At Least You Have Your Health

Escuela Campo Alegre was on vacation last week, a mid-semester break that takes the sting out of our non-existent Thanksgiving. I joined my Seattle friends and fellow teachers Jess and Chris, plus their pal Matt from the US, for a road trip around Venezuela. We drove about 2000 kilometers, into and over the Andes, down into rainforest and jungle, past sand dunes and cactus-filled deserts, to beach villages hidden behind mangrove swamps. I’ll write all about this in a couple of days; for now, some photos of the trip and an unrelated story about grooming.


Loyal readers will recall how much I enjoy a good haircut, or, more realistically, how much I enjoy going to the barbershop (the quality of the haircut never matters). Two weeks ago, I went back to my new favorite barbershop, just down the street from my house and downstairs from the Revolutionary Socialist Bolivarian Grocery. Pascual the referee was busy with another football fan, so I sat down in Gregorio’s chair just to the right. Gregorio’s mirror is framed with sticky-taped family pictures, a prayer card with the Virgin, a yellowed barber’s license. He has bright eyes behind thick glasses and white hair parted cleanly on the left.

Gregorio came from Sicily in 1955, at age 25, he tells me. I go silent for a second, my mental math obvious. Aha, he says: you’re adding up the bill! Sure enough, Gregorio is 81, turning 82 in December. At 15, he started working in his uncle’s barbershop in the old country. He’d do schoolwork and sweep up the customers’ hair while learning the trade. His only work, for 65 years, has been barbering; he’ll work until the day he can’t work any more, and then he’ll be ready to die. One has to stay active.

After the war (he was too young to fight, but he remembers it well), it was time for a young man to go adventuring. His wife was ready to go, too. He had uncles in Brooklyn, so they went there for a while, but it was too cold for his wife. Perhaps misunderstanding the climate situation, they settled in Montreal for a year or two. After Canada, it was time to follow her meteorological needs and head south to Venezuela, where she had a cousin. They’ve been here since, as have thousands of Italians like Pascual and most of their clientele.

Gregorio reaches behind the shampoo bottles to pull out pictures of his four grandchildren, recent university graduates working in Spain, Italy, Margarita Island here in Venezuela. Like him, they all speak Italian and Spanish, plus some English. It’s picture time in the barbershop: the guy in the next chair over is looking at photos from Pascual’s FIFA referee career and listening to the referee talk shit about the team.


When we’re done, Gregorio shows me the back of my head in the mirror. I grouse lightheartedly about the thinning circle on top. That’s normal, he says. Natural. What matters is your health. Sure, old man, I tell him–easy for you to say, with a strong crop growing back there. Well, it’s true, he admits, smiling slyly: I do have good hair. Always have.

Next update: a report from the road, cool stuff from my students, and more photos. Also, I promise no more barber stories for a while.





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