A hairdo as the Romans do

"Show me what you bought!" our housesitter demanded as she helped us drag our luggage through the front door. It was November 1989, and my husband and I had just returned from a nine-week tour of Italy.

Tracey's exuberance wilted when I confessed I had nothing to show her. It wasn't because the leather shoes in Rome's elegant shop windows hadn't appealed to me. It was just that whenever I paused to take a closer look, Steve took me gently by the hand and led me away. Temptation never had a fair chance at my wallet.

Later, an expenditure in Campobasso, my mom's place of birth, would more than compensate.

After we'd enjoyed a late and leisurely meal at a ristorante one night, we started to walk back to our hotel. Enveloped in shadows cast by tall, shuttered buildings, we felt as if we had stumbled onto an abandoned movie set. Except for the swish of an occasional taxi, the only sounds we heard were the tap-tap-taps of our shoes on the cobblestone pavement.

Then we turned a corner onto a piazza, an open space. There, rising out of darkness, a mirage appeared: a building made of chrome and glass. Its lively red-and-silver marquee blinked: "Istituto di Bellezza." A beauty salon! And I was overdue for a haircut.

My watch showed 11 o'clock, but peering through the window, I saw three women under hair dryers. After consulting Steve's pocket dictionary, we entered the salon.

"Can you take me for a haircut and blow dry?" I asked the receptionist in Italian.

"Un momento per piacere," she said, disappearing into the back of the salon. I heard voices arguing. Had I created a problem?

"Yes, it is possible, but it must be now," the woman said.

Perfect.

Steve sank into a blue love seat and began leafing through newspapers.

The receptionist introduced me to Domenica, who draped my shoulders in a pink plastic cape and then whirled my chair around. I leaned back against the smooth, cool edge of the shampoo bowl. What a luxury to feel capable hands massaging warm water and perfumed soap through my hair. Then she lifted my head, passed a broad-toothed comb through tangled strands, and vanished.

A slim dark-eyed man appeared, bowed stiffly, and introduced himself as Signor Vincenzo. His stance evoked the image of a matador about to engage a bull. The message was clear: "I, Vincenzo, am now in charge."

Black eyebrows furrowed, he lifted my damp locks, fingered and weighed them, and stepped back to study the possibilities.

Would he find me worthy of his efforts?

At the same time, he berated his female co-workers. I understood Italian well enough to know his complaint was a lack of respect. Every time he spat out the name "Antonio!" the boy sweeping hair into a dustpan looked up.

Was I in the hands of a potentially explosive Vesuvius? To my relief, however, Vincenzo adopted a cordial tone when he turned to me. "And how you like the hair, signora?"

"Shorter, but not too short," I said.

He nodded, so I assumed he understood. However, when he kept snipping off hair on the right side and didn't seem interested in the left, I peeked around the mirror to gauge Steve's reaction. But he was deciphering Italian newspaper reports on the Loma Prieta earthquake back home in California.

"You come from gli Stati Uniti, signora?" Vincenzo asked.

"Si, vicino da San Francisco."

His eyebrows shot up. "Ahhh. Il terremoto! La famiglia is OK?"

"Si, la famiglia is safe. We talked to them on the telefono."

"Vin-cen-zo!" a mocking female voice called from across the room. "Why you talking to the signora? You don't speak the English!"

Affronted, Vincenzo turned to me, "Signora, tell them. Do I speak the English?"

A hush descended, and all activities ceased. The women waited for my response - Vincenzo's dignity was at stake.

"Vincenzo," I announced, "speaks English as well as I speak Italian!"

A murmur of amusement rippled across the salon, and we all relaxed.

Now, it was Clara's turn. For 20 minutes, she labored over me, a curling iron in one hand and a blow dryer in the other. When repeated blasts of hot air became intolerable, I told her the dryer was too close. She nodded, but nothing changed.

Antonio was worse off. Clara scolded his attempts to serve as a second pair of hands. "Cattivo!" (Bad, naughty.)

I cocked my head sideways and looked at him. "Are you cattivo, Antonio?"

The good-natured 12-year-old shrugged as if to say, "Who am I to judge?"

Having disciplined each curl into place, Clara vanished and Vincenzo reappeared. With a few masterly twists of the hairbrush, he completed the task and handed me a mirror.

My coiffeur was stunning: sophisticated, chic. A master stylist had captured the real me - the professional-type-woman me. And setting it off was a bang that proclaimed, "This woman has a sense of humor. She is not all business!"

"You like?" Vincenzo asked.

"Oh yes! It's ... it's straordinario! But how can I go to bed now?"

"Ma perche?" (But why not?)

"I must find a festa to show it off!"

Vincenzo beamed.

The bill amounted to the equivalent of $14. Steve, who recognized a shrewd investment, left generous tips for everyone. When young Antonio realized his share was equal to that of the adults, he ran to the front of the salon to pull open the heavy glass door, and with a deep bow, ushered us out into the soft darkness of the Italian night.

As Steve and I resumed our stroll back to our hotel, I turned for one last look at the sparkling Istituto di Bellezza. Antonio was gazing in our direction. I waved, "Arrividerci, Antonio!" (See you later.)

Waving back, he shouted, "Addio, Americani!" Antonio had chosen the better word, "Addio," (Go with God.) It was a bittersweet moment: We knew our paths would never cross again.

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