I started writing about living in Italy in 2020, and the first of these articles was published shortly before the pandemic began. It was about my barber. For good reason.
I had never experienced a barber so skilled, so gentle with the shaver and straight razor. With my new Italian barber, getting a haircut verged on silent ecstasy. Over the years since, Dante the barber has become a good friend, a confidant, and figure in my life that I look forward to seeing again every month. When I pass by his shop, we exchange waves through his glass door.
I chose Dante’s little shop to begin my series because it seemed to me a microcosmic metaphor for Italian culture as a whole. Everyday transactions are both economic and social, starting with the exchange of greetings with everyone you encounter during the day. Friends sincerely inquire about your health or that of your family members; indeed, they want details not just an “I’m fine, thank you.” The barbershop, principally a male domain, functions like an interior piazza, as men just sit and chat, with no apparent purpose to be there other than that. News of the day is shared quickly.
My story about this modest but skilled village barber was carried by multiple publications around the world. I was surprised how many people were charmed by this account of a tiny slice of life in a remote Italian village. I suppose it reflects the romantic view that many have about Italy as well as perhaps a wistful memory of social connections in the past. One of the reasons we chose to live in Santa Vittoria in Matenano, an ancient hilltop village in east-central Italy, was that it maintains centuries-old traditions. Unfortunately, this also includes an ancient dialect that is all but incomprehensible…to us.
It would be impossible to recount all the unexpected and generous things that people here have done for us. I was stunned when Patrizio, the affable village pharmacist, knocked on our door one night while I was recovering from surgery. He inquired if he could bring me any medicines. I was stunned when he was the first victim of COVID and died two weeks after contracting it. He literally faced the first patients before anyone knew how lethal the virus was. I still see him in my head, standing by his door in his long white smock, smiling at passersby and sharing photos of his family’s vacation in the Dolomite Mountains.
Ivana, the aged owner of a tiny food market down the street, has brought us eggs fresh from the farm. Alessandra, a store clerk, called the mayor on our behalf, asking him to help us with our immigration documents. He spent two hours with us in his office the next morning. Gemma, a bilingual British/Italian friend, has called banks and companies for us as she is familiar with the protocols. And Elisabetta, a high school art teacher, invited my wife to be a part-time teacher in a nearby vocational school.
Another wonderful Italian friend, Marco Ercoli, volunteered to find a publisher for my book of stories and drawings about people and places in Italy. The book, Navigating Paradise, was released last fall — an accomplishment that has far exceeded any dreams I had when initially contemplating a move to Italy seven years ago. My publisher, Carlo Pagliacci, has now become a good friend. His translation of my original folksy form of writing — which I try my darnedest to make into a cross between Mark Twain and John Steinbeck — was brilliant. He infused it with an Italian sensibility that Marco explained as emphasizing “pathos” – a word I have never associated with my writing. It turns out the meaning in Italian is far more layered than the one in English.
At any rate, I am taken aback when strangers stop me on the street, with a “Complimenti!” One of the local restaurateurs now uses my sketch of her place as her logo. Every time we have a meal there, she deducts a sizable amount from the tab. Interestingly, neither of us has ever discussed any arrangement. It just happened. My fiend Iole says we are discovering an aspect of Italian culture that most visitors never get to experience. It’s about building and nurturing mutually beneficial relationships.
But back to Dante and his quaint barbershop in the village.
A couple of months ago, not long after my book came out, I went in for my monthly haircut. Dante embraced me, giving me a kiss on both cheeks that is common between Italian relatives and friends, even males. I must have looked startled since he had never done that before. He explained that my story about him had elevated his status in the view of his wife, and he was grateful. Then he pointed to his appointment book. Every day was filled. Apparently, my story had given him unintended notoriety.
One of the observations I made in the story was about the curious juxtaposition of three iconic items in his shop. On one side of the big mirror were two images – one of Christ and one of the Virgin Mary. Classic Catholic symbols, to be sure. On the other side was a large calendar topped by a photo of a naked young woman – the type of calendar often seen in exclusive male settings. At the time, I thought it amusing enough to fold into the story.
However, for more than year, the calendar was absent. I figured I might have inadvertently caused some embarrassment and Dante had removed it. I never asked. Several weeks ago, the calendar was back up in the same prominent spot as before. This time I inquired. Dante said other customers had asked where the calendar was. So, he had to put one back up to conform to my story.
I suppose this is an example of the saying “Art imitates life, then life imitates art.” Or maybe men just like looking at naked women in a barbershop.