There are a few milestones in the life of an expat that move you further away from being a “visitor” to being a “resident” of a new country. Examples might include opening a local bank account, seeing a new physician, or getting a local driver’s license. High on the list is finding a new hairdresser.
Of all the things one must do to settle into a new home country, finding an hairdresser is one of the more anxiety-inducing gauntlets one must endure. This is especially true for someone like me who is fiercely loyal to the fabulous Marlon Ramos.
Marlon, who I met about 20 years ago in San Francisco early in his career, is the infamous stylist who said, at my first appointment, that my hair “kinda looks like you lived in Sacramento.” Stunned, I let him just do whatever he wanted with my hair, with happy results. Marlon is a former professional dancer who has had, by far, the most memorable business card EVER (with a photo of himself):
I belong to several online groups and asked for referrals in Lisbon, choosing a hairdresser who came highly recommended. He has is own eponymous salon in a fashionable part of town, so I made the appointment.
I arrived at the achingly hip salon right on time and was greeted by a young, tiny woman who draped me with a white smock and led me to my chair. She offered something to drink. Check and check. All familiar.
The salon is all white with plenty of clear acrylic accents. Très chic and moderne. It was utterly silent in the salon and everyone spoke in hushed tones as if they were in a chapel.
I had brought with me a tube of the professional hair color that Marlon uses. (Marlon, who is Brazilian and fluent in Portuguese made himself available to answer questions.) I brought my phone loaded with Pinterest photos of the cut I’d like, one that I think would work a little better with Lisbon’s humid weather but would still remain true to the style I’ve donned for years.
Mr. Hair nodded knowingly, and offered, “Yes, your hair should have movement. Very important.” Yeah. Ok. Whatever. Off he went to mix my color, giving me an opportunity observe the space and others in it. There was another stylist, a woman in short black leather shorts and high heels, working on a client. Both Mr. Hair and the other stylist had an assistant. (Miss Tiny was Mr. Hair’s assistant, it turns out.) The assistants seem to be going through training, judging from the conversations.
The other client was having her brassy blonde hair with brown roots darkened a bit, presumably to blend colors and not have a yamika-like ring of brown hair on her blond head.
Mr. Hair wheeled the small table to me with a tub of coloring goo and proceeded to paint the color at my roots (Yes, I’m vain. I’m not ashamed to admit it.). Now, in the US, I would have had a large nylon drape over my clothing so that colorant doesn’t drip on my clothes or on the chair. Not here. That’s when I noticed the white leatherette chairs were smeared with color. When he’d finished, he said the color needed to sit for 30 minutes.
So far, so good and generally pretty familiar, even if the movements of the staff felt “off.”
After sitting there for well over the estimated 30 minutes, he guided me to the hair washing station where his assistant would wash my hair.
The parallels to my US experience ended there. Miss Tiny washed my hair. Once. Twice. Three times. Each time, a higher billow of thick suds would fill the sink. She would barely press on my scalp and sometimes would stop completely, holding her fingers in my hair without movement as if she had dozed off. My neck was hurting from being in the reclining position for so long with my head back. She finally got to the conditioner, a hair mask that tingled my scalp. That set in my hair another 10 minutes.
Blondie was getting her hair washed, also, and was there longer than I was. The stylist came into the room and said to her assistant, “You’re not going to make her bald, are you?” and laughed.
Now I had been there TWO HOURS and I was nowhere near a hair cut.
The final, exceedingly thorough rinsing completed, I was guided back to my chair. Miss Tiny placed a small shoulder cover-type apparatus on me that felt a little like the lead covers you get in the dentist for your X-rays. But it only covered my shoulders, nothing else.
Finally, the cut.
First, he told me to stand. Behind the chair. He stood in front of me. He told me to look to my right and a little down. He proceeded to cut on the left side of my head. Then I turned my head the other way, and he cut on the right side of my head.
Let me pause here for a moment to explain how Marlon does my hair. He is precise and efficient. He uses hair clips to pin parts of my hair to the side and he is methodical about the order in which he cuts the sections of hair. I’ve seen him do this every two or three months for 15 years.
This was not neither methodical nor efficient. Mr. Hair would snip here, then there. He would do the usual pulling and cutting at the ends along his fingers, then gently lay the bit of hair down as if it were breakable (perhaps it was after so much handling at the shampoo station). This dance around my head went on endlessly. Snip here. Snip there. Miss Tiny came over and, rather than using clips to hold sections of my hair, she stood over me, holding my hair.
Meanwhile, a drama unfolded behind me with Miss Brassy Blonde. The hair color was way too dark and she was not happy. So the stylist scrambled to do it again, ordering around her cowering assistant to do this or that.
My hair was well past dry and curling up uncontrollably. Still he snipped. I was getting worried. The way they handled my hair was nothing short of unusual, as if they were afraid of it, or me.
Finally, time for styling. Out comes the powerful blowdryer and he starts twisting my hair around a round brush, keeping the blowdryer close enough to my ears and neck that I recoiled, afraid I was getting burned. WTF? He kept blowdrying and perfecting — god knows what — and twisting my hair. Then he mutters, “Hair movement is very important. This is a beautiful hair cut.” Was that for me or for himself?
The blond was back in the chair having her re-dyed hair blowdried. They have the woman lean forward in her chair so they can dry it. No brush, no comb. They just pick up two or three strands of hair at a time to dry them. The stylist gestures to her minion, waving her index finger over her head to indicate the halo of brown roots still there. The client flipped her hair over and, while not entirely satisfied, seemed to indicate that was enough for one day. Her hair mostly looked the same as when she arrived.
And voilà! I am done! The color looks good. The cut looks familiar to what I’ve had for years. (But nothing like what I’d asked for). I’m relieved to have survived the experience.
FOUR HOURS later, I walk out after paying an exorbitant (by Lisbon standards) fee, counted myself lucky and got the hell outta there.