I have just returned from making my fourth hair appointment – this year. That may not seem like a lot of haircuts to you, but I’ve seen decades through with fewer trips to the salon than that. But not here. In Italy, it’s not just my hair that’s being taken care of, it’s the relationship with my hairdresser.
In the States all I needed to do was call and schedule an appointment. There was rarely a long-term relationship with any one hairdresser. By the time I found one I liked, I usually had one or two appointments before we moved again. It may have been inconsistent, but it was simple. There was never any type of communication or culture barrier to overcome. Well, except once in Georgia when the nice lady at the other end of the line said to me in her thick southern drawl, “Oh, honey, we don’t do white hair here.”
Getting my hair cut was never one of my favorite tasks, but it was manageable. Make a phone call, schedule an appointment, talk through a haircut, and voila you’re done. Then we moved to Germany.
In a new language with two kids, haircuts rapidly moved up my list of dreaded activities. I soon realized I couldn’t call to make an appointment because even in the unlikely event that I figured out how to schedule one, there was no way I’d be able to understand the response.
What had in the past merely required a phone call now turned into a multi-day farce, complete with phrasebook, much gesticulation, and a lot of raised eyebrows. Eventually I found a place that took walk-ins, which eliminated the first awkward phase. I was still left with one major hurdle. How on earth do I tell them exactly what I want done with my hair?
I came up with an intricate combination of photographs and more gesticulations, and I was fine with the results. I continued to frequent the walk-in salon until they abruptly shut their doors. Next I went to a salon recommended by a friend, but when she had a falling out with the hairdresser that came to an end as well.
Not long after that, it was time to move once again. I found the salon in my next German town relatively quickly, and I was fairly pleased with the stylist. Until I got cocky and decided that my German was now so good, I didn’t need a picture. I could explain in German exactly what it was that I wanted. I was delusional. One look in the mirror at home cleared that up. It was back to pictures, and although I was going a little more frequently – once every 4-6 months, you still couldn’t say I was going regularly.
And then we ended up in Italy. Italy is different than other places, and Rome is different than other places in Italy. People here are very aware of their outward appearances. They are very good at putting themselves together. Even when they exercise here, they look flawless. I’m pretty sure they can run a marathon without breaking a sweat. And I’m pretty sure they all go to the hairdresser regularly.
I was intimidated at the thought of trying to go to the hairdresser in Italy. I find Italian more difficult to operate in than I found German. My emphasis and intonation are always off. Italian is a very melodic language, and alas, I have discovered that I have no rhythm. So me and my phrasebook and my gesticulating bravado were not going anywhere near a salon.
Instead, I raided my daughter’s hair accessory box and avoided thinking about the hairdresser. Then one day, I ran into a new friend who took me around my new neighborhood and introduced me to some people. Including a hairdresser. This was the hairdresser that she took her children to, so I made an appointment right then and there for my son, who was beginning to look like he might need to raid the hair accessory box as well. There was an added initiative to frequent this establishment – this hairdresser speaks some English. It was looking fortuitous indeed.
The morning of my son’s appointment was also the day of a formal event my husband and I were attending, so my husband asked if the hairdresser had time to style my hair. It turned out he did. He asked me what I wanted and I told him. It was a fantastic haircut. We weren’t even four months into our first year and I’d found the perfect hairdresser. It was amazing, this had never happened to me before. He told me I should come back in three weeks, 4 weeks maximum. I nodded in that “yeah, yeah sure, whatever you say” way moms sometimes do when they are distracted by their children who are about to run in to the street.
That was early November. It was January before I returned. My hairdresser was not happy. He asked me if I wanted the same thing. I said yes, the previous cut was perfect. I spent a lot less time in the chair this time and although it was not a bad cut, it lacked the pizazz of the previous one. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this, and I thought about the possibilities as I went home and studied my new not quite as lovely style.
It is of course, entirely plausible that my stylist was having an off day, but I became convinced that he was actually angry with me for not coming back within 3 – 4 week window he had given me at the first cut. This time, I wasn’t offered any coffee. There were no flamboyant gestures with the scissors. There was no conversation. This time the cut was more straightforward and about as quick as a new recruit’s first haircut in basic training.
I was a little scared about the next visit, but determined to get back into the good graces of my fabulous stylist. I wasn’t going to take a chance on trying to find that perfect combination of someone who cut my hair really well, and spoke enough English for me not to have to revert to phrasebooks and gesticulating.
Exactly three weeks later I scheduled my next appointment. I went in and he was waiting for me. I think he even greeted me with a smile this time. As I took my place in the chair, he asked me if I wanted the same style. I started to say yes, but I noticed that as he asked he was slowly shaking his head no. Although I was perfectly happy with the cut I had, I realized that apparently he thought it was time for a change. I slowly answered: “no, no I don’t.” I then observed his slow, not so subtle nod as he said: “you want to try something different, yes?” I respond with my own slow nod. “Yes, yes I do.”
At this point I’m a bit nervous, because I have given complete control of my head to someone who is possibly still angry with me. We still aren’t making much small talk, the difference in language factors in to this quite a bit, but there is a bit more pizazz in this cut. I leave the salon a little more than half an hour later, with a completely new, much shorter style. I also left with a new outlook on the importance of this simple phrase in Italian – “Che Consiglia” – what do you recommend?
I recently read an article that spoke about asking for recommendations in restaurants in order to coax out hidden gems. I can attest to this being the case, at least some of the time. I learned this through my consistent inability to choose from a menu. There are occasions when you ask Che Consiglia and you get something delightful and not advertised. When they really don’t have anything hidden to offer, they will at least steer you towards something seasonal and delicious that is on the menu.
I would extend this beyond the restaurants though. I have noticed that whether I’m at the butcher’s, the deli, the bakery, the vegetable stand, or the florist’s, no one shies away from making recommendations – occasionally unsolicited ones – and I have not been disappointed yet. I am steered toward the freshest products and the tastiest morsels. I am told the correct number I will need to serve two or four or ten. I am guided through what I may need to go with it, and how to prepare it. Far from feeling intruded upon, I feel like a part of the community. I never have any doubt as to the sincerity of the individuals I am dealing with.
It is a complex relationship however. There seems to be an unstated expectation that with this exemplary service, you are a regular customer. The shops I frequent will make comments if I show up on a different day, and I feel the need to justify extended absences. The places you go will take care of you, but you are expected to return the favor.
Keeping that in mind I make my next hair appointment exactly three weeks later. I arrive a bit early, and my hairdresser is with another client. One of the other stylists asks if he should do my cut, and my hairdresser tells him to back off – or the polite Italian version of this. Next I am treated to a very long wash, and an extra-long head massage. Then, they bring me a cup of tea. I am totally back on my hairdresser’s good side.
This time when he asks me what I want to do, I am prepared. Whatever you think, I say. I trust you. I am beginning to notice a trend. Each time I leave the salon, my hair is just a little bit shorter. But I also notice, that the more faith I place in my hairdresser, the better my cuts get.
It’s been just about three weeks, and I’ve scheduled my latest appointment. I’m not sure how much shorter he actually wants to make my hair, but the weather here is getting warmer, and I’m pretty sure I’m still on his good side.
These actions may seem pushy or presumptuous if you take them out of context, but I really feel like I am being taken care of. I know that if I have a question about which product to try, I am going to receive the best quality – at least in the shops where I have taken the time to establish a relationship. Here it’s not just about the exchange of goods. It’s about creating a loyal relationship. There are many different shops I could go to, but for my weekly excursions, and my now very regular haircuts, I choose to frequent the same places. The more I go, the better the service, or the quality of the products I receive. It’s funny, because in a city the size of Rome, you’d think you’d be anonymous. But with just a little effort, you can establish yourself as a regular – a temporary citizen of the eternal city.