As I stepped through the bead-curtained doorway I got a feeling of going back in time to when I was a boy, a time when a man went for a haircut and a woman for a hairdo, and unisex hair salons and girls cutting men's hair were undreamt of. I had been searching for the best part of an hour throughout the Italian Mediterranean resort of Pietra Ligure before finding the words 'Parrucchiere per Huomo' - men's hairdresser - written on the awning of a small shop located in a quiet street not far from the beach. Inside were four vacant wooden chairs and in front of a large mirror was a revolving adjustable chair occupied by a round and red faced man of advanced years who was talking animatedly to the barber. The latter, being addressed as 'Pablo' was a medium sized, very compact man, in a spotless white coat, with brown eyes set in a neutral face and a gleaming pate sporting a few strands of black hair slicked across it. He nodded me to a chair and spread his palms showing all his fingers, which I took to indicate that I had approximately ten minutes to wait. I was not surprised that he knew I was a foreigner for I was dressed in shorts and tee-shirt and, though my perspiring face was tanned, my scraggy pale white legs were obviously displayed only on holiday, and far from home at that.
There was an atmosphere of calm and quietude far removed from that of the main part of the resort only a few meters away where traffic never ceased to blare for passage or in protest, and the sounds from the beach were a blend of children's cries, teenage horseplay and beach volleyball supporters' triumphant shouts and defeated groans.
Watching Pablo cutting hair was in itself a relaxation. His movements were economical and sure, no sense of hurry, yet not slow, a snip of the scissors, a glance of appreciation and then another snip, all in continuous and fluid movement. There was a counter running the length of the bottom of the mirror and on this lay shaving brushes and bowls, scissors, razors, spray bottles of talcum powder and scents, and, incongruously, a small radio cassette player. He kept a pair of spectacles there and whenever he had fine work to do he would pause, put them on, scrutinise the area to be trimmed, remove them and go back to his task. All the talking was being done by the customer, Pablo merely nodding either directly at him or via the mirror.
Close on the ten minutes later it was my turn. He gravely helped me to don the gown before I sat in the chair. He then swept the floor around it with the same deliberate movements with which he walked, cut hair, and I was sure, ate his dinner. He looked at me and did a little mime with the scissors, I indicated yes to a haircut and he nodded. Then he did another mime of lathering the face, I shook my head, he nodded again. I never knew there could be such dignity in a nod. We were ready. He got to work using three tools in sequence, a scissors, a cut-throat razor and an electric razor. He was meticulous about his work and I sensed that he loved it. I kept absolutely still, that being my only possible contribution to the performance, for a performance it was. After several minutes he carefully looked at his watch, slowly looked around his shop as if to verify the obvious, that nobody was waiting, went into a little alcove and came back with a sign saying 'CHIUSO' which I knew to mean 'closed'. He hung it on the inside door-handle, shut the door and partly closed the window blinds. It was nearly seven in the evening and I was now his last customer. He went to his radio cassette player, looked at me, raised his eyebrows in a query and said at the same time, 'Musica?' I smiled understanding and assent, whereupon he took a cassette and looked at it for a long time before putting it in the deck. A beautiful light tenor voice accompanied by mandolins began to soar with the Neapolitan folk song 'Santa Lucia'. It must have been the setting and the circumstances but I was astonished to get goose-pimples of joyous pleasure. I love Neapolitan music and have many discs of the better known songs sung by all the famous Italian tenors which I play on the most sophisticated hi-fi available but never, ever, did I have a reaction like that. It was sheer bliss.
Pablo listened to his music the same way as he cut hair, actively. He would cock an ear to judge the sound quality, then go over and make a little adjustment, up or down in volume, or a slight change in tone until he was satisfied that a particular song was being heard under the best possible conditions, and given the respect as was its due. The next track was 'O sole Mio' and as it played my fingers started to make the motions of a conductor. Pablo noticed this and immediately stopped his work, turned the chair around to face him, and gave me a delightful smile:
'Musica Napolitana, bellissima?'
I made gestures with my hands and face to indicate that I adored it.
He pointed to himself, 'Io sono Napolitana... Naples'. Then he pointed at me, 'Allemand?'
I shook my head, 'Irish, Irlande'.
'Ah Irlande, paese bellissimo, bellisimo'.
He motioned his hands indicating that we must however carry on with the haircutting. The finishing off of the cut was the longest part for Pablo kept alternating between scissors, razor, and contemplation, until he was satisfied. The music was playing but in his concentration I was sure he heard none of it. Finally he put some lotion on my hair, combed it, powdered my neck, squirted perfumed alcohol all over my head, trimmed my eyebrows, the hairs in my ears, and was proceeding to attack those of my nose before I managed to stop him. He gently lifted off my gown, once more put on his glasses, removed them after examining my neck, and used the cut-throat to scrape off some hairs which were offending him.
I paid. He had worked assiduously and skillfully for more than half an hour and his charge was half of what I was expecting.
I was thanking Pablo and trying to show my pleasure at the whole experience when he made a sign for me to sit down on a chair near the recorder. He then either fast-forwarded or reversed the tape a few times until he found a spot he wanted. He leaned back in his barber chair, put his hands behind his head, closed his eyes while listening to the music and the singing and for the next ten minutes there was no other sound except an occasional 'bellisssimo?' directed to me for agreement.
When it was all finished we said our 'Buono Seras' and I left. At first I regretted the barrier of language which prevented me from knowing more about Pablo but on reflection I became glad of that. I had been enriched by him. I had been given a lot to think about. Here was a man who had a skill, who worked very hard to use it to his best ability and, whatever his life was like outside of his shop, from eight-thirty in the morning until seven in the evening, six days a week, he was relaxed and happy knowing, much better than I did, how to live. I needed to learn no more than that, except perhaps how best to emulate him.