One should enter Italy with a decent haircut, so while we were taking a week in Marven Gardens at the Jersey Shore before our departure, I looked through listings for barbers and noticed these three:
- Anthony’s Hair Design in Margate City: open on Wednesday (it was Wednesday); they answered the phone promptly; it’s probably just fine.
- Johnny’s Man’s World Barbershop in Ventnor City: I imagined sports memorabilia, the usual Ali-Liston photo (in black-and-white) on the wall, the lad’s mags… But I couldn’t imagine the place would be better than Upper Cuts in East Falls, Philadelphia, which as all those amenities, and delivers great cuts as well. “Man’s World” seems like it’s trying too hard.
- Vince’s Barber Shop in Ventnor City. This sounded classic. He was closed on Wednesday (the traditional day off for barbers [and doctors and dentists, noted my father-in-law, since they used to be one-and-the-same]),which meant that I’d have to wait. If it’s tradition, I’ll wait. It was also clear that Vince was Italian, and we were about to leave for Italy. On Thursday, here’s what happened.
First, Vince has a barber pole. All proper barber shops have a barber pole (click to see why). There was a comfortable waiting room, filled with sports memorabilia (the Pittsburgh Steelers, which I’ll let pass), and large framed photos of famous Italian-American singers like Mario Lanza. Vincenzo was in the parlor with two elderly men, discussing what the Greeks and Romans did in Sicily. This was definitely the place. There also seemed to be no set price for a haircut, despite the sign at the back of the shop (also a good sign, as it seemed to depend on the quality of the conversation). And there was plenty of conversation. Interesting conversation is as important as the quality of the haircut.
Barber shops are one of the few places in the world where I can truly relax. This is a funny thing, because in very traditional barber shops, where you get a haircut and shave, someone has a straight-razor at your throat. Makes sense, though–absolute surrender is probably required for real relaxation. Until Thursday, the precise list of places where I had had a great barber experience was limited to three: Upper Cuts in Philadelphia (see above); Jim’s Barber Shop on Patrick Street in Dun Laoghaire, Ireland (except that Jim hardly talks); and Yavuz Berber on the uppermost part of the main street in Elmalı, Antalya Province, Turkey (past the old minaret; no website!). The Yavuz Berber was tops; any haircut took an entire hour, going back-and-forth with clippers and scissors. It included a double shave with hot towels and a straight razor, a scalp massage, nosehair trim, and a small blowtorch to remove earhair and wax. He even sold fresh honey from the bees he cultivated. When I walked out of there, I felt as if I’d been re-born. That’s the gold standard for a barber.
Vince was welcoming and polite. Large mirrors adorned the wall opposite, so we could converse without turning my head (even though I can’t see five feet without my glasses). I was a new customer, so he did not take long to start telling his story.
Vince was born in Catanzaro, Calabria, a city Rebecca and I know well from her dissertational excursions in Calabria looking for cult-places of Aphrodite. He finished the fourth grade, and at age 12 learned the tonsorial trade. At 19 he moved to Milan briefly before emigrating to America.
The flow of his words drops across the clips and snips, interrupted by occasional phone calls (he never answers right away, and sometimes not at all). Other than an initial question about how I want it (“short,” I say), he asks for no more instructions. He doesn’t need to. He knows. The tools are in perfect condition–well-oiled and sharp. No bites, no pulls, no apologies. No hair-care products for sale. It is the opposite of GreatClips.
Vince describes his grandfather’s house in a village above Catanzaro, with a small balcone at the edge of cliff, and no bathroom (they used chamber-pots whose contents they slung over the cliff, and only during rainstorms did the stench rise up to remind them of what they had dropped below). He explains how the mafia would come in and steal land from illiterate farmers by getting them to sign documents they couldn’t read, under the pretense that this action was making their position on the land ‘official’. He talks about the profound gap in education between communities in the north and south of Italy, and the beauty of the Greek temples in Agrigento, Sicily.
I try my Italian, which I’ve been brushing up using Duolingo (a clever and convenient program with a fascinating history described in a Ted talk [below]).
Vince is patient enough to respond in kind, and by the end, we are interspersing English and Italian, and despite my many mistakes I’m itching to go full-time in Italiano. And I have a great haircut.
As I stand up to leave, he points towards the ceiling, where a black-and-white photo of a grizzled, white-bearded man dressed in hat and heavy coat, rifle slung over his shoulder, memorializes Vince’s grandfather. The man had served as a bodyguard for a local wealthy landowner. He is what The Most Interesting Man in the World pretends to be. You’ll have to visit Vince’s to see for yourself.
With all this nostalgia for ‘manliness’, maybe we should just spend more time with our grandfathers.