A year in haircuts and the worst haircut ever

• ~1,000 words • 5 minute read

In 2013 I had three different haircuts in three different countries. Yesterday I received my first haircut of 2014, back on native soil, so it seemed like a good time to reflect on this.

Communicating without a common language is a sometimes difficult, sometimes humorous thing, and nothing quite embodies that so well as trying to ask for your haircut. I'm thankful to report that indicating a general length via a tiny gap between your fingers and pointing to your head is more or less a universal language and did the trick. In France, Turkey and Japan this worked out well, though each time the haircutters managed to embody some delightfully stereotypical notion of what that country is like.

The first haircut was in Paris, France and much-needed one. I'd let my hair grow long, thick, busy and sun-bleached after four months in South America, accompanied by a beard ((In fact, the author photo I have in the right-hand column at the time of this writing is about how I looked right beforehand.)). Fortunately the only thing more frequently found than a coiffeur in Paris is a boulangerie, and in much the same way it would seem most of them are good quality.

Before going inside I looked up a few basic phrases that might help, but I can't recall them now and they didn't much matter. The old man gave me a look over the top of his glasses that said if I cared enough to let you know how little I care I'd be showing you and motioned for me to sit in the chair. It was a beautiful spring day in Paris — a fact I'm sure he was keenly aware of because he spent the entirety of my haircut staring out the window, glancing once or twice at my head, possibly by mistake.

Somehow, despite barriers to language and attentiveness, it turned out to be one of the nicest haircuts I've had in my life.

In Tokyo, Japan I went out of my way to find the cheapest haircut I could. Things have a tendency to be a bit pricey and I was nearing the end of my trip at this point, so I was pinching pennies where I could.  I walked into a barbershop advertising 1100 yen haircuts not expecting much more than a functional trim, but what I was treated to was a full-on ritual. Not one but two hot towels, each accompanied with a helpful demonstration of exactly what I was supposed to be doing with it. No fewer than two different types of scissors were employed — a larger one for the major cuts and a tiny pair around the ears — and two types of electronic trimming devices were brought out for the final details; lining up the necklines and even tending to the tiny hairs in my ears, the existence of which I'm still not entirely certain of.

My favorite haircut though happened a bit earlier in my trip, in Istanbul, Turkey. Earlier in my wanderings I'd found a side street off Taksim that gave a slightly sketchy vibe. Unlike the rest of the area, which was bustling and overrun with shops and stalls, this street seemed oddly vacant. There were businesses with open signs and the occasional person walking by but it was largely still. I'd also noted there were multiple barbers on this street and decided to go get a haircut from the first one that looked open.

There were two men sitting and chatting. They looked up when I came in, seemingly a little confused by my presence but confusion was pretty much par the course everywhere I went once I started trying to communicate with people. With a subtle air of reluctance he sat me in the chair and started rinsing my hair. On two occasions he stopped mid-rinse to step outside the shop and take a second, more thoughtful observance of the backsides of some female pedestrians passing by, but he was otherwise as or more attentive as the Frenchman had been.

He shampooed my hair before the actual cutting began, worked up a thick lather and proceeded to push my head into the sink. This was not a foreign experience, but something seemed a little off. In all my previous shampooing experiences I recalled having my head tilted back into the sink. As I sat there facing down, face-first into the sink, I wondered how he would avoid getting the water and soap in my eyes, nose and mouth. I assumed he knew something I didn't.

I assumed incorrectly. Moments after he turned the water on it started running into my eyes, nose and mouth. Like a low-budget water-boarding, I could still breathe with my mouth slightly open  but then wondered what to do about the soap, which I could now taste and feel trying to seep through my tightly-clenched eyelids. But I needed not wonder long; sensing the issue, his big Turkish man-hands came forthwith around the front of my face, rubbing the soap around and eventually away.

The rest of the haircut played out less like an enhanced interrogation routine, though the end result was a little peculiar. When it was finished he mumbled something in Turkish to me and rubbed the side of my face with the back of his hand. I assumed it to be a shave but decided not to chance any further misinterpretation and declined.

Flash forward to 2014, yesterday in Portland, Oregon. Still enjoying the novelty of  being mostly understood everywhere I go these days, I relayed these stories about my international haircut experiences. The Turkish experience elicited the most laughs. I told him I was pretty sure it was a front for something.

"Yeah, that was totally a front. Have you ever seen the Hostel movies? Or Taken? You probably almost got sold into white slavery," he said, casually combing my hair back and measuring between his fingers. A dozen inappropriate jokes later I had to interrupt the haircut because I was laughing so hard. It made me realize I would've had a great answer to the question what's the worst haircut you've ever had? 

"Oh, it had to be that time I was Istanbul. I went in to get a trim and got sold into slavery. Yeah, that was a terrible haircut."