Thursday 6 March 2008

Italy and Italians

I thought it about time that I put fingertip to keyboard in recognition of the institution that is the Italian barbiere. The first barber shops in Rome have been traced to the 3rd century BC, so you could say the Italians have had a lot of practice! Back in those days the slaves were bearded, whilst freemen were expected to be clean-shaven; these days the majority opt for the smooth approach. The full beard is rarely seen these days, but new slants on the traditional goatee have reached endemic proportions, with the Azzurri (Italy’s national football team) being largely responsible for many of the latest trends.

My barber occupies a prime site in the centre of the Via Nazionale in Cortona, flanked by chic bars, jewellers and fashion parlours, right in the middle of the passeggiata. All Cortona strolls by each day, peering through the plate glass. Inside they see a functional, unadorned room; bright lighting, a couple of old barbers’ chairs, newspapers and the usual barber shop paraphernalia. However, there is intangible mystery. Why this exalted site? Why always so busy? For the most part the customers are men in suits, or the pastel-shaded jumpers so beloved of the wealthy Tuscan gent, and their hair is already perfectly crafted. A small queue forms long before the door opens. Those in the know lean round, and are invited to return in, say, 35 minutes. It took many trims to see through the looking glass. This is more than just a place to get your hair cut. It is an institution, a comfort stop in the life of the ufficiale; the doctors, lawyers, accountants and commandanti who run Cortona and every other provincial town from Alto-Adige to Calabria. Here they take a break from busy schedules to look their best, to relax and chat discreetly, or not so discreetly as the case may be...

With a stiffener in the bar next door in I go, with awe and trepidation. Scissors flash in mid air. Combs lined with razors subdue the thickest barnet. Friends stand in the door to chat, whilst an eye is always kept out for the more scantily clad foreign students. I panic inwardly about the maestro’s concentration. But the show goes on regardless. I tend to only go for the basic haircut, but I have seen older gents receiving all sorts of bizarre treatments heretofore unknown to me. Useful hairs, the ones that might stop spiders crawling into one’s nose or ears, are attacked without mercy, usually with a lightning snip, sometimes barbecued in a terrifying whirl of flaming cotton wool and methylated spirit. Perhaps I have a few years ahead of me before I am able to enjoy these particular mysteries of the barber’s shop, but I find them fascinating to watch. Out comes the cut-throat razor and the hairs on the back of my neck stand to attention before being whipped away in a matter of seconds, leaving the skin almost smarting from its new exposure to the air. A final aromatic spray, and the performance ends. I retire to the bar to recover, and to check that the back of my head does not look like a receding duck. But the finish is always impeccable. A good trim can last for weeks, the experience far longer.

Whilst sitting in the leather throne, one can hear snippets of the most remarkable gossip. Perhaps the assumption is that, being a straniero (foreigner), I will not understand or be remotely interested in the identity of Signora X’s latest amante, or that Signor Y has decided to trade in his own signora for a younger model. It is a fiercely masculine domain, with marital gossip making way for the inevitable discussions about the Italian males’ three favourite topics (other than ladies of course): football, politics and food, in that order. It seems that the all-male sanctity of the barber’s shop is drawing the younger generation of Italians. Whilst the older generation have long enjoyed the relaxing ritual of the cut-throat shave, with its hot towels, thorough soaping and the nerve-wracking flick of the razor in a stranger’s hands, it seems that this small indulgence is making a comeback with today’s would-be Lotharios. What better way to hit the town on a date with Maria than pay a trip to the barber’s at lunchtime to ensure that the smooth look lasts well into the evening? So the next time you find yourself in Italy and feel the need for a little pampering, put down your copy of GQ and head to the nearest barbiere for a spot of old-fashioned treatment. Don’t do it if you are in a hurry however; as with all the best things in Italian life, apart from Ferraris, these things must never be rushed if they are to be enjoyed.

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