I once came across a barber in a remote corner of Karnataka state in India who felt the only fitting style for his rare Western clients was the British officer haircut. I emerged from his shop looking like Lawrence of Arabia, but less handsome. In Bangkok, a misunderstanding left me shorn. I asked my Thai Figaro to cut off a centimeter but he left a centimeter standing. Spiky in Siam, curly in Cairo. After my hair had grown back, an Arabian barber gave me a perm – not the real kind for which you sit under a hooded dryer, just one he whipped up with a comb and a hand-held dryer. My luxuriant mane prompted calls of “habibi” as I walked the narrow streets, but my next shower literally smoothed the waves. Head, shoulder and neck massages are part and parcel of a haircut all over the Maghreb, but the bit I don’t particularly enjoy is when the barber cracks your – neck vertebrae? – as he gives your head a short, sharp, supposedly beneficial yank from left to right.
Close shaves: Men in southern Europe and beyond go to their barber for a shave, a far more communicative practise than doing it themselves – or more meditative if you don’t want to talk. First comes the soaping up, then the blade – but you never get cut. I have had shaves all over the world, but only one barber ever nicked me with his razor. In fact, he did it every time, but I kept going back to him when I was in Tangiers. Why, I don’t know; I was probably already part of the family. Also, it was never a bad nick. Minimal misplaced pressure on the razor, a wound the size of a mosquito bite. He would repair it with something alcoholic that stung for a moment and woke you right up. Afterwards, proud as a pirate, I would survey the Straits of Gibraltar and imagine I saw dolphins prancing.
Our columnist, Helge Timmerberg, an irrepressible globetrotter since 1969, writes travel books and contributes monthly to our magazine.