The terror of getting a haircut in a foreign language

August 26, 2017


You haven’t lived life on the edge until you’ve ordered a haircut in a foreign language.

There it is, my quote from my highest ever liked Instagram post (60 likes and counting, just 386 followers so solid ratio) alongside a photo of me having my second ever haircut in Brazil.


Travellers avoid it like the plague when they’re overseas, fearing how a complete stranger with scissors in their hand can chop away their sex appeal in one go as if their testicles are being held between those blades. It’s nightmare stuff because if there’s anywhere you wanna look good it’s when you’re on holiday.

 

But Brazil is not just a holiday for me, it’s become living, and with that you eventually just have to, as Morgan Freeman said, “get busy living”.

 

 

It took me a year here before I finally took the big step into a Brazilian hairdressers. Six months after I first arrived I returned to Australia to change my visa, but more importantly into the arms of my trusted hairdresser. 

 

He did my customary bum to babyface transformation and then I came back to Rio. Six months and a summer passed, Carnival was over, and I had to shed the sun, sand, salt and sin from my locks. 

 

I found a guy in Copacabana, made my appointment over the phone in Portuguese (an accomplishment) and then came the moment of truth. I went in and made it clear that I just spoke average Portuguese but that I knew what I wanted for my now ridiculously long hair.

 

(Exhibit A below)

 

“Please don’t cut it too short,” I said again and again in Portuguese as I showed him old photos of me and what I hoped he’d come something close to. He understood and replied “Not military” with a knowing smile and a bit of a laugh.

 

Perfect I thought, that’s exactly what I don’t want, what could possibly go wrong now. 

 

Thirty minutes later I had a haircut which I can only describe as the closest thing to military without being military. He took so much of my damn fringe off which kind of made me look bald even with a head full of thick, luscious hair because I have a fairly large forehead.

 

He had been at a nice length, I was happy enough, and then he just kept going, kept snipping, and it was so fast I just shouted “fuck” inside but kept smiling on the outside.

 

 

“It’s fucked, I know it’s fucked,” I told myself as I stared into the mirror.

 

“This is now my reality for at least a few days… or weeks. Wait, how short is it? Maybe a month. Goddam it, hopefully there’s someway I can style it to hide it.”

 

I’m not sure he knew he’d screwed it, maybe he was thinking “hmm my bad, that doesn’t look so good on him”, but just pretended he thought it was good, because what else is he going to do.

 

I smiled, thanked him, said it was great and left.

 

My nightmare had happened - a shit haircut.

 

(Exhibit B below, taken the same day)

 

 

I’d just been given my first bad haircut in at least 6 years - the time I’ve been going to my regular hairdresser in Sydney, Tomi, who has always been there to take me from scruffy to corporate respectability.

 

I went home and fiddled with it and tried to pretend to myself that it didn’t look so bad, but I knew it sucked.

 

Nature of course took its course and my fringe grew back and I eventually returned to surfy/hippy/bum/rockstar status depending on who you ask.

 

And with this grew inevitably closer the need for me to take the plunge again, but now just around the corner from my house on the main road a new barber shop, D.O.N. Barber Beer, had opened. Looking in through its big windows it had a bar, and beer, and an edgy swagger which gave me confidence. Young dudes know what young dudes want right?

 

Yesterday I walked in and was put in a chair straight away. The young woman at the desk offered to help me translate, but my Portuguese was good enough so I let the guy know the same advice.

 

“Please not too short,” I said.

 

 

Then as I was showing him photos I’d taken from my last haircut in Australia (for this exact purpose and which I’d forgotten about last time) I added:

 

“And also keep it a bit long at the front, when it’s too short it doesn’t look good on me and that’s what the last guy did.”

 

The barber, in some jeans, Vans and the company t-shirt, totally chilled just smiled, said yes and got to work. As the haircut went on, my eyes fixated on every cut, I started feeling like I was in good hands, that my sex-appeal was still intact. Forty minutes later and the compliments from me began, he’d done it.

 

He hadn’t fucked it.

 

(Exhibit C below, taken as I type this)

 

 

And with that I made a huge achievement, one which only a person who’s lived in a foreign-speaking country and has had to put their hair in the hands of a stranger who you can’t entirely talk with knows.

 

A haircut isn’t a big deal, sure, when cancer or a tsunami strikes that gets put sharply back into perspective. But I walked into that place confident with my Portuguese, told him what I wanted then walked out of there with I wanted.

 

After you’ve had your hair butchered overseas once before, that feels pretty good. In fact, it feels amazing, really amazing, I’d lived life on the edge and won.

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I'm Ian Walker, an Australian freelance journalist and travel writer who ditched his job as a full-time newspaper reporter to move to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

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