Monday, April 26, 2004

Sarah Gets a New Look (by Steve)

SIENA (#46)

Sarah has been bugging us for days to get her hair cut. Once we were back in town from our vacation and settling down to our routine, we agreed. So last Thursday while I was out, I made an appointment at a place that Laura Ducci recommended. Then at 4:00 yesterday Doreen, Sarah and I walked in to the parrucchiere or hairdresser. One hour and 15 minutes later we all left, but only one of us was transformed.


Let me begin by describing the scene. It is a small place: bright, modern, and clean. There was loud popular American music (Outkast) playing and the atmosphere was pretty cool and relaxed. Hair is cut in perhaps four or five chairs in front of mirrors along one wall. Along the back there are three chairs by sinks for shampoos. But I was puzzled by a kind of round ‘island’ with four or five other more comfortable, lower chairs around it, also in front of mirrors. There must have been three or four women there between 20 and 50 with their hair in various states of “treatment,” some of them smoking. There was also a very young girl and two young men who appeared to be working, just not doing anything at the moment except smoking. “They must have been on a break, I thought.” Right.

Doreen and I tried not to draw attention to ourselves but without much success. I don’t think anyone has ever been accompanied to this place by a parent, let alone two parents. It wasn’t uncomfortable, though. No one stared but we were pretty impossible to ignore. And after a minute or two, one of the guys approached us.

Il Parrucchiere

He was quite remarkable to look at. Perhaps five feet tall he might have weighed 90 pounds, but he wasn’t really skinny, just small. His hair was shaved very close with a shaved part to one side. He was very dark. His cheeks dimpled and small wrinkles appeared around the corners of his black eyes when he grinned although I don’t think he could be over 25. He wore very low, loose jeans, sneakers, and a sleeveless ‘T’ shirt allowing tattoos on his shoulders to protrude. He had very small jewelry in his pierced ears. Although he was smoking, talking, and not working, he somehow seemed alert, full of energy and charm, and very attentive to his clients.

He explained that he was busy but that the young girl (his assistant apparently) could get Sarah started with a shampoo. Sarah went with the girl and we retreated to the front of the room to wait. Now we had some time to observe while we pretended to talk, look out the window and perhaps glance at our paper or a magazine or two. Three women were having their hair died (that’s what the mysterious island was for) while Sarah and another were getting a shampoo. One woman finished up, paid and left while two more young women came in. The same tiny guy greeted them with huge, sparkling grins and kisses, gracious and firm although they were 6 or 8 inches taller than he was. He offered them protective clothing, and started to work on coloring their hair.

Hmmmm… Now there were six women there and only two guys working on them. This was going to take a while. Doreen and I sat down.

The thin guy caught my eye and seemed to know what we were thinking. It would just be a minute, he assured me and then smiled. I was completely hooked. No problem, I thought to myself. We have all day. And we’ll probably come back for more another day!

“He’s absolutely charming,” I thought to myself. “I’ll bet he gets away with murder.”

Then we saw him in action. He moved one of the women getting color to the sink where his assistant washed her hair again and then over to the chairs by the wall to get dried and styled. He used two hairdryers like pistols, one in each hand. I’m not really sure if all the motion really mattered or not, but it was very impressive to watch. He would circle in low on the left and high on the right and then suddenly reverse their relative positions, always keeping them both moving rather rapidly, only an inch or so from her head. I suddenly realized he was strong, graceful and moved with joy, a flourish even.

We were so absorbed with his performance, we lost track of one of the woman sitting with her hair up in some kind of color treatment. “Did she leave?” Doreen asked. “How did she get by us?” A few minutes later she reappeared from the bathroom, returned to her seat at the island, and lit a cigarette. I guess if you are going to be there for a while, you need to need these kinds of breaks!

Il Taglio

Finally it was Sarah’s turn at the chair. The other guy was going to cut Sarah’s hair. He was about the same size as the first one, but lighter in complexion. He had a very fine beard, trimmed to a fine vertical line at the center of his chin, and was also quick to smile with his clients. He wore tight jeans, tennis shoes, and a long sleeved white shirt. His hair was mussed in a deliberately careless way. I went over to help Sarah consult with him but my services were not needed after all. Sarah explained herself, pointed to a picture in a magazine, and they were off.

It didn’t take long at all once she got started. Using the comb and a straight razor with a flair not unlike his smaller, darker partner, he very quickly cut a few pieces from the front of her head. Sarah was bent forward with all of her considerable hair combed over her head to completely hide her face. Yet almost immediately you could see the shape of the new look emerge. So could Sarah, evidently, because through the hair and whirlwind of movement, we watched a small smile become a broad grin.

Two more women came in and were seated at the island. Nobody left. It was close to an hour since we entered the salon. No wonder this is considered an event. It’s not easy being a woman in Italy!

Suddenly, a waiter from a nearby bar entered the salon with a tray filled with 8 martini glasses, a pitcher of something orange and carbonated, and several bowls of crackers. The darker, smaller man took the pitcher and glasses and offered one to each of their clients, including Doreen and myself. The girl followed with the snacks. Well I guess this was the silver lining and no small reward for our effort (and patience): at least we get to eat!

I was enjoying my snack when I noticed smoke. I was a little alarmed when I realized it was coming from Sarah’s hair! But her smile had only become larger as he worked systematically through her newly cut hair with a pair of plastic clips, a round brush, and apparently a very hot blow dryer. I really wish I had a video camera for this part as well. This seemed to be a process that required about six hands, yet he made it look easy as he joked and smiled with Sarah.

Il Resultato

Although her hair may be less important than her smile, I think the new “look” is a smashing success. I suppose Sarah does too. You can judge the results for yourself. But I can tell you, more than a few young Italians took note on our short walk home.
Although it was the first time I had ever been in a salon in Italy (barbershops do not have quite the same ambience), this was certainly a phenomenon that I had observed before. When these guys were working, they were fast. But brief periods of intense labor were frequently punctuated with breaks to smoke, talk, laugh, welcome newcomers and of course to eat. How many cycles were “wasted” in the show of it all?  To some extent, every transaction is like this. How much more fun, interesting and sustainable this must be from the provider's point of view than one more narrowly focused on productivity.

And what is this like for the consumer? Would I appreciate it still if I lived here or would I find it maddening?

COMMENTS from the original blog

2004-05-06 10:28:1446 Barbara
Re: Sarah Gets a New Look
Your account was wonderfully detailed  to capture the great skill and pride Italian workers have in their jobs/crafts.  That of the parrucchiere is one of those skills, as is clearly evidenced in the lovely photo of Sarah's new hair style.

2004-05-13 22:13:51 stefano
Re: Sarah Gets a New Look
You are quite right, Barbara.  It is one of the things I admire most about Italian society that it is quite possible here, and quite common, to be proud of whatever you do. I made a terrible mistake once, many years ago when I was explaining to a friend from Napoli that I had worked in several restaurants. I remember assuring him that it was "summer work" in order to emphasize that I would not be returning to that kind of job after I finished school.  Of course, he understood perfectly and was offended.  I remember as if it were yesterday.  He said, "Many Italians consider themselves very fortunate to be waiters at good restaurants.  They are proud.  And it's not easy either."

I was humbled.  I've not made THAT mistake again.

I like Studs Turkel too.  Work can be dignifying.  Or not.  Period.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

What a pleasure to read this, again. I spent a lot of time living vicariously as you and your family "dug" into Italy's culture. Yes, "dug", the past tense of dig, as in Gawd, how I dig this.! These pieces give such a vivid picture of the unique personalities that make up your quartet.