Life in Italy: ‘Why visiting my Italian barber gets me much more than a haircut’

Life in Italy: 'Why visiting my Italian barber gets me much more than a haircut'
Stepping inside an Italian barber shop can be like going back in time. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP
In Italy, you can forget the idea of getting a quick trim. Haircuts take three times as long since moving to Le Marche from the US, reader Mark Hinshaw discovered, but he says it's worth every extra minute.

Once a month I crave a “fix” of Dante.

Not the Dante who wrote the Divine Comedy, but Dante, a barber in my village.

After having lived here for going on three years, I have a regular, quasi-religious ritual. Dante the barber cuts my hair sometime during the third week of each month.


With my extent of baldness, the whole process has not, in many years, required more than ten minutes of someone shoving an electric shaver around my head. In Seattle, years ago, one worker in a local chain barbershop did the job in 90 seconds flat.

But I have to say that, hands down, Dante has given me the best haircut I have ever had in my life. His slow, meticulous pace, honed after decades of barbering, almost puts me to sleep. And I have never allowed anyone else to get within two feet of my head with a straight razor. 

Dante the author gave the world the nine circles of hell. Dante the barber gives his customers a slice of heaven.

Inside one of Rome's oldest barbershops, the Antica Barbieria Peppino. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

His little shop is not especially remarkable. Two big chairs face a long mirror and a counter with sinks. Along the opposite wall, a row of identical chairs flank a little table piled high with magazines that date back several years. 

But that's where the familiarity ends. Mounted over the centre of the mirror is a big portrait of Jesus Christ. Below that hangs a small statue of Mary. A pious barber, it would seem.

Or maybe not: off to the side near the corner, is a big calendar with photographs of comely and naked young women. Perhaps the contrast of the sacred and the profane owes a bit to the other Dante.

In the thirty-plus times of visiting Dante’s shop, I have never seen a woman inside. It is most definitely a male domain. Indeed, the chairs along the wall are always filled with guys – even if they aren’t there to have their hair cut. Often, Dante seats me immediately, even with what looks like a full house.

Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

In this village, many older people speak a dialect. My learned Italian cannot penetrate that language barrier. However, I pick up enough vibes from the tone of the animated conversations to know if they are talking politics, swapping stories about grisly traffic accidents, or cracking jokes.

They have obviously been doing this for decades and there is no reason I can think of that my presence should disrupt this long-standing social milieu. So I just sit quietly under Dante’s big red cloth.

READ ALSO: 'There's no privacy setting': Swapping the big city for a small town in Italy

Dante himself occasionally tosses in a comment about someone’s story. But for the most part he is carefully going through the steps that I have come to anticipate with great pleasure.

The process for me is now predictable – like in the movie Groundhog Day. Each time I tell him: “Come sempre” ('Like always'). He repeats it back, “Come sempre.”

Tools at the Antica Barbieria Colla in Milan. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP

He starts by gently gliding the buzzing shaver around my head, always set at number one. He then lightly brushes any loose hairs off. Next, he lathers up a classic shaving brush and daubs it around my ears and the back of my neck. That’s when he whips out the gleaming razor blade and slowly makes a fine line from ear to ear.

And this is the point when I begin to go into a sort of reverie. The first time was a tad disconcerting, now I have come to really love it. The combination of lethal danger and light touch is entirely mesmerizing.

READ ALSO: 'Everything is slower in Italy. Why not washing machines?'

He picks off stray hairs, does the ears, nose, other little cleanups and brushes me off all over again. And then hits the small chin beard with another smaller shaver. It feels just marvellous, perhaps like when you scratch a cat near its tailbone.

He does some further cleanup and I’m done. One thing I’ve always hated about getting my hair cut is when the tiny hairs fall down your back and itch for days. I have not ever had that experience with Dante. That it doesn’t happen is, in my view, a minor miracle.

Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

Recently I discovered that Dante’s barbershop is also a powerful source of local news. A week prior to my last haircut, I had to have a surgical procedure at a big hospital in a city an hour away. After the procedure, I told a few people I know.

As I sat in Dante’s chair this time I shared with him my health care experience. He listened politely. When I was finished with the tale, he leaned down, looked me in the eyes and softly said, “Sentito!” ('So I have heard!')

After the haircut I look in the mirror again and ritually exclaim, “Perfetto! Perfetto come sempre!” ('Perfect! Perfect as always.') He writes out a little receipt on a pad, and I hand him his fee of 10 euros.

For the money this is solid value. I look forward to each haircut for full a week prior. And for the price of less than a movie ticket I get 30 minutes of live comedy and tragedy. 

Hard to beat that.

Mark Hinshaw is a retired city planner who moved to Le Marche with his wife two years ago. A former columnist for The Seattle Times, he contributes to journals, books and other publications.

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