I ride my bike the 3 kilometers through the Vondelpark, across the Leidseplein, and down Marnixstraat to get to the Jordaan to visit my preferred barbershop.
The barbershop has been open since 9am. It just after noon on a grey Saturday morning of a local 3-day weekend, and the normally chaotic place is dead.
“Lucky first customer?” I ask, as I hang my light jacket equipped to handle the prevalent northern European drizzle.
I am beckoned upstairs, and I recognize the by-now familiar 30-something barber with steely eyes, well-trimmed beard, cautious body language, and friendly demeanour. I count this as the fourth time he’s cut my hair during the 16 months we’ve lived in Amsterdam. At 50+ haircuts per week, I estimate that my business represents about 1 parts per 1000 of his, and don’t expect him to recognise me, yet somehow think he might.
“Good morning” I say, somewhat perfunctorily.
Him without a smile but with unexpected genuineness in his voice: “Every day is a good morning. It’s a great morning.”
Me with a smile and more definitiveness, “Yes, it is.”
I’m silently appreciative for the unlikely gift of the simple reminder for gratitude. It is a great day, and I’ve suddenly become more enthusiastic.
He looks skeptical, but determined not to become in any way distracted from his own positive vibing.
Sensing his inward turning, I offer context, hoping to establish authenticity. “In fact, it’s been a great week.” Yet, I’m reluctant to get sucked into why it was such a great week, as I’ve already compartmentalised the most intense yet satisfying work week of the year, still basking in its afterglow, but ready to leave it alone for the weekend.
You know how it feels when your dentist asks a provocative and open-ended question just before she asks to inspect your molars? I didn’t want to go there.
For no reason other than wanting to see if I could build on the communication momentum, I venture, “Ever been to the south of Spain?” a vague reference to the location where I had spent the week leading a team event.
He looks at me with a blank look, sizing me up.
Now I feel like a bit of a tool, asking a question that would be innocuous amongst certain colleagues or neighbors, but all of a sudden sounds pretentious here in the barbershop. I soldier on. “Malaga. Not far from Granada and Sevilla?”
After a skipped beat, I’m now sure sure I’ve missed my mark. I try a friendly way to put to rest the awkward exchange. “It’s an amazing place.”
He looks at me and nods knowingly, although by now it feels likely that he is the one with the perfunctory response.
There are idle barbers around, and still no other customers. He’s clearly not in any rush. Neither am I.
He gets his workspace organised. He makes eye contact with me, looking into my eyes through the mirror, as he stood behind me, wrapping the stretchy gauze around my neck and expertly flipping the vinyl cape over me like a matador. He looks thoughtfully, pauses and asks, “Have you ever been to Greece?”
I light up, instantly thinking about our family trip there last Spring. Were we with other well-traveled parents from the international school our kids attend, I would have launched into describing our trip to Santorini. Instead, I start with,”Yes, um twice actually. But, it was more than 20 years ago…”, instantly realising it was closer to 30. “I went to Athens, and then one of the islands.”
“Athens!” he says dimsissively. “Athens like any city.” he says with the conviction of someone who has not only seen Athens but several other Athens-like metropolises.
“Kos. That’s an amazing place to go” with a glimmer in his eye.
Delighted to hear he’d been to Greece, and too sheepish to admit that I have no idea where Kos is, I ask “Kos?”
“Is amazing place. Beautiful view. The boats. The calm blue water. It’s just like the movies. Have you seen the Greek movies?
Weak on Greek media consumption, I look at him pleadingly.
Him, enthusiastically: “It is just like the movie Odysseus. Have you seen it?”
Me: “Not yet”, feeling clever having demonstrated my growth mindset with my Carol Dweck dog whistle.
Him: “Kos, it’s amazing. just like the movie. Just perfect.”
Me: “Like being in post card.” I reminisce to my own Greek isle nostalgia of spring break 1988, repeatedly trying to capture photos that replicated the post cards I saw in local shops. I never knew if I was successful, as all of my undevelped film got lost when a petty criminal nicked my backpack full of worthless (to him) nostalgia on an overnight train in France later that summer.
Me, still seeking connection. “We went to Santorini last year.”
Him: “Santorini! Beautiful!” Then he paused. “Two days enough though.” echoing a thought had by the majority of tourists passing through.
Me: “Kos. How did you get there?”
Him: “Oh, I found it by looking around. You know.”
Me: “No, I mean, how did you get there? Plane, ferry?”
I’m still fishing for clues as to where this Kos is, remaining somehow disinclined to admit that I hadn’t heard of Kos, but always curious about places people show this kind of passion for.
Him: “By plane. You can fly there.”
Up until this point, he still hasn’t gotten started with my actual hair cut. Which by now has become almost weird, so I turned to look straight ahead into the mirror, and signaled my readiness to begin.
Him asking for confirmation for which length attachment I preferred for his electric razor: “Number two?”
Staving off my deep-seated juvenile humour instincts: “Number-one and number-two” gesturing with the back of my hand up and down the side of my head, indicating the blended technique I learned from my favored Malaysian barber in Singapore.
“You’re the boss.” I say, repeating a line I was sure I used before in the same chair on a previous visit, intending to indicate that I trusted him to do what he think was best based on his expertise, not mine.
I am reminded of a memory from twenty years ago — a summertime Friday rush-hour gridlocked taxi ride from Central Park West to JFK when the cabbie asks me “Your way or my way?” wanting to know which route to take. His way. Obviously. Before zipping me through surface-streets of Queens that I’d never seen and never would again.
Him: “You’re the king.” Then, “You got to be the king of your own hair.”
As the salt and pepper hair starts to fall off with each pass of the electric razor, he asks: “Are you from England?”
Me: “No, American.”
Here we go.
At this stage it becomes clear to me that he doesn’t remember me, even if he shows some familiarity. Moreover I’m totally relieved, grateful that until this moment any biases he might have had about me, have been unfounded. But, I remember him.
Me: “You’re from Iraq, right?”
I say so, hoping to establish yet more credibility by demonstrating familiarity. The truth is that I would never forget it, because on my first visit, he asked where I was from first, and after I told him I was from the States, he told me he was from Colombia, and tried to cut that conversation off — using what was likely a well-worn and robustly-tested head-fake for the bearded, olive-skinned guy with an indistinguishable accent.
I wasn’t buying it.
But, I also didn’t know where the trap was. When his co-workers nearby groaned, he somewhat reluctantly admitted he was instead from Iraq. As I processed the situation, I remember feeling an invigorating calm even as I allowed my mind to note the vulnerability of an American expat sitting in an unknown Iraqi’s barber chair as he expertly scraped a straight razor across my neck in giving me a nice clean shave.
I didn’t like that my mind went there. But it did.
I vividly recall the feeling of sorrow I felt knowing that a guy such as him should have to instinctively mask the origin of his home country when it quite easily could be the other way around. Maybe he was saving face for the both of us.
This time, I consciously choose to avoid reminding him of his Colombia reference, as when I did so on my second visit to his chair as an ice-breaker and to breed familiarity, it landed with exactly zero success.
Him: “You’re American? Americans don’t travel much do they?”
The well-worn narrative of Americans who don’t travel, whenever I hear it, instantly triggers a knee-jerk urge to launch into the 50-states-are-all-like-countries explanation, and the-US-is-bigger-than-all-of-Europe excuse, and explain how New Orleans and Hawaii and Idaho and Alaska and Puerto Rico are each as unique to each other than than many European countries. Of course, to be honest, I’m not sure I know any who have been to all five. A fleeting notion crosses my mind to mention LinkedIn where I proudly self-identify as “an American with a passport.”
Instead. “No. No they don’t” unwilling to summon evan a half-hearted rebuttal on behalf of the tens of millions who do.
I volunteer “When Americans do travel, it’s often Mexico or Canada.”
He asks geniunely and with curiosity, “Do people really only have 15 days of vacation there?”
I said it usually starts at 10 if you’re lucky enough to have a job with any at all.
“Are the days paid?”
I explained that in corporate jobs they are paid, but for average jobs usually not.
As he knocks my hair out of his electric razor, he shakes his head.
“People should travel. It’s good for people to travel.”
I nod, as he continues attending to my forehead and the conversation tails off.
I’m enjoying myself. It is a nice conversation and a nice moment. I’m struck by the fact that such a conversation can happen, even if the ingredients are unlikely.
I want to keep the banter going. After all, I want him to like me — maybe he’ll be extra attentive to those rogue hair follicles.
Me: “Hey, are you guys open Monday?” Monday is the final national holiday in the Netherlands before Christmas. It is May 21 — Whit Monday. The Dutch businesses are very worker friendly, so unlike the US, places actually close on holidays so that workers get days off too.
“Yeah. We’re open Monday. Sunday is our holy day.” With emphasis on the word holy.
As another opening to earn street cred as a more-enlightened-than-average American, and to show my open mindedness and awareness of Islam, the primary religion of his home country, I tried to craft a way to ask about how those who worshipped on Fridays might somehow adjust to Sunday.
But before I come up with something clever, I my subconscious brain produced a yellow light, with a vague memory that religion had come up with him before.
“I’m a Christian” he says, appropros of nothing, gesturing to make sure I hadn’t overlooked the gold cross dangling from the chain he wears clearly visible outside his shirt, presumably to honour his beliefs, but also as a convenient prop for the not-so rare moments when it was needed, working with primarily Turks and Moroccans.
I thought it was interesting he put his religion so starkly, right out on the table. Maybe he read my mind that I was sizing him up, and he wanted to shape my internal narrative. Maybe he’s had a lifetime of assumptions made about him. My initial feeling is that his move is a blunt side-step to dodge whatever bias he might have been projecting on me as to whatever bias I might myself have, were I to assume he was Muslim. I’m making asssumpitons about assumptions. Another explanation is that he’s just proudly Christian, and making more small talk.
He asks: “What are you?”
I’m almost tempted to pull out a line I’ve used before that “I was raised to believe in Santa Claus. We celebrate Christmas.” Instead: “I’m an atheist.”
Truth be told, I’m not exactly an athiest. My lack of belief in God is closely aligned with the lyrics penned by Andy Partridge’s XTC song called “Dear God” published in 1986. But, I do consider myself spiritual and open to a higher calling. Yet, I haven’t yet found a way to describe the religious and spiritual open mindedness I have which falls into some sort of intersection between zen buddhism, shintoism, and agnostic. It somehow doesn’t feel worth vaulting into any of this. And so calling myself athiest is what comes out of my mouth, more spontaneously.
Him: “Are there a lot of athiests in the States?”
Me: “I guess. I’m not sure. What there are a lot of are white middle class Christians in the US.” I remember thinking that while I say middle class, I mean lower-middle — not wanting to get lost in the nuance in the way that I’ve given up saying that I like beef cooked au point to someone who is not yet, but soon to become familiar with the term.
Then I take a gamble, and volunteer that this group in fact represents a strong part of Trump’s core base supporters. The gamble is in mentioning Trump at all, as now the conversation can go anywhere.
“Trump’s a Christian?” he asks, somewhat bewlidered.
I tell him that I am not sure he actually is, but that he says he is.
This actually fires me up a bit, and I risk raising the stakes by then sharing my view that I think many of these Christians practice inconsistently with what I know of their beliefs.
Instantly I wonder about whatever invisible line there might or might not be between barber and customer, and whether I had crossed it.
“How? What is an example.” He sounds curious if a bit accusatory and defensive on their behalf. I am reminded that he himself is Christian. It’s as though he is intuitivly aligning with the Christians I have in my mind from the rural South.
I waffle for a moment, taken aback and initially not totally ready for the question, now thinking I might have hung myself with my own rope.
“OK, take health care. Most of these Christians vote against providing health care for all Americans. Everywhere else in the world, the sick can go to the doctor for free. Aren’t Christians supposed to take care of the sick?”
I don’t even want to get into the hypocracy of fighting abortion but then not providing subsequent basic care for the mother or child.
At this moment, I’m not sure exactly what happened, but now he seems to get a bit agitated. He starts talking fast and English is his 3rd, if not 4th or 5th language, so understandably he’s not able to find exactly the right words.
For a minute, I lose the plot. He has stopped cutting my hair, and is now looking at me, not through the mirror, but eye-to-eye. He has veered off on a vector about inner faith and outer faith. I lose track of which pronouns are referring to which parties.
I realise that he’s saying something important. But, I’m not sure I understand the point. I ask him to start over and clarify what he means because I want to understand. It is not clear whether he is defending or accusing the people I’ve described.
He explains that even if he doesn’t love Muslims, the Bible tells him to love thy enemy. And how anyone who doesn’t, isn’t a real Christian. It is clear he is irritated at Christians who have deviated from the core messages learned in the Bible.
I explained that personally I don’t have a problem with religion, it’s the institution of the church that I do — a sentiment I proudly have stolen from EU regulatory badass Margrethe Vestager who I learned subscribes to a “Believe in God, fear the Church” philosophy from a recent article I read.
He then speaks with disdain about churches who invent their own beliefs, recruit believers, and then charge them for the privilege.
I cast a line with some bait to see if I get a strike: “You mean like the Mormon Church?”
He doesn’t bite.
I comment that what I love so much about Amsterdam is the history of the Protestant resistance against the over-reaching Spaniard Catholic Church, and the subsequent Dutch culture of freedom and “doe normaal” vibe which permits anyone to do or believe just about anything, so long as no one else is bothered by it.
Him: “Religion is what is inside you, not outside” now clarifying to make sure I was clear on his position about the purity of his beliefs. “But to be a real Christian, you have to remember you don’t have all the answers and you are not perfect.”
“Be humble?” I suggest. It’s an annoying habit I have as a native English speaker to recommend word choices for non-mother tongue speakers.
Him: “Yes! To be humble. And to know you make mistakes and are not perfect. Like me. I didn’t listen to you when you said you wanted number one and number two. I used number zero.”
I can’t tell if he’s pulling my leg, whether he is actually apologising for a mistake, or whether he’s accepted my encouragement to apply his own judgment on my hair, as I’d hoped with my earlier comment.
In any case, I grin.
By now he is finishing cleaning me up, and when he’s done he shows me his handiwork, including the obgliory and proud glimpse of my otherwise never seen by myself bald spot.
Me: “Like I said, you’re the boss. It looks good.”
He doesn’t respond in any way to indicate which of my theories might have been closest to the truth about his confession to cutting my hair shorter than I’d asked. Either way, I’m pleased. It will save me a week in coming back to see him, probably in four weeks instead of three.
To demonstrate my clear preference for him taking his own professional initiative in cutting my hair, as I’d originally intended, for the second time in 48 hours, I find myself strongly compelled to reference a conversation I had in November with my very soon-to-be 13 year-old son:
As his loving father, I enthusiastically had offered to my son “Hey, how about I make you an ice-cream cake for your birthday?” My specialty. He declined, “That’s OK, Dad. I think I would rather have a birthday cake made by someone who’s job it is to make birthday cakes.”
I withhold my story, not wanting to confuse my barber, and instead settle for some parting small talk.
Before I go to the cashier to pay, I reach out my hand.
Me: “What’s your name?”
Him: “My name is Wisam.”
Me: “I’m Brad. Like Brad Pitt.”
His next customer has arrived.