There comes a moment in every long journey when you look in the mirror and face the fact that you’re overdue for a haircut. Perhaps a soupçon of gray is showing where it shouldn’t. Possibly your faux hawk is beginning to flop, your bob is becoming a blob, or your undercut is growing out over your ears. But how do you find a good hairstylist in an unknown city when you don’t speak a word of the language?
I've taken many trips abroad extensive enough to require salon visits, with mixed results. (For stories about Hemingway's barber, and Spanish friends staging an intervention about my hair, see Taking Your Hair on the Road.) My early mistakes have taught me some valuable lessons about ways you can improve your chances of achieving the look you want – or at least of avoiding total disaster.
1. Lower your standards. If you’ve spent years having your hair styled exclusively at the hottest salons in New York or London, chances are you’re going to have to settle for something a bit less über-trendy on the road. As a frequent traveler, I find it convenient to wear my hair simply, just long enough to pull back in a ponytail, with bangs that, in a pinch, I can trim myself. It’s not super swanky, but it’s easy to maintain and keeps me looking well groomed at least most of the time.
2. Use Google to find a nearby cluster of hair salons. Fashionable areas attract more and better hairstylists, making it easy for you to stroll around and check out several before making your selection. Look for cleanliness, gorgeous (or at least acceptable) hairstyles on those walking out the door, and stylists who are chic without being terrifyingly peculiar about it.
3. Make sure the hair stylist is sober before you get started. A friend in the Republic of Georgia once took me to her stylist, said to be the best around. When we arrived to find him drunk, she explained he was never sober, but that didn’t affect his ability to cut hair. True, but his judgment and ability to listen were impaired, and in the blink of an eye I had something akin to a buzz cut. I hated that cut, although I have to admit it was easy to maintain.
4. Tell them what you want, even if you have to use pantomime. Let’s face it, they already know you’re there to talk about hair, not the future of the euro or the special effects in World War Z. Simple hand gestures are usually sufficient to convey the general idea. A few months ago I walked into a salon in Krakow, Poland, and made little snipping motions indicating I wanted to remove half an inch off my bob, then pointed to my gray roots. The stylist got right to work and did a lovely job. OK, the brown was a half shade darker than ideal, and the bangs a trifle shorter, but the look was smart and stylish and we parted with mutual gratitude and appreciation.
5. Sometimes, pick a place just for fun. On a back street Genoa’s old center, my husband and I discovered a tiny barbershop filled with Art Deco glass and opera music. The barber was about to close up but kindly agreed to trim Rich’s hair. Using nothing electric or fancy, just a simple pair of scissors and a comb, he snipped away, humming along with the gorgeous exuberance of the drinking song from Verdi’s La Traviata. Another time, in Sofia, Bulgaria, Rich visited an upmarket salon where the staff, without a word of English, managed to convey the message that this was so much more than a haircut, it was a hair experience. In both cases, Rich got a great cut and a treasured memory.
6. Remember, hair does grow out. As I learned in Georgia, even a worst-ever coiffeur isn’t the end of the world. I once met a woman who told me she’d had a haircut in Boston that was so hideous that not only was there no question of her paying for it, but the stylist offered to give her free haircuts for an entire year in compensation. (She did not take the stylist up on the offer. Go figure.) Chances are you’ll never, ever get a cut that bad, no matter where you go. If you do, buy a hat. And with any luck, your hair will grow out fast enough to let you try one more stylist on the road before you head for home.
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The Well-Groomed Traveler
Quirky Seville, Spain
I'm an American writer living in Seville, Spain and traveling the world with my husband, Rich. We've recently completed a five-month Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour, exploring the world's favorite cuisine to discover more about European culture — and our own.
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