Retired in Rome Journal: Trip to Roman barber not such a hair-raising experience
THURSDAY, FEB. 27
Rome has everything you want. Monuments. Parks. Trattorias that make you weep in romantic meltdowns just looking inside. What it doesn’t have are barbers. I needed a haircut, badly. It has been more than nine weeks. I have fairly wavy, curly hair and I started to look like an extra in “The Brady Bunch.” I looked awful.
The problem is Roman men don’t do barbers. They either live at home and have their mothers cut their hair as short as when they were 10 years old or they never cut it and let it hang down the back of their necks. Lots of guys walk around here looking like Fabio. You ladies wonder how Roman men can have such long, flowing, jet-black locks? There are no barbers.
I’ve had the same “hair stylist” for 24 years. The lovely Diane Applehans, who owns Synergy Salon on 17th Avenue, has had the unenviable task of making me presentable since I arrived in Denver in 1990. I’d rather change dentists or doctors than barbers. For women, it’s like changing gynecologists. OK, maybe that’s a stretch. Sorry. But it’s a scary proposition wondering what a stranger would do to my full head of hair. I look at my class picture from my junior year in high school and am extremely thankful I never went into politics. Any Where Were They Then? photos would guarantee me losing any election.
For advice, I turned to my good friend Alessandro Castellani. He’s a sportswriter for ANSA, Italy’s news wire service, and he has this perfect coiffe of thick, stylish silver hair. Not a hair is out of place and he has one of those strong Roman faces you see on posters about Ancient Rome. He looks more like a senator than a sportswriter.
Many Italian men have it all over American men. It’s not just their hair. It’s their names. They’re just sexier. Alessandro Castellani. It flows off your tongue like a poem. All-e-SAWN-dro Cas-te-LONN-ee. Alessandro Castellani sounds like a guy who could make love to half of Cleveland then make pasta amatriciana. John Henderson sounds like a guy who can give you a competitive premium on your SUV.
I got no shot. No beautiful Italian woman has ever pinned me up against the wall by my lapels and said, “I’ve always wanted to make animalistic love to an American sportswriter!” That ain’t gonna happen.
Alessandro told me I must go see Gildo. He’s an older man who works near my old neighborhood near the Vatican. “He is the best in Rome,” Alessandro told me.
So I went to see him this morning on a day when spring warmth started breaking through Rome’s short, brisk winter. Gildo stands as tall as his barber chair. He wore stylish glasses and a stylish purple tie under his green smock. His silver hair, like the werewolf of London, was perfect.
His shop reminded me of an Italian version of the old-fashioned American barber shops I went to as a kid. It had no barber pole outside and the trappings were dark wood and beige, deep leather chairs. But it was small, with only three chairs and three mirrors and dark. The dusky smell of a masculine shampoo filled the air. Old Italian love songs played on the radio.
Gildo speaks no English. He comes from Calabria, the toe of Italy’s boot. He came to Rome 14 years ago to teach hair styling, which he has also done in Florence, Milan, Paris and Rio de Janeiro. “I am the professor,” he said, smiling.
I told him it was harder to find a barber in Rome than a wall with no graffiti. He said men don’t go to barbers. They go to mothers. Yet he’s managed to carve out a good career teaching others and cutting others.
He looked at my mop of hair, curls going everywhere. I looked like the twin brother of Medusa. He pulled my hair up toward my forehead, looked at me in the mirror and said, “Secco!” (Dry!) He immediately started cutting away. I asked him why he wasn’t going to shampoo first.
He shook his head and smiled.
“There is too much hair,” he said. “Why shampoo and then cut it all off? I will cut then shampoo the rest.”
So he cut. And he talked. He’s well known in my old neighborhood as quite a character, a story teller in the old tradition of Italian grandfathers. He talked about working off the beach in Rio’s Copacabana. He talked about his love for Paris and proudly showed off the oil painting on his wall of the Eiffel Tower.
He started cutting before I told him what I wanted. I said I’d had the same haircut for about 30 years and wanted something different. I know he understood me, but he’s the type of barber who does what he thinks is good for you. What do I care? This new life is an adventure whether it’s on the streets of Centro Storico or a barber chair.
After he dunked my head under the sink, however, he stopped cutting and showed some yellowed, torn, dogeared newspaper clips of a barber with a bouffant haircut from the ‘70s holding a blow dryer the size of an Uzi. He was one of his students who had become a barber of the stars in Rio. He was one of his many students who had gone on to something big.
It’s hard to do a lot with a man’s hair. Gildo tried. He parted it way on the other side near my ear and combed it down and across my forehead. It was a total reverse course from the swept-back look I’ve worn for 30 years. But you know what? It does make me look like I had more hair, which has been thinning in the front and wasn’t coming back anytime soon.
OK, I survived a trip to the barber. Diagnosis: I’ll live in Rome.