If you have to shave, you can’t beat a shave from an Italian barber! This is something that Jules has heard me say often over and over. However, I must admit that the statement was actually based upon my one and only experience of having my then youthful stubble shaved by an old Italian barber back in Adelaide over 35 years ago. This satisfying and somewhat precarious experience with the cut-throat razor was so memorable that I have been espousing the qualities of the Italian barbering profession ever since. This all came to mind once again when we were walking through the market square of Spoleto and spied a traditional Italian barber shop or ‘barbiere’ as they are called in Italy. Here was the perfect opportunity for me to once again experience the deft hand of a master barber and hopefully confirm what I have been spouting about for all these years.
After a few days of cultivating my now graying stubble, I was all ready to tackle the ‘big shave’ when Jules and I headed into town to visit the local barbiere. Jules was there to not only see what all the fuss was about, but to help with the Italian language, as mine can only be described as rubbish! However as she soon found out, she was about to set foot into one of the few strictly male domains left in town. As we walked into the shop, it was like stepping back into the 1950’s with a couple of old-fashioned barber chairs placed on a decoratively patterned terrazzo floor. In one of the chairs there was an older gentleman having the finishing snips to his haircut by the elderly barber, who was immaculately presented in the white coat of his profession. Along the back wall was a row of low-slung tubular steel chairs in which a couple of similarly older men were reading their newspapers. As we parted the string tassels that hung over the doorway, everything appeared to stop. Newspapers were lowered as it became clear that not only was this new customer a stranger to town, but he was also accompanied by a woman!!
With all ears listening, Jules explained in Italian that the scruffy looking character standing alongside her was actually her husband who desperately needed a shave. With a half smile, the barber pointed to the waiting chairs and said ‘un momento’. At this stage I thought that it might take quite a bit longer than a minute considering that there were two other customers also waiting, but I was wrong. It seems that the old guys reading their newspapers were actually just in the shop to hangout, get away from their wives and/or generally observe the comings and goings of the town. A foreigner visiting the barbiere seemed quite amusing to them and would obviously provide something different to talk about over the pasta at lunch.
With the previous customer completed and the necessary small talk over, it was now my turn step up. However, I had forgotten that here they were running on Italian time, where everything appears to work in slow and casual motions. So as I waited, there was a leisurely sweep of the floor, careful dusting of the chair and a timely re-organising of the tools of the trade, all done at a pace that belies the fast paced world that most non-Italians now live. For me this was somewhat reassuring, as I sensed that the same slow and careful approach might also be applied to the use of the cut-throat razor and that was fine by me! All in good time I found myself sitting back in the chair and having my face lathered up with a soft hog hair shaving brush to form a thick foamy beard. Then with the raise of an arm, much like a conductor would do when about to signal the initial notes of a symphony, he began. After the first few swipes of the razor I could clearly tell that here was a professional at work. The angle of the blade, the steadiness of hand and the lack of hesitation suggested years of experience. My stubbly bristles were quickly erased as he confidently maneuvered his way around the contours of my face with the sharpest of blades in hand. With a final soothing balm applied, it was all over and as I felt the smoothness of my chin, it felt just as smooth as I had remembered it from all those years ago.
While it had been a little intimidating at first, the barber and his customers had quickly gathered that we were visiting his little shop as a gesture of admiration for his skills and they were very patient to indulge our curiosity. Although our Italian small talk was somewhat limited, we were gushingly complementary to him for his handiwork … bellissimo! He in turn had asked where we were from … ‘Australia’ we replied … ‘ah Australia’ he said, although it probably could have been Mars as far as he was concerned. Anywhere outside the ancient walls of Spoleto would likely seem like another world to him. While I would have liked to explain to him about my motivation for visiting, it would have been undoubtedly lost in translation. So in the end I will just have to be satisfied in being able to reiterate to anyone who’ll listen … you simply can’t beat a shave from an Italian barber!