I’ve had two haircuts in the last four months. The first, on a sweaty afternoon in Padova, was briefed in through a muddle of would-be sign language and pictorial references in lieu of a common language. The second was easier to transact — a receptionist skilled in English acted as an interpreter between myself and the hairdresser in a central Budapest salon.
My third haircut takes place on my final day in Lisbon. It’s raining and I’ve sight-seen to my heart’s content, so I ask the hostel receptionist to direct me to a barber and set off, tracing her map scribbles as best I can.
Lisbon is slippery when wet. The city’s centuries-old cobblestones, laid in black and white waves, have been smoothed by foot traffic, and rainfall drives elderly people to any and all available railings. I move gingerly until I reach my destination, signalled by an overhanging sign emblazoned with a moustache.
At the entrance to the shop I’m met by a man smoking. We exchange greetings. He grinds out his cigarette and directs me to one of four or five chairs in the barbershop, throwing a grey covering cloth over my body. When he asks me for guidance on how to cut my hair I’m absentminded and non-specific, but we settle on a short back and sides arrangement that I’m sure will do.
Sitting in front of a full-length mirror, I’m able to take in my surrounds. The usual barbershop clutter is scattered around the room: bottles and tubes of product, magazines unevenly fanned across a table, razors and scissors collected on a stand. Far more eyecatching is a triple-lifesize portrait of Jesus hanging directly behind me. Below this is a bombastic shrine to Christ and the Virgin, with a dozen or more wooden and stone statuettes of various sizes clustered around a single glowing red candle.
Complementing the shrine, a sequence of old-time, African American gospel songs are piped through the room from my left. (It’s the sort of music I imagine emanating from a record player but I’m unable, mid-cut, to turn my head and check for the medium of the message.) The only song I recognise is ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’, but every other number features regular appeals to Jesus and The Big Man and lots of call and response.
The barber and I are alone in the shop, so I make some effort at conversation (though the gospel vocals fill what might otherwise be an awkward silence). He tells me he’s owned the barbershop for a year, and before that worked in just about every other outfit in Lisbon.
Aged in his 30s, the barber is dressed to the nines, with his baby pink laces matched to his baby pink socks. His shirtsleeves are rolled up past his elbows, and there’s a geisha tattoo on one of his arms. He wears suede shoes and pressed trousers, a vest and a patterned purple cravat. Like any other barber he squints and crouches as he trims. I’m only vaguely aware of tufts of thin hair falling from my head, concentrating instead on his choices in wardrobe and interior design.
Midway through my haircut a group of tourists stop and peer into the shop’s front window. I stare into the mirror and avoid their eye contact while the barber keeps up his work. His shop is on a street that runs parallel to one of Lisbon’s most-photographed tram inclines, and before long the tourists continue on their way. The barber dusts the back of my neck with baby powder.
There’s a lot of razor-switching going on, and the end result is a fade slightly more dramatic than what I’m used to. The barber finishes the job by using his index fingers to check the evenness of my sideburns, shortening the right slightly so it matches the left.
While gospel continues to sound from my left, I pay the barber and take my leave. The rain has stopped so I’m able to move with less caution, half-strutting to an hours-long disco mix on my iPod. My hair’s whipability is temporarily curtailed — it no longer bobs as I bop — but the short back and sides should see me through to December.