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LIFE IN ITALY

Life in Italy: ‘Why visiting my Italian barber gets me much more than a haircut’

In Italy, you can forget the idea of getting a quick trim. Haircuts take three times as long since moving to Le Marche from the US, reader Mark Hinshaw discovered, but he says it's worth every extra minute.

Life in Italy: 'Why visiting my Italian barber gets me much more than a haircut'
Stepping inside an Italian barber shop can be like going back in time. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP

Once a month I crave a “fix” of Dante.

Not the Dante who wrote the Divine Comedy, but Dante, a barber in my village.

After having lived here for going on three years, I have a regular, quasi-religious ritual. Dante the barber cuts my hair sometime during the third week of each month.

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With my extent of baldness, the whole process has not, in many years, required more than ten minutes of someone shoving an electric shaver around my head. In Seattle, years ago, one worker in a local chain barbershop did the job in 90 seconds flat.

But I have to say that, hands down, Dante has given me the best haircut I have ever had in my life. His slow, meticulous pace, honed after decades of barbering, almost puts me to sleep. And I have never allowed anyone else to get within two feet of my head with a straight razor. 

Dante the author gave the world the nine circles of hell. Dante the barber gives his customers a slice of heaven.


Inside one of Rome's oldest barbershops, the Antica Barbieria Peppino. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

His little shop is not especially remarkable. Two big chairs face a long mirror and a counter with sinks. Along the opposite wall, a row of identical chairs flank a little table piled high with magazines that date back several years. 

But that's where the familiarity ends. Mounted over the centre of the mirror is a big portrait of Jesus Christ. Below that hangs a small statue of Mary. A pious barber, it would seem.

Or maybe not: off to the side near the corner, is a big calendar with photographs of comely and naked young women. Perhaps the contrast of the sacred and the profane owes a bit to the other Dante.

In the thirty-plus times of visiting Dante’s shop, I have never seen a woman inside. It is most definitely a male domain. Indeed, the chairs along the wall are always filled with guys – even if they aren’t there to have their hair cut. Often, Dante seats me immediately, even with what looks like a full house.


Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

In this village, many older people speak a dialect. My learned Italian cannot penetrate that language barrier. However, I pick up enough vibes from the tone of the animated conversations to know if they are talking politics, swapping stories about grisly traffic accidents, or cracking jokes.

They have obviously been doing this for decades and there is no reason I can think of that my presence should disrupt this long-standing social milieu. So I just sit quietly under Dante’s big red cloth.

READ ALSO: 'There's no privacy setting': Swapping the big city for a small town in Italy

Dante himself occasionally tosses in a comment about someone’s story. But for the most part he is carefully going through the steps that I have come to anticipate with great pleasure.

The process for me is now predictable – like in the movie Groundhog Day. Each time I tell him: “Come sempre” ('Like always'). He repeats it back, “Come sempre.”


Tools at the Antica Barbieria Colla in Milan. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP

He starts by gently gliding the buzzing shaver around my head, always set at number one. He then lightly brushes any loose hairs off. Next, he lathers up a classic shaving brush and daubs it around my ears and the back of my neck. That’s when he whips out the gleaming razor blade and slowly makes a fine line from ear to ear.

And this is the point when I begin to go into a sort of reverie. The first time was a tad disconcerting, now I have come to really love it. The combination of lethal danger and light touch is entirely mesmerizing.

READ ALSO: 'Everything is slower in Italy. Why not washing machines?'

He picks off stray hairs, does the ears, nose, other little cleanups and brushes me off all over again. And then hits the small chin beard with another smaller shaver. It feels just marvellous, perhaps like when you scratch a cat near its tailbone.

He does some further cleanup and I’m done. One thing I’ve always hated about getting my hair cut is when the tiny hairs fall down your back and itch for days. I have not ever had that experience with Dante. That it doesn’t happen is, in my view, a minor miracle.


Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

Recently I discovered that Dante’s barbershop is also a powerful source of local news. A week prior to my last haircut, I had to have a surgical procedure at a big hospital in a city an hour away. After the procedure, I told a few people I know.

As I sat in Dante’s chair this time I shared with him my health care experience. He listened politely. When I was finished with the tale, he leaned down, looked me in the eyes and softly said, “Sentito!” ('So I have heard!')

After the haircut I look in the mirror again and ritually exclaim, “Perfetto! Perfetto come sempre!” ('Perfect! Perfect as always.') He writes out a little receipt on a pad, and I hand him his fee of 10 euros.

For the money this is solid value. I look forward to each haircut for full a week prior. And for the price of less than a movie ticket I get 30 minutes of live comedy and tragedy. 

Hard to beat that.

Mark Hinshaw is a retired city planner who moved to Le Marche with his wife two years ago. A former columnist for The Seattle Times, he contributes to journals, books and other publications.

Would you like to write about your life in Italy for The Local? Get in touch.

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QUALITY OF LIFE

‘Why I used to hate living in Rome as a foreigner – and why I changed my mind’

Yet another survey of Rome’s foreign residents has rated the Italian capital dismally for quality of life. Jessica Phelan explains why she too disliked the city when she first moved here, and what helped to change her mind.

A view over the city of Rome at sunset.
Life in Rome can take a while to get used to. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

If you’d told me four years ago that I’d be coming to Rome’s defence, I would have told you: Ma va’. Yeah right, get out of town. And I would have said I’d be long gone myself. 

And yet, as the latest InterNations survey of expats around the world puts Rome in last place for city life and work, here I am not only still living here but saying out loud: this place isn’t so bad.

It’s not that I don’t get where my unhappy fellow foreigners are coming from. I never dreamed of Rome before I moved here and found it far from dreamy once I arrived, in summer 2017. I’d grown up a short flight away (the UK) and lived in European capitals (Paris, Berlin) for several years, and after a stint further afield (Japan), I naively thought that moving to Rome would feel like coming home. 

Instead I found myself complaining to anyone who would listen about the same things that InterNations’ respondents listed as Rome’s downsides. The unreliable public transport. The scant public services. The politicians on the take. The provincialism. The rubbish – good grief, the rubbish. The inequality and lack of opportunities for young people – and lack of young people themselves, as it seemed in certain neighbourhoods. 

READ ALSO: Rome and Milan ranked ‘worst’ cities to live in by foreign residents – again

Sure, I liked the food and I couldn’t argue with the weather, but it felt frivolous to enjoy the small pleasures amid what I began to see as existential flaws. They spiralled for me into the impression of a city on the brink: the trash is piled shoulder-high because people here don’t care about anyone else, I told myself.

The fact everyone assumes I’m a tourist means they’re not used to anyone who doesn’t look or sound like them. I’m struggling to meet other young professionals – it must be a sign that the best and the brightest have all left. Because really, who’d choose to live here?

Photo: Andreas SOLARO/AFP

Partly it was because I didn’t feel I had chosen to live here. I had moved for my American partner’s teaching job, and nothing was more alienating than encountering people who were stubbornly, unaccountably, in love with the place – or an idea of it. An awkward pause would ensue as I contemplated whether to mumble something innocuous about gelato or take it upon myself to debunk their romantic notions and expose what I was convinced was the ‘real’ Rome – dirty, dysfunctional, doomed. 

It wasn’t all in my head. As the InterNations survey has shown for several years straight, many foreign transplants report deep dissatisfaction with the city. So do Romans as a whole: one survey in 2020 found that most residents said their quality of life had worsened in the past five years. Global studies have named Rome one of the unhealthiest cities in Europe, and its roads some of the most dangerous. When Italians compile the list of the ‘best places to live in Italy’, there’s a reason why Rome never comes close to the top ten. 

In fact, every time I lamented the city’s decline, I fitted in better than I realised: no one complains more about Rome than Romans themselves.

Photo: Alberto PIZZOLI/AFP

There was perverse comfort to be had in realising that people born and raised here saw the same things I did and found them just as galling. La grande monnezza, they call it: forget ‘the great beauty’ (la grande bellezza), it’s the great rubbish dump. Roma fa schifo, as a popular local blog has it. Rome is disgusting. 

Huh, I began to think I scrolled through photos of egregiously parked cars or smirked at another meme about the incompetents in city hall, maybe we can get on after all. It was a glimpse of a dark, deeply cynical humour that was one of the first things about Rome I had to admit I liked.

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Gradually, other qualities forced their way into view. I moved from a stuffy neighbourhood in the west of the historic centre to outside the city walls in the east and discovered that yes, other people under 50 do live here, no, not every foreigner is a tourist or study-abroad student, and thank goodness, not every restaurant serves only Italian food. Our new apartment was bigger, and bigger by far than anything our relatively modest incomes would have got us in the capitals of our home countries.

In fact, I suspected I wasn’t living in a capital city at all. Milan is where most of the money and opportunities within Italy are to be found, which has long made it a more logical place to move to for Italians and foreigners alike. I envy Milan’s metamorphosing skyline and cosmopolitan population – things I associate with ‘real’ cities.

But what do you know: if Rome comes 57th in the InterNations survey, Milan comes 56th. The responses suggest that housing is more expensive and harder to find up there, and the cost of living higher. 

I’ll leave it to people who live there to say what it’s really like, but I wonder if there are other trade-offs: I’d take the people-watching and window-shopping in Milan over Rome any day, but would I have to wear the ‘right’ clothes to fit in? I might have more chances to get ahead, but would I be judged on my job title or salary, and would people be more competitive? For better or worse, these aren’t things I have to worry about in Rome.

OPINION: Why Milan is a much better city to live in than Rome

Lucky for me I can afford not to: I’m not one of the 41 percent of foreign residents in Rome who told InterNations their disposable household income is not enough to cover expenses. Salaries are low here, and the cost of living – not visiting – can be higher than you might think. I’m in the privileged position of working for international employers, who pay better than local ones, and of splitting the bills with someone else in the same boat. We’re comfortable, but Rome isn’t the place to make your fortune.

So it’s no economic powerhouse. But culturally it’s got more life than I first gave it credit for. The things I’d assumed were missing altogether – new music, interesting events, a mix of people and backgrounds – were all there, they were just on a smaller scale and correspondingly harder to find. (Places to start looking: mailing lists, venues’ Facebook or Instagram pages, Zero.)

Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

In other cities I felt I’d made inroads by the end of the first year; in Rome, I was still at least another year away from meeting the friends who’d become my group here and, in turn, introduce me to people and places I wouldn’t have found on my own.

More than other cities, people say that Rome – the Rome that’s not in guidebooks, at least – is da scoprire, ‘to discover’ or even ‘unearth’. While you’re digging, having an ‘in’ can make all the difference. 

In some ways, Covid-19 also helped to rehabilitate Rome for me. The seriousness with which most people took the pandemic, and the camaraderie my neighbours showed throughout that first bewildering lockdown, proved that Romans were more than capable of caring for strangers. The months that followed, when we were confined to city or regional limits, taught me to appreciate the possibilities I might otherwise have ignored: travel might be impossible, but at least I had woods, lakes, mountains, waterfalls and the Mediterranean on my doorstep.

Other things I had to work around, or simply live with. I’m as convinced now as I was four years ago that Rome’s public transport system is woefully inadequate, but now I mainly avoid it: I walk or cycle as much as I can. In fact a whole alternative network of shared transport has sprung up in the time I’ve been here, from e-bikes to car shares and scooters, or monopattini.

Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

I’m yet to see a fix for the city’s rubbish problem, but I no longer assume it’s all the residents’ fault. It’s the result of decades of misuse of public funds, graft and organized crime – hardly reassuring, but marginally less bleak than thinking that none of your neighbours give a damn.

Because always, of course, there are people trying to improve things – by protesting, by voting, by picking up litter, even by filling in potholes on the sly. (Remember that if you’re a citizen of another EU country living in Rome, you have the right to vote in city elections too.) Doing the work yourself doesn’t absolve the authorities of the responsibility to do it, but in the meantime, as one acquaintance put it, at least your sidewalk is clean.

And those small pleasures: I finally gave myself permission to enjoy them. I like cracker-thin Roman pizza, supposedly kept from rising by the city’s hard water. I like sun that dries my laundry even in December. I like the view of mountains on a clear day. I like the light that glows golden around half an hour before sunset and works a kind of magic on ochre walls and brick bell towers and crumbling aqueducts.

In my fifth year here, I know now that these things don’t blind me to Rome’s faults, nor do I have to pretend not to see them to prove I’m not just another tourist. I live here; sometimes it’s bad; and most days, at about 5pm, looking over the rooftops, it’s good.

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