On Foreign Haircuts (after Montaigne*)

haircut

Submitted by my good mate PB as part of our #boysbookclub writing in Palma

Everyone is marked. Some marks you see, others are invisible. Some are physical scars, others metaphysical indentations. Some marks are chance, some imposed culture, and others are chosen. All these marks help to give us identity and mark us out as individuals or as part of a group. Or both.

I, so far, have largely chosen to avoid bodily marks of permanence, save for a couple of teenage wholes in my left earlobe. However there are other, not so permanent personal accoutrements that can add to the outward identity arsenal including clothes, glasses, and haircuts.

When I was at school a haircut could mark you out as a member of a tribe, or not. There were still some punks left around, and goths, dyed and spiky, there were flickheads with football-terrace-long-fringes and there were mullets which didn’t really act as a ticket into any tribe, but was a workhorse, man for all seasons type cut which looked ridiculous. Since those days I’ve tended to go for a utilitarian, sometimes DIY approach, which keeps things simple.

When I do go to the hairdressers I’m always very glad to leave. I’d rather go to the dentist than the hairdressers. The two professions used to be inextricably linked in medieval times when a barber was a dentist and also a surgeon. You could nip in for a quick limb trim whilst having your molars out and a hair amputation. All at the same time. The bloody rags that accompanied the procedures, (hopefully just the dentistry and the surgery rather than the haircut), were then hung out on a pole, leading to the iconic, macabre, red and white striped barbers.

These days a haircut is a much simpler, sedate affair. But I’m not one for small talk and having someone fiddle with my hair whilst I sit in front of a mirror for quarter of an hour is not something I like to do very often. Would it not be easier to have haircuts on the NHS and have the option of a general anaesthetic? At least having a mouthful of ironmongery at the dentist gives a good excuse not to talk about the weather. That said, despite my preference for the dentist over hairdressers I’d rather go on holiday than go to the dentist, which is why I’ve started to combine the two (holidays and haircuts, not holidays and dentistry).

You hear about people going abroad for all kinds of reasons, holidays, work, cosmetic surgery, assisted suicide, booze cruises. But this haircut tourism is something I’ve wanted to do for a while. It really does kill two (or three) birds with one stone. One, you’re on holiday. Two, you have a haircut. And three, you can comfortably sit there in dumb, non-other-language speaking silence.

I remember hearing Andy Kershaw on one of his superb travelogues he used to do in the 80’s, 90’s having a haircut, somewhere in Turkmenistan, and the barber pulled out a blowtorch and singed the hair off his ears. Seemed like a a great way to get to view a country from a different perspective, and to come home with a metaphysical souvenir that you don’t have to find extra space for in your luggage.

Those were my thoughts pre-haircut tourism, but after two foreign haircuts the jury’s still out. Not sure that I’ve discovered anything specifically different about Spain or Bulgaria by having a trim.

Except the following. In southern Spain, after seeing the astounding palace of Granada with my girlfriend we wondered round the streets looking for some signs of hairdressers. Eventually I found the site of my inaugural foreign cut. It was quite a trendy looking place. Not a blowtorch in site, but possibly the campest hairdressers I’ve ever been in. I’m quite short-sighted so once I’ve taken my glasses off, I can’t see for toffee. However my girlfriend came with me and saw the camp Barbers of Granada flirting outrageously with each other, squeezing each others arses, whilst sorting out my oblivious barnet.

In Bulgaria, on holiday with my daughter, near the Maritsa River, which runs through the second city, Plovdiv, we walked into a small shop looking for a Balkan short back and sides. We’d just been on a three day horse ride in the mountains and today was the last day and I only had a few hours to get the cut. There were a lot of signs that this was a place for a haircut. There were mirrors on the wall, scissors on the shelf and a couple of chairs on the floor, facing the mirrors. It all added up to one thing. It had all the trimmings of being the establishment of a hairdresser.

Two blokes were sat behind a desk. I asked in my best Bulgarian if they could speak English. ‘No’, they replied. In English.

I don’t expect people I meet abroad to speak English, but most of them seem to. I took them at their (English) word and proceeded with the international sign language for a haircut. You know the one, fingers for scissors, chopping over the scalp. They understood, they were men of the world, and they could clearly speak and understand more English than they were letting on. ‘No, not here.’ I looked around the shop. Was it a front? Had we just unwittingly stumbled upon a money laundering or drug gang fronting as a barbers?

I glanced, at the mirror, the scissors, the combs. One of the blokes said. ‘It doesn’t work’. If I had had the capacity of debate in the Bulgarian language then this could have been one of the most in-depth and entertaining conversations I’d ever get the chance to have in a hairdresser. From what I could see the scissors and combs looked perfectly serviceable. And the mirrors definitely worked. No doubt about it. What was he on about? In retrospect the whole episode could have been complicated by the Bulgarian custom of nodding for ‘no’ and a shake of the heads for ‘yes’. However none of the guidebooks mentioned anything about saying no when you mean yes and vice versa. All very confusing. So instead of a haircut, we cut our losses and left.

After taking some advice from the hotel proprietor I obtained the Balkan look in a ladies hair salon with a load of Bulgarian ladies looking somewhat bemused at the incoherent gentleman sitting beside there perms and dyes. But I got what I wanted. An ephemeral reminder, a transient souvenir, a mark.

* Michel de Montaigne was 16th century writer. He’s now considered the first essayist penning such wonderfully titled pieces as On Cannibals, On Smells, On the Custom of Wearing Clothes, That One Man’s Loss is Another Man’s Profit, and On Thumbs.

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