My Italian Haircut

Fall is a time of transformation. The dry grass of summer is preparing to meet brisk autumn's colors and our breath will soon be turning white in the morning air.

To honor this change of season, I wrote a story about a transformative experience I had when I moved to Italy years ago and discovered how a good haircut can change your life. 

What transformation are you planning this fall? I'd love to hear! Please comment below.

“Non troppo corti,” I said to Sandro. Not too short.

“Mi piacciono i capelli lunghi,” I added in my beginner’s Italian as I rubbed my hands down the sides of my head and further onto my imaginary long hair. I like long hair.

I was forty-seven when I moved to Italy with my family to chaperone twenty-five college students on a semester abroad with the college where my husband teaches. 

In the weeks since we’d arrived in Siena for our five-month stay, I was awed by the beauty of the Tuscan hills, but I was also awed by the beauty of the Italians I encountered on the city’s cobble-stoned streets. When Italians venture out, they look their best. Both men and women wear tight clothes that show off their bodies. High heels clack on the brick piazza. On the Via di Citta, I once saw a man wearing a bright-orange wool blazer carrying a bouquet of magenta flowers. His colors were so gorgeous, I wanted to paint him on a canvas.

For my first haircut, I’d chosen the hair salon Sandro & Luisa, located across the small piazza from the school where we studied Italian. Inside, it was immaculate, white, gray, and silver with a waterfall cascading over frosted glass. Gigantic mirrors edged in stainless steel stood at every cutting station.

“Non troppo corti,” I said to Sandro again. Since arriving in Siena, I decided I wanted one last fling with longer hair while I was still a brunette. And I’d been wearing a pixie cut for way too long. 

He nodded as if he understood. He put his hands on my head and studied my hair and my face like a surgeon.

I’d never felt relaxed in a stylist’s chair.

When I was in elementary school, my stepfather cut my hair on the back porch of our Queens house using a red plastic bowl on my head to show him where to cut. In most photos I have of me as a kid, my bangs are too short. Long hair was forbidden then, short hair being so much more practical, my mother insisted.

But I didn’t want practical. I wanted beautiful. Even then.

As a teenager, I bought Seventeen magazine from a newsstand on Northern Boulevard in Queens and scurried home to read the latest issue alone in my room. I studied the instructions on how to apply blush and eye shadow as one might scrutinize the Dead Sea scrolls.

Then, in junior high school I booked my first real haircut at a glitzy hair salon. But from the moment I walked into this mirrored and brightly lit world, something seemed terribly wrong: the redheaded male stylist couldn’t have been less enthusiastic about me. The whole place radiated a devastating message: You’ll never be one of the beautiful people, no matter what you do.

“I don’t want to blow-dry my hair,” I said to the stylist, believing that this was a commendable and sensible wish. As it turned out, it was the one instruction that ruined everything.

“Uh-huh,” he responded, staring at my head. He went to work.

When he was finally done and turned me around to face the mirror, I felt a stabbing sensation in my stomach. My head looked like a pen tip. He was finished. And so was I. My hair was so short that when I pulled it straight out from where my bangs had once been, I couldn’t see the end of my hair with my own eyes.

That summer, all summer, I wore a kerchief to my job at the Jacob and Rose Grossman day camp. “Take that scarf off your head,” my mother said. “You look fine.”

When school started in September, my hair was long enough for me to let the scarf go. But after that, I didn’t cut it for years. I let it grow and grow and grow until it was down my back.

A bad haircut could ruin your life.

By the time I reached my late thirties, I was living in Portland, Oregon, where the dress code is so casual, people venture out in clothes that might double as pajamas. I’d chosen my hair salon for convenience and low risk because my stylist gave me the same cut every time. Once I asked her what she thought I should do with my hair. “Whatever you want to do,” she replied.

I wanted “the beautiful haircut,” whatever that might be. But instead, I said, “OK, same as last time.”

So, when I arrived in Italy, I was still looking for “the beautiful haircut,” even though I couldn’t put into words what it was. “Non troppo corti,” I repeated as Sandro held my head and studied the way my hair met my face.

He sent me away with a lustrous, dark-haired woman with soulful eyes who led me to a row of gleaming white sinks. She sat me down and instructed me to lean my head back. The angle of the sink made my neck ache, but I shut my eyes and tried to relax as she massaged my scalp.

I returned to Sandro’s chair, and he began. Snip. Snip. He pushed my head down firmly to cut the hair on the back of my neck. Snip. Snip. He pulled my head up to raise my chin. Snip. Snip. He tugged my hair down hard on both sides of my head to ensure its evenness as if the symmetry of my hair had national consequences.

Sandro never asked what I wanted. His attitude was: he was the hair expert, not me. He was tense and warm, somber, a little sad, yet confident. He paid more attention to my cut than to me. I liked that.

Once the cutting was done, he unfurled the electric cord of his blow dryer and gave me the most intense blowout I’d ever had. First, he used a rounded brush.  Then he instructed me to bend forward so my hair fell toward the ground. Then he brushed it vigorously as if it were a horse’s mane and I were being primped for an equestrian pageant.

After he finished—more than an hour later—he took a small vial and drizzled a few drops of an oily liquid into his hands. He wiped his palms down my head and bangs. I felt like a masterpiece.

During the five months we lived in Italy, I got my hair cut four times.

When I arrived for my third appointment, Luisa greeted me and explained that because Sandro had broken his arm, she would be cutting my hair. She had the same intensity and seriousness as he did. She put her hands on my head and studied my hair and my bangs.

She proclaimed that this time she would cut my bangs straight across, which would lift my sad eyes.

Sad eyes? In America, this would be an insult.

But in Italy? Sad can be beautiful.

While Luisa was cutting, she asked if I wanted a coffee. I didn’t really need one. But I had noticed one of the lovely assistants walking out of a back room carrying a miniature plastic cup of what looked to be espresso.

“Si. Grazie,” I said. I wanted the full Italian experience.

Once the espresso was in my hands, I realized it was impossible to tilt my head to sip and keep my head as straight as these serious Italian haircuts demanded.

Luisa stopped cutting and backed away from me.

As if realizing her rudeness—to require me to sip while she cut—she said she’d leave me “tranquilla” while I finished. It was as if drinking coffee was a sacred act, and to cut hair while drinking was as inappropriate as if she’d tried to cut my hair while I was praying.

I sat—in tranquility—sipping my coffee from the little white cup. A prayer. A sacred act. Me draped in a robe, my wet hair half pinned up and half left down, bangs cut straight across so that my sad eyes would be lifted to beauty. 

By the time of my fourth and final Italian haircut, Sandro had returned. When he was finished, I stood at the cash register wanting to say more than I knew I could express. How do you say, “Your haircuts changed my life” in Italian? How do you say, “Sandro, in your hands, I realized that it was OK to want to be beautiful. More than OK. It was important, required even. Wanting to be beautiful is part of being human.”

Instead, I asked him if I could buy a rounded brush like the one he had used to make my hair curl under.

“No,” he said, I could not. I couldn’t buy one because I wouldn’t know how to use it properly.

“D’accordo,” I replied. Did he have another brush that I could buy? He reluctantly let me purchase a plain straight brush.

Then I asked about that magic hair oil. Could I buy that? Well, OK, he guessed I could buy that, and handed me a vial of the scentless viscous liquid.

I would have bought more, but he had nothing else to sell. So I left with my new hairbrush and my Cleopatra cut, clutching the secret concoction as if it were a charm.

Days went by before I washed my hair again.

I wanted my beautiful Italian haircut to last forever.

Photo by Michael Broide