Friday, April 28, 2006

The Zen of Being Shaved

The best pick-me-up in the world, as far as I'm concerned, is getting a shave at a barber shop. No matter how out-of-sorts, grimy, depressed and haggard I feel going in, I'm certain to leave floating on a cloud of foam and steel-induced bliss.

For those of you who haven't tried it, there is a whole ritual built around this particular aspect of male grooming. The barber's chair is reclined so you are more lying than sitting, and the barber places a scalding hot white flannel towel on your face. You lie still for a minute or so, and you can begin to feel the tension start to ooze away. If it is a particularly good barber (and I find Europeans are the best adherents to this tradition), the towel is discarded and the barber plies your cheeks and jowls roughly with both hands before putting a second steaming-hot towel on your face.

Out comes the mug and brush, and a layer of warm foam smelling faintly of Pine-sol is applied to your neck, cheeks and upper lip. The barber uses his fingers to push the work the cream into the moustache and sideburn areas.

The next sensation is auditory: the rhythmical swap swap swap of the straight blade razor as it is worked back and forth over the leather strop. It is at this time I remember that barbers originally were not hairstylists but bloodletters who would open up a vein to purge the system of unwanted humours. The red and white stripes on the barber pole outside traditional street barber shops are emblematic of blood and bandages, and harken back to the days of this profession's original purpose.

After the foam has set the facial hairs up properly and the straight blade is (hopefully) keen as possible, the actual shaving process begins. Most barbers begin with the neck, and I cannot describe the sensation of having a stranger hold a surgically sharp piece of steel right over your jugular except to say it is a moment of complete, almost delicious, surrender.

Shaving is a two-handed business: one hand on the razor scraping away foam and bristle while the other hand stretches the skin the make the beard stand up straight. Excess foam is wiped periodically on a towel drapped over the barber's shoulder, and he progresses from neck to cheek, then chin, upper lip and finally sideburns.

I once had a very assiduous barber who then reapplied foam and shaved me a second time, against the bias taking every bristle off seemingly beneath the skin. I highly recommend this, and it doesn't have to be for a special occasion.

After toweling off any stray foam, the finale is the application of an antiseptic lotion so sharp and astringent that your face seems to spring to life, revelling in its newfound self-awareness. The whole of this ritual is performed in silence and I like to do it with my eyes closed, which serves to focus the mind on tactile and olfactory sensations alone. It also adds to the solemnity of the proceedings and a sense of rebirth once the job is finished and you re-open your eyes.

Unfortunately, in this day of uni-sex hair salons, finding a barber who can shave you properly is becoming increasingly difficult. Freshly-minted barbers are much more likely to offer you a facial, perm or dye job than the centuries-old service of removing hair from your face and sending you back out the door a new man.

But for those of you who haven't had a shave and can afford the exorbitant prices charged nowadays, I highly recommend it.

[Ed. Note: This post is relatively late because I spent a long time looking for an appropriate graphic on Google Image Search. Key in "shaving" if you dare. Definitely NSFW, but the research was fun.]


Blogger Fuff said...

I'll give it a try Nanuk. Btw, wot's NSFW?

9:11 AM  
Blogger nanuk said...

Fuff: Not Suitable For Work. In otherwords - smut.

10:20 AM  
Blogger Fuff said...

Thanks for the enlightenment. Incidentally, most of the visits I get from google referrals are from people doing searches for hairy armpits, the opposite of your image search. I have googled the the term since, out of curiosity. Definitely a NSFW.

12:07 PM  
Blogger The Phosgene Kid said...

They don't offer a shave in most places here - I always liked when they used a razor to finish off the haircut, but the AIDs crap put an end to that.

7:32 PM  
Blogger Mr. Fabulous said...

Hmm..I may have to try that.

7:56 PM  
Blogger merlinprincesse said...

You guys are soooo lucky! Seems like a very meditative experience! :)

7:57 PM  
Blogger nanuk said...

TPK: I remember too about razors and AIDS, complete crap given the straightblades are soaked in an anitseptic.

Mr. Fab: Best thrill for under $20 bucks I can think of.

Merlinprincesse: It seems that most beauty treatments for women involve ripping out hair, plucking and applyin caustic chemicals. So I guess you can call us lucky.

10:51 PM  
Blogger Eternally Curious said...

It's truly a shame that so many of these old time "rituals" have gone by the wayside. Oddly enough, given my talkative nature, what appealed to me most was the whole quiet/meditative element of the procedure.

8:04 AM  
Blogger Tea and Books, etc said...

Goodness! The experience sounds practically ecstatic! :-)

In some places of ethnic areas (eg, Latino, Asian neighbourhoods) in the US, you can still get those razor shaves.

1:17 PM  
Blogger Anna said...

My grandfather was a barber once upon a time. When he passed away, my mom received his shaving tools. She said that just looking at the mug and strap was enough to evoke smells and sounds that she thought she'd lost forever...

2:06 PM  
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