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Roma's Backstreet Barbers, Kindest Cuts

When in Rome, we are always told, do as the Romans do. But what is it that they do? I put the question one evening over dinner at George's to a professorial friend from Padua who lives and works in the city. He thought about it for a minute while he glanced through the wine list. Then, closing it with finality and removing his glasses, he answered: "Absolutely nothing".

Male visitors who wish to do absolutely nothing - dolce fare niente, they call it - will find the best place is the barber's chair. Going to the barber's in Rome has little to do with having one's hair cut. Muffled under the lather (if one is being shaved), one can hear a steady stream of visitors calling to discuss topics close to the heart of Roman men: politics and football. This involves the frequent laying aside of razor or scissors as Romans, like most Italians, find the hands as necessary to conversation as the tongue.

But as time should not be a problem, lean back and relax completely, for attemps to assist the razor with posturings of the jaw can lead to you looking like an uncooked steak: il barbiere di Roma knows exactly when, where and how to stretch your skin between thumb and forefinger, and the well-honed edge of his 'cut-throat' can reach levels of growth that remain subterranean to most modern razors.

The second stage of the ritual (the first is the soaping, done with all the flair of an Italian cook preparing a pizza) draws to a close with the delicate pinching of the nose from above to expose the upper lip (particularly necessary with Romans). Finally comes the steaming, hot towel - so hot that one's hair stands momentarily on end - and the cold scented shock of the aftershave, cupped in the palms and applied simultaneously to both sides of the face.

The most remarkable thing about Roman barbers, notably those in the backstreets who lounge in nylon overalls in their doorways, smoking and looking for customers but disdaining to solicit, is that they are all able to trim my hair and (nowadays) my beard exactly as I wish without ever asking or being told. (They can also shampoo me without getting water in my ears.) But if you have no beard to be trimmed, do not miss the opportunity of being shaved properly, for it is a dying art outside Italy and the experience is the nearest you will get to being born again.

Perhatian !

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