, spit, glossing agents or any other products that may be required to style the new cut rings up another fee. And, of course, the products that are now highly suggested, so that you can achieve the new style at home, cost you big time.

Trouble is, the results can never be achieved at home. I almost always walk out of the salon feeling good about the cut…until the next day when I try to achieve it for myself. I could just as soon split atoms in an Osterizer as do it myself to the manner in which it had looked the day before. I follow the instructions to “finger comb” it while “allowing the natural wave to create texture”. Then humidity ups the ante, adding more curl in undesirable spots so that the result looks something like a clipped Pomeranian with a bad perm.

My current stylist dries it using a brush in such a complicated way that in order to do it myself, I’d have to be double jointed and have a third arm protruding from my back. He’s not bad – remembering, of course, the degrees of badness; but I’ve recently learned that he is known for his highly specialized coloring techniques, which explains why most of his clients are patiently reading magazines with foil things jutting off their heads, and why he is stooped over me in silent, ardent concentration while cutting. I’m beginning to feel like hair whore Roberta myself, as I will be searching out someone new next time around.

I don’t ask for much. Really. I don’t expect to emerge from the salon looking glamorous or with perfect beauty being miraculously bestowed on me. I ask only a decent ‘do that doesn’t look like a throw-back to my high school days; one that I can consistently style myself at home without lots of goops or three different brushes to wrangle with, without the need for straightening irons or curling irons, and without wasting hours of my time. I am tired of putting forth all that effort and then still throwing down my hairbrush in frustration and screaming, “I hate this freaking haircut”.

Perhaps soon, I’ll find a competent stylist so I can say, “this cut is nice” instead of “this one is as bad as the cut from Giulia but not as bad as the one from Roby”. I want to stop classifying the stylists into the different cycles of inferno. Or, at the least I want to stop looking like my hair has passed through Hades. There is an endless supply of stylists to try, as Roberta can tell you. Someday I may actually be able to walk past those plate glass windows with my head held high instead of cringing. Just not today.

Valerie Schneider is a freelance writer, who lived in New Mexico for twenty years before trading the high desert for the medieval hill towns of Italy in May, 2006. She is a regular contributor to Slow Travel, pens travel agency newsletters, and has written for Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel. She and her husband, Bryan, currently reside in Ascoli Piceno where they conduct small-group tours called Panorama Italy. Read more on her blog, 2 Baci in a Pinon Tree. See Valerie's Slow Travel Member page.

© Valerie Schneider, 2008

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