My Dolce Vita

Katarzyna Knas

© Copyright 2023 by Katarzyna Knas

 Runner-up in the 2023 Travel Nonfiction Contest
Photo by cottonbro studio at Pexels.
Photo by cottonbro studio at Pexels.

and principessa were the only Italian words I knew, when I embarked on my ambitious year-long project to study Italian in Rome in the summer of 2005. These two words wouldn’t get me very far, but I wasn’t worried at all. I was excited and ready for extensive studies and wonderful intercultural encounters. And I was abroad for the first time in my life.

My first two weeks in Rome blended in my memory into one long stretch of wonder, surprise, interesting meetings and never ending “wow” moments – at the sight of ancient ruins growing out of nowhere all the time, lemons casually lying on the streets, local markets full of fresh oranges, still with their leaves attached, palm trees and large cactuses popping their heads over garden fences. Coming from a central European country where bushes full of horrible sour blackcurrants are the most exciting thing one can experience in the summer months, I was lost in wonder all the time. But why on earth did they empty rubbish bins at one in the morning? And the dirty and scruffy quarter of the city, where I lived, looked nothing like a glamorous and elegant district that comes in mind when thinking of the world’s capital of culture and ancient heritage.

I was pushing myself hard to learn Italian. Sometimes I tried so much, that I felt physically sick, concentrating all my mental capabilities on finding meanings, connections and patterns in the speech surrounding me. I was totally immersed and there was no ways out. It felt like my brain was swelling up from all these efforts. Soon the lack of language skills would prove a problem.

It was about my hair. Since I was a teenager it had always been short. A simple short style, a bit like Judi Dench’s, just far less classy. I usually went for a trim once a month, which was perfectly easy to do back home, but proved to be really hard to organise in Italy. And the reason was twofold – how to explain to a hairdresser what I want to have on my head, and how to pay for it without ruining my already tiny student budget. I turned for help to a source recommended to me by my flatmates – our porter Agatha. In English, which she spoke quite well, I explained to her what the problem was.

Leave it to me. I’ll talk to Rocco and explain him what you want,’ said Agatha, slowly inhaling the smoke of her menthol cigarette, shooting at me piercing glances from underneath her heavy eye lids. Mamma Corleone.

Rocco… a hairdresser from the hair salon located on the ground floor of our block of flats. An object of my platonic desires since the moment I first saw him standing in the doorway and smiling to all the people passing by. He smiled to me as well when his eyes met mine. I didn’t think even for a second that this smile was in any way directed to me specifically, he was just a nice guy. But nevertheless, it made me feel special. No one had ever smiled to me in such a way. And with this divine man Agatha wanted to organise my appointment.

I had been waiting for my visit with excitement. When the day finally came, I went downstairs and with my heart pounding, I slowly entered the hair salon. The atmosphere inside was warm, but it was not hot. In the background Dire Straits quietly played their mesmerising tones. There was a scent of the aftershave and hair styling products floating in the air, warmed up by the hair dryers, sent into every corner of that somehow small space. It reminded me a bit of the grey Mexican bars full of cigarettes’ smoke from the old cowboy movies. Rocco expected me and came up to me immediately. With a gentle gesture he pointed to one of the chairs. I took my place and he covered me tightly with a black shiny polyester cape. It felt pleasantly cool. He sat down on a stool behind me and without unnecessary chit-chat started cutting the hair at the back of my head. I was expecting some usual introductory questions, as “what do we do?” etc., but there were none. I thought most likely Agatha would have explained everything to him already, so there was no need for a talk. Might as well, as I was not able to sustain a meaningful conversation anyway.

I tried to maintain an eye contact instead, which in reality meant staring at him all the time, hoping to understand at least a fraction of what he was saying, and trying to reply in – what I was hoping – sounded at least to some extend like Italian, and what could probably sound equally like Old Norse or a sign of breathing difficulties. A long list of potentially helpful words, which I prepared for my visit, went out of the window very quickly, as I was not able to put them together in sensible sentences.

I wanted to keep the conversation flowing as much as I could, but I stopped very quickly, after realising that I understood nothing from his answers. The smile would be my only reply to the hidden avenues of the Italian grammar, as Rocco was presenting them to me in between the swift movements of his scissors. I closed my eyes and concentrated on the music playing quietly in the distance.

After more or less twenty minutes I started wondering a bit, why was he spending such a long time with the back of my head? – after all my hair was already short as it was, and there was not that much to do with it anyway. But I decided that the guy knew what he was doing and probably he was simply taking his time, thinking about his next espresso, like everyone else in Italy. I closed my eyes, carried away by a mesmerising atmosphere of the place.

Rocco moved the right side of my head. I kept my eyes shut, this time to protect myself from accidentally losing one of them if the scissors slipped. His closeness had a slightly intoxicating effect on me. “You get a shiver in the dark”…Yes, I was starting to feel like a sultan of swing… did they spray something in the air?

At some point his boss came around and stood next to us. He looked at me for a while and said something to Rocco with a serious face, too quiet for me to hear it. He patted Rocco on the shoulder, gently bowed his head to me and left us. Weird, I thought. And he was bald, that was even weirder.

When Rocco moved to the left side of my head I started thinking, that perhaps he took my hairstyle too seriously. His face was serene, yet very focused. My hair looked a bit short, but it did not bother me too much. I could not see it properly, concentrating more on the music and the hairdresser’s lovely smile. His aftershave was divine (later I learned from Agatha, that it was one of Pacco Rabanne’s fragrances). Everyone around was just chatting with everyone else, they all seemed to know each other, the sort of relaxed existence possible only in a country where the sun shines three hundred days per year, I thought. Dire Straits still played in the background, dimmed light created half-shadows everywhere, I remember the air feeling somehow thick inside, everyone sliding in a slow motion, like coated in some kind of a sticky glitter. The time stretched and slowed down in that place. It felt surreal.

I cannot remember him cutting the hair on top of my head, but when he finally finished, he showed me the results in the mirror he held behind my head. My hair was short. Very short. Much shorter than I would have liked, but Rocco’s charm sweetened the short-lived shock that I experienced seeing my face surrounded with a dark thin layer of something that once was a hair style. But, surprisingly, I did not feel bad about it. For some strange reason I felt like I had just experienced something very exciting, I was full of joy. I thanked him and payed for my visit. To this day I do not know if I paid a full price or maybe Agatha managed to get me a discount. Or if my divine Rocco was actually a barber, and not a hairdresser; at that time in my life I could not tell the difference anyway. His boss opened the door for me when I was leaving and bowed to me again. I entered the salon looking like a slightly overgrown Judi Dench; I left looking like Sinead O’Connor. Italian sun welcomed me back into the world when I emerged from my dream experience. I was beaming.

There is a photograph of me crossing St Peter’s Square, taken two months after my hairdressing adventure. My hair is still very short on it. Taking into account that it grows on average one centimetre per month, I wonder how short it must have been when I left the salon on that summer afternoon? I have no clear recollection. But it did not matter at all. I was in Rome, the sun was shining, life was great and I could describe my principessa in more details every day. I did not need anything else to feel happy.

 Katarzyna comes from Poland, but has been living in the UK for many years, and now she calls England her home. She works as a nurse, and in her spare time she is studying for a degree in English Language and using her skills as a volunteer translator. But most of all – she wants to rekindle her passion for writing and creating stories, abandoned long time ago, when ordinary life stood in the way of pursuing it. She believes that words have the power to change the world.

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