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I once had a haircut in Portland, Ore., and was offered a complimentary beer by the stylist.
In Japan, I received a two-hour full treatment – shampoo, haircut and scalp massage, with nose-hair trimming included.
What I’m telling you is that I’m no stranger to exploring local personal grooming options when on holiday.
However, this time we were in Istanbul, former capital of several marauding empires, not eco-friendly Portland or fastidious Japan.
So when my wife read in the hotel-supplied tourist magazine that “when in Istanbul a proper barber-administered shave is a must do,” I merely supplied my favourite thinly disguised dismissal: “That’s interesting.”
But the idea remained alive. We had a week to spend in “the city of the world’s desire,” and so far the Turks seemed like fine folk. Also, the men were by and large compellingly hairy, meaning that getting a barber to shave me shouldn’t be a problem.
I mention this because back in Canada I had thought of getting a proper shave, straight razor and all, but the fear that my stylist hadn’t used a straight razor once since she got her licence kept me at home with my Braun.
A real barbershop shave requires an expert, or the experience can quickly become an involuntary blood drive. From what I could see, men in Istanbul must need to shave twice a day. Barbers here were likely masters of the straight razor.
Still, I felt an undercurrent of anxiety whenever I thought about getting a Turkish shave.
But as it happened, when my wife was heading out one afternoon to attend a cooking class, she asked what I would be up to. I blurted out: “I think I’ll get a shave!”
I had noticed a barber shop across from our hotel, so I bravely strolled by to give it the once-over. The barber noticed me and, in the usual friendly Turkish way, encouraged me to come inside.
I asked, “How much for a shave?” Only 10 lira! I kept walking, waiting for the price to drop, because the guidebooks tell you to always haggle over everything. But he said nothing, and I walked on by.
Half an hour later, over some mezes (delightful Turkish tapas) and coffee, I came to a conclusion: I would offer up my pale Northern European skin and go for it.
I strolled back into the shop. The barber was busy, and two customers were ahead of me. This fact was pleasing, as (a) he appeared to be running a real business and (b) I got to see him in action.
I eased back onto the sofa (a Turkish word meaning “sofa”), was given some tea, and began investigating the reading material. The usual offering of old magazines was supplemented by a pamphlet extolling the virtues of Islam (“The Perfect Religion!”).
The customer in the chair getting a haircut was also a tourist. He looked pretty good by the end of it, very much the young hipster – with a bit of Anatolian flair. One more client, then I was in the chair.
The shaving cream came first, applied with unusual intensity and for what seemed like 10 minutes or so. Could this be one of the secrets of a close shave? Maybe the idea was to wash the whiskers off my face, no razor needed.
But soon enough the razor was in hand. I kept my eyes closed, and away he went, short, rapid, downward strokes doing the job. That wasn’t so bad at all!
Then he asked me a question. It was something about my ears and wax. Did I have wax in my ears? Did I want wax in my ears? Were my ears made of wax? I really wasn’t sure, but I said yes anyway.
He stepped away and returned to apply something warm and sticky to my ears. Now I understood. My slightly hairy ears were in need of a makeover, 40-Year-Old Virgin style.
A brief pause and two quick tugs, each followed by a slight yelp on my part, and we were done. My ears were as smooth as the proverbial baby’s bottom.
Now it was time to pay, and it turned out that the ear waxing was an extra seven lira. I was miffed. How could something so quick and easy be almost the price of a shave? And why hadn’t he mentioned this extra charge?
But the hurt look on his face when I complained set me back. There was to be no haggling. He merely said, “Okay, then don’t pay.”
I peered up to see my barber looking down on me from the moral high ground.
I actually didn’t have the cash with me, so with his permission I scurried across the street to our hotel, grabbed some lira, returned and paid, feeling chastened and grateful.
Later, with my wife back from cooking class, my close shave was much admired. But my ears! Now, that was something special. “They’re so smooth! You should have them waxed regularly.”
The Barber of Istanbul is not only honest and skillful, but he also knows what women want.
Patrick Wolfe lives in Deep Cove, B.C.