It is late afternoon. I pull my winter cap down over my ears more snugly and zip up my coat as I push open the door and head outside, with about three people asking me on the way out where am I going and what I am doing.
“I am going to town,” I say cryptically.
“Cool man! Whatcha doin’ in town?”
“I’m going to get a hair cut,” I respond.
“Oh, have fun!”
“Obobo!” (Albanian for “oh my goodness!”)
“Ahh! Ok man sounds cool!”
they say, then laugh like they have said something hysterically funny.
I smile politely and as the door closes, it muffles the self-proclaimed comedians.
Outside, it is cold.
Cold but clear. The mountains rise before me, the snow on them tinted slightly pink in the last bits of sunlight, a bit of wind blowing the snow up on the peaks, which creates a slight haze that looks like fog.
A crisp tight breeze blows into my face as I tuck my hands inside my jacket and walk steadily up the road from the school onto the main road that leads into Erseke.
I peer down at the muddy gray water swirling under the bridge as I walk along the railing, then jump down and cross the street to walk on the other side. A beat up white cargo van roars past me as I hop up onto the sidewalk, and a stray dog or two turn tail before me as I march onward, contemplating whether or not the barber will be open.
When I reach the fork in the road, I stay to the right and pass the high school, where an energetic game of some kind is in progress. Two people walk past me and I nod to the one, as I recognize him from the church.
I walk past several little shops with their wares out front….jeans, shirts, hoodies, a freezer full of ice cream treats. The little stores are dark and every little spot is filled with something to sell; two ladies are in front of one store talking away in the rise and fall typical of rural southern Albania.
Ahead and to the right, just around the corner, is the barber shop. I wonder once again if he will be there. I am here right about the time I planned, and I have been told he will reopen after his afternoon siesta, at about 4:30.
I pull out my phone and check the time; it is ten after four.
I lean against the painted concrete wall near the door of the barber shop and watch the people and dogs on the street in front of me. A couple mud-splattered cars lurch along past me on the rutted, deep-puddled street, spewing exhaust fumes and water behind them. A bit of a breeze blows down the street between the tall concrete buildings and a very pregnant dog hurries from one side to the other and disappears down an alley lined by over-flowing dumpsters.
People hurry by on the cross street with bags of groceries, children walk by, chattering as they go, on their way back from after-school activities.
Right around 4:30, I recognize the barber coming toward me from the other side of the cross street around the corner. He recognizes me as well, and we exchange greetings in Albanian. He is of average height, with a well-formed bushy black beard, a bit of a belly, and a mostly bald head. His eyes crinkle as he smiles, glad to see me.
One man has come back with him, so gets first cut, and he settles immediately into the lone barber chair set in the middle of the small, plainly furnished room. It smells faintly of cigarette smoke, and there is the definite tang of hair grease, cologne, and barber oil saturating the room. It is not an unpleasant smell.
The chair’s back is to the door, and faces a large mirror set on top of a chest of drawers. Various hair-cutting and shaving utensils are spread around on top.
It takes a little while for the man to be trimmed and shaved, and, hanging my coat up on the pegs to the left of the door, I settle down on a couch which looks like has been in the same place since the 1970’s. It sags ominously in the portion where people are most accustomed to resting their seats, but I settle in anyway, and sit back to watch the barber cut hair and listen to the quiet conversation between the two. The radio is on, and from what I can pick up, there is some sort of game show going on with the lady telling the people that are calling in whether or not they have the right answer. It’s slightly amusing to listen to although I can’t understand most of it.
Other than the window in the door, the small shop is windowless. There are a few posters and signs on the walls, besides the coat pegs. The concrete walls are painted white, although time and hair grease have provided some discoloration here and there. A bare light bulb hangs down from the middle of the ceiling, and there is one lamp on top of the dresser.
In one corner hides a small sink, in another a broom in front of a pile of hair swept into the corner, to be dealt with at the end of the day.
There are a couple ancient couches and a decrepit old arm chair, flanked on one side by a small table with several magazines lying on its surface.
Two more men stop in shortly, and sit down; one on the other couch, and one on the old chair, waiting their turn. One doesn’t want to wait that long, seeing me and another man ahead of him, and leaves again, pulling a cigarette from his pocket.
The barber takes his time, and it is almost five o’clock by the time he pulls the cloth off the man in the chair, shakes it, and beckons for me to come.
After getting arranged, using a phrase I was given to memorize by another student, I tell him carefully in Albanian that I want my hair cut the same as he did last time. He nods his head in understanding and I am pleased that I have been able to get my point across.
He asks me, partly in a few quick Albanian words and partly with motions, if I want my beard trimmed too and I give him an answer in the affirmative. He nods again and commences operations on my thickly-sheltered cranium.
The other men in the room watch me with interest. I spend a little time watching them in the mirror, but mostly I enjoy watching the barber work.
He is very skillful, and hacks away so quickly I am occasionally briefly concerned for my ears, but as is the result of most worrying, it comes to nothing, and my ears remain whole as my hair is reduced.
He grins sometimes at me in the mirror, as he chats back and forth with the other men in the room; other times he seems intent on his work, or on listening to the radio, which alternately brings the news from Tirana or various Albanian songs.
The barber spends a lot of time on my beard, doing an expert job, and by the time he is finished with both it and the rest of my hair, I look like a new man.
As a last touch, he sprays some kind of cologne or something on his hands and wipes them around my neck and under my chin. It smells good and is a nice final touch.
Then it is over; he swipes the cloth with all my cut hair off me and shakes it out on the floor.
I pull some Albanian bills out of my pocket and he lifts two fingers: I owe him 200 lek, which is less than two dollars. I give him two 200 lek notes and tell him that he gets an extra 100 lek for a tip. It’s still ridiculously cheap and I mentally shake my head. The cut I have just received would probably cost me at least $20 in the US.
He smiles as I hand over the money, pleased that I appreciate the job, and I tell him thank you very much (in Albanian, of course) and that it was very good.
We pleasantly bid each other a good evening, and I leave, picking up my coat on the way out.
It is dark now, the streets are emptier, the stars are coming out, and I have just enough time to make it back to school before prayer time.
I walk back in a leisurely manner, enjoying my new hair cut and knowing that when I get back to school, I will be slapped (lightly) on the back of the neck several times, as is the custom in Albania whenever someone gets his hair cut. 🙂