The Old Man, the Haircut, and the Four Days of Naples
Google Translate won’t help you here
I held my phone ready in my hand.
A trick I learned. When you live in a country whose language you don’t speak, even the simplest tasks become exponentially more difficult. But at one point, after a haircut I was particularly pleased with, I had the foresight to take a selfie and store it in my phone. I didn’t have to rely on my nonexistent Italian to tell the barber what I wanted. I only needed to show him a picture.
It was morning, and the sun outside was already burning the shadows of trees and walls onto the baking roadway. But it was dark inside the barbershop, the metal shutter still pulled down on the east-facing window so that the place seemed closed.
And yet as I stepped inside, blinking as my eyes adjusted to the changing light, I saw that I wasn’t alone. A middle-aged man sat with his son on the cheap plastic chairs along one wall. The barber raised his head to greet me before turning back to the old man in the chair in front of him, his wrinkled face frosted with a beard of white foam. I sat on a padded bench under the blind window to wait my turn.
The old man was a talker. But in southern Italy, that’s not uncommon. Even as the barber expertly shaved him, his jaw never stop moving, the musical notes of dialect flowing on without pause. His head was bald but for a faint fuzz of white behind his ears. The slow flow of long years had taken from him the dexterity needed to shave himself, but it did nothing to dull his ability to talk. Unable to understand a single word of his chatter, I sat in silence and waited my turn.
It’s not possible now, just as it was impossible then, to find the exact words to capture everything about that sleepy sunny morning in the barbershop. The bright bars of light that entered through the holes in the steel shutter. The rustle of a newspaper in the waiting father’s hands. The soft splash of water in a sink, and the quiet scrape of steel against skin, sweeping away the unwanted hair from the old man’s chin.
The building next to ours was virtually a ruin, one entire wall collapsed to reveal the empty rooms and sagging ceilings inside. Ivy sprouted from every joint of the bricks, its wild growth unchecked by cold-weather. Among the weeds, a tomato plant bloomed, its frail branches nodding with unpicked fruit. It’s like that in Italy. Bloom and decay always go together.
The barbershop now is a memory.
Just like the town that contained it, a place I loved and will probably never see again. We travel for the sake of memory, when we’re not doing it for Instagram photos. We look forward to having something to look back on.
That drowsy Italian morning, when sunlight seemed to drip like rain from the gnarled trees that lined the street, is no more real than anything I might invent. We don’t relive the past; we can’t. Memory is still very much part of the present, an act of the mind in the only portion of time available to it — the present.
And every time I conjure this particular memory, its contours will change. No more static than the heat haze shimmering above the road.
If I were to add up everything I recall prior to my twelfth birthday, it wouldn’t amount to more than a day or two. It’s like this for everyone. None of us remember being born. It seems that our earliest memories may be lies, and that we can’t remember anything before we learn to talk.
As though we can only remember something once we know how to describe it, to translate it into the arbitrary sounds and symbols of language.
But that’s not what the world is. Even for someone like me, who makes his living through words. Life is experienced first. It’s only afterward that we can put it into words, clumsily and inexactly. Our memories are flawed in the moment we create them.
The barber had finished his shave.
The old man climbed out of the chair. The barber placed a hand on his arm as the old man wobbled, seeming for a moment as though he would fall. But he regained his balance. Still chattering away, he wobbled toward the door. But he didn’t leave. While the kid who had been waiting hopped up into the barber’s chair, I felt the bench I sat on shift slightly as the old man sat down next to me.
He was talking to me now.
“I’m sorry, I don’t speak Italian,” I said, mustering almost all the Italian I knew to say it. But the man didn’t even slow down. He went on talking, a sense of urgency to his voice as he tried to make himself understood, his freshly shaven cheeks shining through a blue haze that not even the sharpest razor could remove completely. He went on talking, repeating certain words and phrases as though that might somehow make me understand them. I shrugged.
“I don’t know,” I said in English. “It’s wasted on me, mate.”
But the old man persisted. On his plastic chair close by, I could see the boy’s father shaking with laughter behind his newspaper.
“Benito Mussolini!” the old man finally said.
“Mussolini? Il Duce? Si, ho capito,” I nodded. I understand. I didn’t, of course. I had no idea why this old man was bringing up the long-dead Italian fascist dictator. But at least I knew what he was talking about. And as he turned to the man behind his newspaper, I thought for a moment I could guess what he was saying.
“Of course! He doesn’t know Italian, but he knows who Mussolini is!”
While the man with the newspaper laughed, the old man turned back to me. A few more men had entered the shop, and I could feel everyone’s eyes on me. This entirely one-sided conversation between us was providing endless amusement for the other customers.
“La guerra,” the old man said. “La guerra.”
“Si,” I replied. “The war. La guerra mondiale.”
“Si!” His eyes sparkled in the midst of a dense network of wrinkles. Italians are a long-lived people, with their healthy diet and abundant sunshine. If I still lived in Italy, I’d want to live a good long time too. Day by day, there are fewer and fewer people left in the world who are alive during the Second World War. But this man looked old enough.
Just up the road in Naples, the citizens rebelled against Nazi rule and overthrew the Germans before the allies arrived to liberate them. The Four Days of Naples. That was 77 years ago. The man could easily have been a child of 10 at the time.
“Tedesco,” he said. “Tedesco!”
I reached for my phone. I had Google Translate, and while I knew it couldn’t hope to keep up with the rapids and cataracts of our incomprehensible conversation, I figured I could pick out some of the more important words.
But as I started to type, he laid a shaking hand on my arm, as though afraid I was using the phone to ignore him. So I didn’t bother to translate tedesco. It wasn’t until I got home that I looked it up and learned he was talking about the Germans.
Beyond this most skeletal of outlines, I never did learn what he was trying to tell me. If he had stories of his childhood in wartime Italy, I would have loved to hear them. But we couldn’t understand one another. As the barber signaled me over toward the chair, my turn come around at last, I stood.
“Viva la regina!” the old man called after me. “Viva America! Viva l’inglese!”
“Viva Italia,” I said as I took my place in the just vacated barber’s chair, and laughter rippled again around the barbershop.
Across the street from the barbershop, a white wall bears the leaden names of the local men who died in both world wars.
I can look at it now through the sublime sorcery of Google Streetview, the same weird magic that has preserved my own image like a fly in amber on the streets of that Italian city.
I’ll never know what he was trying to communicate, except that it had something to do with the war. But if my guess was right and the man remembered the war, his memories of it must be colored and distorted by the seven decades that have passed between now and then.
It’s not true that no one remembers anything from before they could talk. It seems that certain types of trauma can imprint themselves on the brains of very young children and stay with them throughout their lives, even if those lives are very long. By the time I stepped out of the barbershop, my hair freshly cut to match the photo I had shown him, the old man had wobbled his way home. I wondered if any of the names on the wall of remembrance were familiar to him. I wondered if he remembered them, even after the best part of the century. His father, maybe. An uncle. An older brother.
Memory is a trick we play on ourselves — sometimes a nasty one. It can keep us a prisoner in moments we would rather forget, robbing the present of all its joy, remaking the future in its own twisted image. The shattered windows in the crumbling houses. The low drone of bombing raids. The rumble of artillery growing closer by the day.
But our memories can be a reliable source of beauty, too. The tiny pilot light glowing in the dark of the basement.
I no longer live in that town, under that bright sun. But every time I think of it, a tiny ray of light creeps through the void space behind my eyes. The memory of the place is dear to me, and made even more so by the fact I may never return. The sweetest memories are of those things that you can never taint by revisiting. The lover you never talk to and can’t forget. The endless summer of your childhood. The life you loved and left behind.
About the Creator
Towers, Temples, Palaces: Essays From Europe out now!
Novelist, entomologist and cat owner. Ryan Frawley is the author of many articles and stories and one novel, Scar, available from online bookstores everywhere.
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