Confessions of an Expat – the buzz

barber 1
You see, this is not cutting hair. This is shaving

This is the story of a small but good thing. It’s a tale of fear, doubt, distrust, guilt and ultimately happiness. It involves searching, disappointment, loss of money and eventually the enjoyment of a bargain and a job well done. It’s about success being snatched from the jaws of defeat.

Getting a haircut on a Caribbean island may be no big deal to you, if you have curly African hair, because the barbers know what they’re doing when you are in the chair. They get the electric clippers buzzing and they’re as happy as Dad in his workshop, fixing something with a power drill.

Me, I have straight hair. Well, a bit wavy, but generally speaking it goes in one direction rather than round in circles.

Traditionally it has been cut with scissors. Yes, old-fashioned, you might even say primitive, manually operated, hinged blades. The clippers in a British barber’s shop are for skinheads or for shaving your neck when the creative work has been done.

So, man with European hair looks in windows and sees strange practices going on. Men are having their hair twisted and plaited and things he doesn’t even know the words for. The barber seems to spend as much time making minute adjustments to his customers’ fussy, intricately designed beards as actually harvesting significant amounts of hair.

barber 3
No, no, no, no, no and no. Thank you

In the UK you only go into a barber’s shop if you want to come out looking like your grandpa. If you want something vaguely 21st century you go to a ‘hairdresser’, who may well be female. And all the better for that. If body parts are going to be placed against my arms so the practitioner can stay balanced, I’ll take a bit of nicely cushioned woman any day.

And some of these people wield scissors with a dexterity that is impressive and terrifying in equal parts. If they were going to cut your ear it would be in an artistic way.

So, first time out in Tobago, I sat in a salon in Canaan, where the woman had promised she knew how to do men’s hair.

barber 2
She probably knows what she’s doing, but she’s going to take all day and charge a fortune

She did, too. She also knew how to charge, though. A female customer might be happy to spend all afternoon in there and emerge considerably lighter in the wallet as well as the head. But we guys, we want to be in and out like a cat burglar, job done, here’s a small sum of cash, see you in a couple of months.

Having been thus stung once, the next time, I set out on a walking tour of Scarborough, checking out the cheaper looking joints. Do you cut men’s hair? “No darlin’” or “Well, I’m willin’, but…” Yes, it sounds like a bad idea.

Half an hour later, sweating profusely, I find myself at the door of a barber’s shop in which there are six chairs, each with a man’s name painted onto the mirror in from of it. There are three customers waiting, but when the first barber becomes available he beckons me. I look at the others waiting and raise my eyebrows. He waves me towards him.

So what’s the deal here? Am I getting preferential treatment? Or don’t these other guys want him anywhere near their hair? Whatever the reason, I’m in the chair and he’s revving up the clippers with one hand and talking on his phone with the other, when a uniformed schoolgirl appears and hangs around, talking to him. I would like to explain to him what I want done, but it seems rude to interrupt someone so busy. Eventually the girl leaves and the phone goes into his pocket, so I give him the instructions. Clippers on the back and maybe the sides, scissors on top and take off half an inch.

He doesn’t have anything as crude as scissors but he’s a dab hand with the old miniature hedge trimmers. I don’t know what the mirror is there for, because he’s determined to keep me facing away from it.

He’s very popular, too: his phone rings constantly and at one point he goes outside to lean on the railing above the hustle and bustle of Wilson Road, while I sit and wonder if he’s coming back in the near future or it’s an important call from his New York office.

He returns in the end, makes no apology, brandishes the machine like a painter fine-tuning a portrait and, confident to the last, sprays me like a potted plant with some chemical.

But what was I worried about? Fear of the unknown is often a waste of time and energy. Different culture, that’s all. Looks fine, 10 minutes, $30. Everybody’s happy.


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