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My Turkish Haircut: Who Needs English?

Updated: May 18, 2021

Thanks to Covid-19 restrictions, most of us are wearing our hair longer these days and ready for that badly needed trim. Since lockdown in 2020, however, my hairdresser has retired after making me presentable – pretty, even -- for 20 years. Transitioning to a new stylist takes nerve. Or desperation. Or both. And I remember the hair stylist I trusted in Istanbul. The one who spoke no English…

Here’s an excerpt from my book-in-progress, Ambles of an Unfinished Woman of a Certain Âge (working title)

Pussy willows. Primroses. Green grass. It’s March 2012. Spring has arrived in Istanbul, and now I sit daily in the parki to knit and enjoy warm sun and equally warm smiles and conversations with Dede (grandfather) and Nene (grandmother) pushing babies. So much new life calls for a fresh look, and since I travel light with my tiny wardrobe (two pair of black pants, one light and one warm), which have served me these past two months, I decide I’ll get a haircut. Just trim the split ends from my shoulder-length, silver hair that I wear in a low ponytail and shorten the loose bangs that frame my face. How much English can I possibly need?

First, I do the homework. Working from the beauty shop flyer slid my door and laboriously translated, I have an idea of the vocabulary and prices. I need a haircut, saς kesimi. Body language for “scissors, cutting” has to be the same everywhere, but just to be on the safe side, I write vocabulary on the back of the flyer: “I’d like … same … dead, dry… today … tomorrow … appointment.” I already know how to ask “how much” and “what time?” I’ll try the beauty shop closest to the apartment, right here in the complex, which I’ve walked past many times. So often they seem to have empty stations.

But not today. The place bustles, several staff working on a single customer, one curling with a brush, the other blow-drying. The receptionist does not speak English, but understands my finger scissors. She seats me in an overstuffed chair at one station. After a few minutes, a young man brings me Turkish editions of Cosmo and a newspaper. A bit later, a young woman who understands some English asks me to describe what I need; she then disappears to bring me Turkish coffee. I have time to observe.

All the staff seem very young. The men wear white shirts and the women, white smocks and little make-up, definitely not glamorous, despite the glittering two-ton chandelier in the foyer. As the staff glides among a dozen stations, a hierarchy emerges: women do manicures and pedicures; some men only shampoo and blow dry. The cutting is left to the master. Although I had no appointment, within 15 minutes, a suave, bearded 30-something man, Akif, appears and raises his thick eyebrows in a question. He speaks no English; however, he seems to understand. He disappears. Then the fellow who brought me the magazines pantomimes washing my hair. I say, “No. Hayır.” I had already done so an hour earlier, and I don’t want to pay extra. He says something else which suggests that he must just wet it. OK. Sure enough, he massages my head with water -- no shampoo -- and returns me to the chair where he ties the black, silky drape to my neck. He then places a rubber shawl affair, thick as a mud flap, over my back and shoulders, probably to protect me against errant scissors.

Now Akif re-appears, and I explain with my hands what I want and show him my vocabulary list for good measure. He nods in comprehension and makes a tentative snip to show me the length –about 3 inches. Very good. We agree – and he’s off! For the next 25 minutes or more, he concentrates intensely and snips. Between cuts, he pulls back and – honest – twirls the scissors like John Wayne with his 6-shooter. Then he lunges toward me to snip again.

Gail Thorell Schilling, author getting her hair cut in Turkey

Once he has finished, and I pronounce his work very nice, çok güzel, he disappears and the shampoo man springs into action with the curling brush and blow dryer – much more attention than I expected. He brushes and curls each handful of hair at least ten times. After a few minutes, a teenaged boy arrives to hold the blower as directed. (This makes five people who have now waited on me.)

My saς kesimi is a great success, and, with the current exchange rate, as good a value as Super Cuts, even with three tips. In fact, I consider it one of my best haircuts ever, even without English. Shall I credit my nascent language skills – or dumb luck? ###

Invitation/Your Turn

  • Write about a time you took a leap of faith that turned out well.

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