Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Hair Cut

Until today every one of my haircuts in Mexico was done by yours truly (with reluctant help from Chris, of course). I had this plan, you see, wherein I was going to avoid going to the barbershop in Mexico because (1) I couldn’t communicate in Spanish and (2) I thought I could save some money. So I bought one of those electric buzzer things and off I went.

My friend Adam helped me buzz my hair this way the first time back in July. When I told my dad, I could hear him shaking his head over the phone.

Dad: (shakes head) Boy, I cut my hair that short once and it never grew back.

Me: Whatever, Dad. That won’t happen to me…

3 months later…

Me: Dad, I think I’m going bald! My hair won’t grow back the way it used to!

Dad: (shakes head) What did I tell you, boy, what did I tell you…

Once my buzz cut began to reveal that my widow’s peak was getting a little more, er, extreme, I tried cutting it a little longer, but then it just started to look gross: The sides looked too long for the top, the back always looked too long for everything else…It was only a matter of time before I had an involuntary mullet. Frustrated, I just wore a hat for awhile.

Then one day I woke up and instead of a mullet I looked like Luke Skywalker from the original 1977 Star Wars. This was not going to work. There was only one option left. I had to get a real haircut.

So this afternoon, after lunch, I walked into a barbershop I had seen the day before. What followed was a perfectly fine haircut coupled with an extraordinarily awkward conversation.

When I walk in there’s just one dude sitting and reading a magazine. He’s wearing a French-style beret and has a thick moustache that seems to match it perfectly. When I walk in, he looks up from his magazine and directs his gaze at me blankly. I greet him, and he responds in kind, but he continues to look at me blankly, as if waiting for some cue. I say the only sentence I had prepared in my head before I walked in: “¿Uh, quisiera un corto de pelo?” (Uh, I would like a haircut?”)

It works! Si, pasale, he says, and directs me to a chair.

I sit down and he asks me what I want done. I try to demonstrate by moving my hands around my head like a mime. He starts asking me specifics about the length I want but at this point I get uncertain and decide it’s time to reach for a lifeline. I pull out a magazine I’ve been carrying around and point at a giant photo of Bono’s head. ¿Como este? I say. Ah, si, ok, he says. He needs no further instructions. I breathe a sigh of relief. Thank you, Bono…

It’s pretty obvious my Spanish is not native, so he asks me where I’m from. Chicago, I say. Ah, conozco Chicago. He knows Chicago. Nearly everyone we’ve met here either knows Chicago because they themselves have lived there or because they know someone who has lived there.

Then he starts asking me other questions, and the weirdest thing happens: My Spanish abilities seem to evaporate like the dusty riverbed that runs through this town during the dry season.

In retrospect, I can point to a couple of reasons why this might have happened. I was nervous. He spoke fast. He kind of mumbled. I think he contracted certain words and spoke colloquially. Whatever – all I know is, all of sudden I seemed to have lost all of my vocabulary other than “si” and “no.”

I think at some point I did manage to explain why we were living in Lagos, that my wife was working on her thesis. When he asked what I studied, I said theology. I told him that we used to live on the South Side of Chicago, and I understood him to say (I think) that he lived north of Madison in Wisconsin, near Wisconsin Dells, but visited Chicago for a week and liked it a lot.

I wanted to ask him why he was in Wisconsin – Did he have work there? What kind of work was it? How long was he there? But I asked none of these questions. It took all of my mental energy just to follow along and give an uncertain “si” whenever it seemed like that was the appropriate response. When he asked me when we came to Lagos, I said el primero de marzo, and didn’t bother to clarify that in fact we lived in Tepoztlan, Mexico City and Guadalajara before then. It seemed less embarrassing to have Spanish this poor after only three weeks than after an entire eight months.

When we were almost done, another guy walked into the shop – a businessman, probably in his forties, and he looked to be a regular. He started flipping through a newspaper. The barber told him about me – I’m from Chicago, just moved to Lagos a few weeks ago, etc. The regular looked up from his newspaper and asked something like “Why don’t you speak to him in English?” “No,” he responds, and looks at me with a mischievous grin. “¿Quieres hablar español, no?” Si, I say, quiero apprender – I want to learn. When he pulls off my cape, the customer notices my Pumas bag. “¿Pumas?” he says, laughing. “¡El aprende rapido – he learns fast!” I laugh, too, a little more nervously than he does. I want to leave before I’m drawn into any more impossible conversation.

On the way home, I construct Spanish sentences in my head – and now, of course, with a little extra time to think, I know how to say all kinds of things in Spanish. I remember translating an entire Bruce Springsteen song into Spanish only one week ago, with surprisingly little help from my dictionary. I’ve started reading a Mexican novel, Pedro Páramo, in the original Spanish. And yet today my new language completely deserted me!

The crazy thing, when it was all over, I was already thinking about the next time I would go into the same barbershop for another cut. Hopefully it would be the same guy, and maybe I would be able to speak and understand better next time – yes, yes, I was sure I’d be able to, I just need a little more practice, a little less nervousness…

So grow, hair, grow fast! Don’t go bald on me just yet. I need to learn Spanish first.

***

Update: More disappearing, reappearing Spanish abilities... I'm sitting in the internet cafe right now and my Spanish vanished again. The barista asked me if I needed the clave - password - for the internet. I wanted to say, "No, I already have it." But I couldn't think of "already," which was the crucial word. I tried "todavia," but immediately realized that todavia means "still," and I only thought of it because we learned it the same day as "already." The barista and I had a back-and-forth, in which I managed to both confuse and slightly annoy him. Two seconds after our conversation was over, I remembered: Ya. "Ya" is "already." Ya tengo la clave. Sigh. So I have reached the point where I have the Spanish knowledge somewhere in my head, I just can't recall it fast enough for normal conversation. Argh. Someday I'll get there... I just hope it's someday soon.

2 comments:

Mike and Beth said...

It will be soon....I know it will! Loved your story of this day! We have clippers here at this house,too - we call it the Montana haircut! Blessings to you both this day!

From Michigan with Love said...

Lesson learned...what works for Adam does not always (Ya) translate well to others. :-) I'm clipping tonight!!! :-) Brush up that Spanish 'cause I have none! (Laura too!)