As Christmas drew nearer and nearer, there was no doubt about it. All the symptoms pointed to one thing. I was definitely suffering from homesickness. It was strange, as I had never suffered from homesickness in Germany, and it annoyed me. But I was determined not to let it get me down and I started to make a mental note of all the things I wanted to do before I returned to the UK for the Christmas break. One of the first things I needed to do was get a haircut. I’d been putting it off as long as possible, fearing that my Italian might not be up to the job and that I would be going back to England with a flat-top. I could, of course, wait just a few more weeks and get it done back in Britain, but that would be cowardly and would only be deferring the problem until the end of February, early March at the latest.
Thus it was that I met one of the most amusing people that I have ever met in my life. Gaetano’s barber’s shop could hardly have been more traditional. With a large mirror, two sturdy barber’s chairs and neon fly-zapper, it was how every mafia movie depicts an Italian barber’s shop in those scenes in which the barber covers the clients face in a hot towel before swinging the chair round to face the door and diving for cover as the hapless victim is despatched in a hail of bullets.
Gaetano was delighted to find that I was English, although my Italian wasn’t good enough to allow me to work out why, and Gaetano himself spoke a dialect that would have had the most accomplished linguist flummoxed. But somehow, I managed to leave his shop that day, not simply with a good haircut, but with the best haircut I had ever had in my life. And all for a fraction of the price that I would have paid back home.
Although I now live many kilometres away from the city of Naples itself, I have never been to any other barber in Italy. Once every six weeks or so, I will take a deep breath, brave the horrors of the Circumvesuviana train ride into Naples, climb aboard a bus and head up to the suburb of Vomero, not just because no one cuts hair like Gaetano, but for the sheer joy of the whole Gaetano experience.
This begins as soon as Gaetano sees me in the doorway. Knowing that I have come a long way, he evidently feels the need to give me the full “welcome honoured guest” treatment, dropping whatever it is he is doing to give me a handshake that I refer to as “the three-minute, two-handed Gaetano pump”. Apologizing for the fact that I’m going to have to wait at least half an hour – he gives a contemptuous sweep of the hand towards the assorted riff-raff waiting to be trimmed, shorn and shaved etc., Gaetano makes sure that I have somewhere to sit, taking care to brush the seat with paddling hands first, and that I have enough to read. He then announces proudly to the rest of the shop, that I have come all the way from Vico Equense to make use of his services. Once I am in the chair, Gaetano again apologises for having made me wait, insists on whistling to the bar across the road for some coffee, and sets to work, treating me, at the same time, to some homespun Neapolitan philosophy. Gaetano’s mood is entirely dependent on the weather. If the sun is shining, then Gaetano is on fine form.
“Porca miseria! I can see why you’ve chosen to live here. We have everything! Beautiful women; good looking men.” He puts down his comb and scissors so that he can count the blessings of Naples on his fingers. It’s just as well I’m in no hurry. “Fabulous food; sun; sea; art; museums; monuments; beautiful women …”. “You said beautiful women twice.” “So? I like beautiful women,” he says with a shrug, picking up the comb and scissors again. “Yes, you are certainly very lucky to have ended up here.” And he shakes his head slowly from side to side, as if he can’t quite believe how lucky I am.
But, if it is raining, then it’s quite a different story. “What the hell are you doing here?” he will ask, looking up at the sodden sky. “Why don’t you get out now, while you’re still young enough to do something with your life?” “Oh, it’s not that bad!” “Not that bad? Porca miseria!” Gaetano puts down his tools as if he can’t quite believe what he has just heard and is afraid that the shock may cause him to faint. “Italy’s the joke of Europe! The south is the joke of Italy! And Naples is the joke of the south! So what does that make us? No, it’s been fun dreaming, but it’s time to wake up. There’s no future down here. Porca miseria!” And I can’t get another word out of him – not even on the subject of beautiful women.
“It’s my birthday today!” said Gaetano with a broad grin, one particularly sunny day. “Oh, happy birthday, Gaetano,” I replied. “Thank you. So I’m going to close a little early tonight. I’m off to celebrate.” “Oh yes? Taking your wife somewhere nice?” “My wife?” Down go the scissors and comb again, as Gaetano prepares to explain a few basic facts of life to me. But first, he scrutinises me in the mirror, trying to decide whether I really am as thick as what I have just said would suggest, or whether I am just having him on. “You don’t use your wife for celebrating,” Gaetano tells me. “You don’t?” “No. You don’t. That’s what you have a mistress for. Your wife is a homemaker, the mother of your children.” “She is?” “Yes. She is.” I counter that I am of a different point of view on this one and Gaetano goes back to work on my hair, shaking his head sadly. “You’re young,” he said, which a) is sadly no longer true and b) is not meant as a complement.
Football, politics, sex, religion, more sex … Gaetano is an expert on all of them and I enjoy listening to him as he snips, shaves, dries and pulls tufts of hair out perpendicular to my head to make sure they are of the same length. Besides, I have no choice but to listen. He gives me a sharp rap on the skull with the hairdryer if he feels I am not paying attention.