Living in a country where you don’t know the language comes along with a unique set of challenges, some anticipated, others not. There are the basic daily interactions (greeting neighbors, thanking someone who holds a door open for you), the slightly-more-linguistically-taxing business transactions (ordering cheese at the deli or meat at the butcher), and the downright awkward I-have-no-idea-what-you-are-saying-to-me-non-parlo-italiano moments of confusion. As I mentioned last week, the latter is best handled with a smile, a nod, and a simple “si.”
What I had yet to experience until this past Saturday, however, is that there is a fourth type of interaction, more difficult than the others combined: having to explain a concept or an idea to someone who speaks not a word of English. The burden rests on you, and a simple affirmative doesn’t suffice.
I hadn’t gotten a haircut since the beginning of August, so my hair was getting a bit too shaggy to wear to work. Recognizing that I needed to get a trim but realizing how difficult that could be given the language barrier, my first thought was to email Giacomo, the friend I am renting my apartment from, and ask if there were any barbers in the area he could recommend, and more importantly, that could speak a bit of English. Unfortunately for me, he still goes to the barber nears his parent’s house, about a 10 minute drive away. Too far away for my bus pass to take me there, so no luck with that option.
Without any other choice—no Yelp, no Google Maps—this past Saturday morning, I decided to go about it the old-fashioned way and hit the pavement in search of a local barber. I headed to one of the main roads about 2 blocks away and began to walk. I don’t go down this street particularly often, but I remembered seeing a barbershop—or something similar—in that direction a few weeks back. Minutes into the search, I came across a storefront with the word “Parrucchiera” (Hairdresser) blazoned across the door, with “Donna” and “Uomo” (Women and men) written right below. Jackpot!
Confident that my dilemma was solved, I opened the door and strolled in. What greeted me was what I imagined to be the Italian version of Gill’s salon—the place in Attica, NY where my grandma gets her hair done. An old Italian woman was sitting in the corner, hair in curlers under a blow dryer, reading a People-esque magazine. Another octogenarian sat in a chair nearby as a middle aged, heavily made-up Italian hairdresser picked through the woman’s freshly curled hair with the long end of a comb. In unison, they all turned their heads and stared. If I had any good sense, I would have darted out the door upon first glance at the clientele. But I had already crossed the Rubicon, and there was no turning back.
“A hair cut?” I inquired in English.
Confused, she replied, “Un taglio di cappelli?”
I nodded my head.
“Si, si,” the hairdresser responded, along with a string of sentences in Italian.
“Non parlo italiano, sono americano,” I said.
She continued on, as if I hadn’t just told her I don’t speak Italian, and she showed me to a chair in the far end of the salon. As I sat down, the hairdresser plopped a book in front of me, opened it, and gestured to the different pages. While she finished up with the other two clients, I was supposed to choose my preference from this book of male hairstyles. Paging through the book, I could barely hold in my laughter. These were some of the most absurd haircuts I could imagine. Thankfully, I had my iPhone on hand and can share with you two of my favorites (the first looks like Justin Timberlake from a certain SNL video):
Twenty minutes later, the hairdresser had dispatched the old lady customers and came over to my chair.
“Which one?” she asked in Italian.
I wanted to say, “None of them.” But lacking the vocabulary to actually say what type of cut I wanted her to give me, I motioned to the most normal looking picture in the book at said, “Questo—this one.”
“Ah…che bello!” How beautiful.
She whipped out hear scissors and began shearing away, disregarding the whole language barrier thing, and continuing on with the usual barbershop banter. Where are you from? Are you studying here? No? Where are you working? How long are you here? I tried to keep up with her, responding in broken Italian as best as I could.
About halfway through the haircut, a middle aged man and woman walked into the shop, and the hairdresser immediately abandoned her post to give them the customary kiss-on-each-cheek greeting. I quickly picked up that the visitors were husband and wife, and good friends of the owner. The three of them continued chatting away, and eventually, the hairdresser introduced me by saying that I was “non sono italiano” and “di america.”
The hairdresser made her way back to my chair and resumed the cut, but continued her conversation with the couple. Arms were waving and gesticulating, notwithstanding the scissors in the hairdresser’s hand. Pure emotion ran through their voices.
At a lull in the conversation, the man proposed a round of cappuccinos for everyone in the house.
“Uno…due…tre…” he said, pointing to himself, his wife, and the hairdresser.
He looked up at me. “Quattro?”
“No grazie,” I replied. Ordinarily I’m not one to turn down free food or drink, but I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to drink a cappuccino while getting my haircut.
Turns out, I didn’t have to worry about that. When the man returned a few minutes later with three cappuccinos in hand, everyone took a 5 minute coffee break, the hairdresser included.
As they finished up their coffees, the female friend walked over to me, grabbed my chin, looked into my eyes, and declared, “Bello. Molto bello.” Beautiful, very beautiful.
“How old are you?” she then asked.
“Twenty five,” I answered, turning bright red.
She let go of my chin and returned to the chair where she was sitting.
The conversation continued on for a few more minutes, and my haircut resumed. Eventually, the husband and wife said their farewells, kissing the hairdresser. The man turned to me and shook my hand. The woman bent down towards me and kissed me on each cheek. So it goes here in Italy.
Soon enough, the haircut was complete, and the hairdresser dusted off my neck and offered to put some gel in my hair. Images of mohawked, slick haired Europeans immediately popped into my mind. I politely declined, and proceeded to the cash register to pay.
Walking out of the Parrucchiera, I shook my head and smiled to myself. A halfway decent haircut and truly Italian experience? Not a bad start to my Saturday.