Franco the Barber

Corso Garabaldi in Perugia, Italy is a straight, steady incline sprinkled with business and homes,  locals and international students in a daily rhythm of feet moving in each direction.  At the base is the University for Foreigners and the best sandwiches you’ll ever experience, and the higher you go the quieter it starts to get. At the top, a circular 5th century church that once had Templar Knights association is now a popular wedding spot with a 4 year waiting list, and beyond it a tranquil convent welcomes students to stay during their studying abroad.

Little slices of life in shops no bigger than a dorm room pepper the street. It’s here walking uphill that you’ll find Franco the barber.

We’ve come today because John is in desperate need of a haircut. His thick, crowning glory is no match for the weak clippers found in the little cell phone shop across town that happens to have a selection of home goods, so he has surrendered his mop to the hands of an expert.

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His wood paneled shop smells like barbicide and is straight out of the 60s. Two chairs face large mirrors, but one seems to get the most use and its red leather cushion is worn with decades of haircuts and conversation. A pale blue sink displays shaving instruments and a paisley cape hangs ready for the next customer.

Everything in the store is what you’d expect…except for the display of hand-carved walking sticks arranged at the front window marked “For Sale”. Franco’s passion is wood carving, and he finds sturdy branches with odd shapes to coax figures from when the shop is closed. The long sticks are molded into art that he draws out of the natural growth and the will of the wood. Each has a distinct personality and cost between 30-100 Euro.

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Cutting hair and carving wood are the same, no? Working with what is in front of you and seeing the potential. It is a passion that makes the most sense for a barber, it’s hard to imagine anything suiting anyone more perfectly. After 45 years of cutting hair, Franco is retiring in May. His plan is to focus on his walking sticks.

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By now Franco has made a significant dent in John’s luscious locks and he’s already looking less haggard. You can see his jawline that was lost months ago to Septem-beard, Octo-beard and No-Shave-ember. Franco comments that his face is going to be frozen off now that he’s shedding his only protection to the elements. It’s the first frigid evening of the season that has the city all shaking, so it seems foolish to get rid of his built in face scarf. Nonetheless, Franco continues.

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Behind the action is a photo of an old man driving a toilet car (Yes, you read that right). The man in question was a local character; a free soul, philosopher, and inventor who endlessly tinkered in his home near the barber’s shop. He never worked and the only job Franco recalled was a brief stint as a dog walker. The inventor created the functional scooter/toilet as the sole transportation he would use to get around town, creating quite the image to out-of-towners. A local legend, one of those people that become an institution with fact evolving into myth. He passed away 8 years ago at the ripe age of 94.

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Franco works swiftly, he seems like a really cool guy. A well kept goatee and snazzy glasses makes him look like a hip craftsman that wouldn’t be out of place at an pop-up market selling his handmade walking sticks. If only my Italian was fluent enough to hold a conversation. For now, I snap away and listen to the bits I can understand of the conversation between him and our translator, Andreas.

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Fluffly white foam covers John’s face and he emerges a new man. A shave and a haircut at a barber shop are a relaxing change of pace from the traveling and trudging he’s been up to. It probably won’t take too much convincing to return again before May.

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