How Not To Be Understood

By Shawn Lomax

Speaking Spanish has its disadvantages, as well as its dangers. Having a grip on the language, you get too confident. You lose your wariness and your ability to insist through gestures. You tend to think that people understand you, and, worse still, they come to the conclusion that you understand them. And you end up with a mop and bucket, looking like a half-shaved hearthrug. Or at least I did. You see this week my humble adequacy with the language has left me washing the entrance and between floors of my building, and with the worst haircut of my life.

Recently paid, I found myself deep in the conviction that a haircut was to be had before it was too late and the money got spent on other, sweeter things. Having decided, and properly launched into the act, I was frustrated to find the stairs blocked by two wizened neighbors in full flood. Not even seeming to notice, they simply absorbed me into the tide of their complaint.

With pinched suspicion spilling over into suspicious hostility, my elderly distressed housecoat of a downstairs neighbor directed her crumpled stocking complexion at me in a burst of “We’re not gypsies, you know. We all have to clean the stairs.” Taken aback several meters, I flailed for an adequate response. Something superior but sharp, along the lines of “Well you can mention it at the next meeting of the Comunidad, which would incidentally be my first, thank you ladies. Goodbye and pleased to meet you,” would have been good. Something subtle in defense of gypsies would have been better. But instead I was an immediately sullen seven year old, angry to be told that he hadn’t cleaned his room properly, when he had cleaned it. He had. He had. But really he hadn’t, and hated to be told it, so he just jammed his fists in his pockets and sulked his way through the harangue without looking at them.

The fact that the stairway of the building is, strictly speaking, unclean able, doesn’t really come into it. The decrepit seediness of the place was one of the things that first attracted me to it, with its banisters a fragile wrought iron memory of better, nineteenth century times, walls bulging south and flaking paint like a shabby but distinguished bachelor whose dandruff is somehow an acceptable part of his condition.

Were this not enough, next door is a building site and the windows of the stairwell lack glass, so keeping the cracked raw meat colored floor tiles clean would be a permanent occupation, as well as a waste of time. But try explaining that to two old marujas who have dedicated their lives to the extinction of the stain, whose human pride consists in the inhuman perfection of an interior living space X meters squared, who not only scrub and polish every imaginable surface daily, but consider it an aberration from the norm and a disgusting slippage into decadence should others fail to follow suit. You think I’m exaggerating? Try living here. Cleaning is more than a profession for those without employment; it’s a passion that suffers no competition, except perhaps complaining. Particularly complaining about how filthy their neighbors are. Particularly me, because I’m here and I give signs of understanding them. They can’t complain to my landlord because he’s never there. And my blond, eight foot, unfortunately male Dutch flat mate would just shrug in that blond good natured Dutch way, effectively explaining that he didn’t understand a word. Which left muggins, who understood without being able to retaliate, blushing his way down the stairs, furiously exercising his esprit d’escalier all the way to the hairdresser’s.

My state of frustration-enhanced ineptitude may have made me forget the one thing I’ve learnt about getting your hair cut: If you don’t like the hairstyle of the person proposing to adjust yours, better go somewhere else. In this case it was so obvious as to be laughable in retrospect. And, given the rate my hair grows, that will be in a month or two.

There was a thunderstorm going on at the time, and that might have distracted or excited him. Come to think of it, there was something of the Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein about him, and more of the Igor. His hair rose up in tufts around his head like dust thrown up by the impact of an explosion. His eyes followed me remotely through glasses unfashionable before there were fashions in such things. But he nodded at the end of my explanation so I thought he understood.

Even in English I never feel like I’m asking for something normal in a hairdresser’s. And this sense of insecurity, compounded by the uncertainty of the translation “just give it shape”, and together with what little I know of Spanish grooming tendencies “not classical” , “more modern”, conspired to leave me somewhere between Hitler youth and the chorus from Grease.

I should have known better. I should have left when I could. But I was suffering that strange inertia of the barber’s chair, when you’ve already surrendered to stronger opinions about how you are going to look. Anyway, he had seemed to accept that I didn’t want to look very different. And then he took a razor and shaved the hair off the back of my head. Then he did the same to the sides. And, after fussing merrily at the top with a scissors for some minutes, he slapped down the rough edges with gel, smiled, and handed me a clothes brush. And that was it.

Back on the street the rain washed a sticky itchy mixture of gel and hair ends down the back of my neck. Shop windows reflected a derangement of ominous spiky bits. Once home the brutal honesty of the bathroom mirror confirmed that my head was now host to an irregular and inexpert wigwam. All of which made washing dust off the stairs seem like not such a bad idea, or at least a release for an accumulation of frustrations that may have brought me closer to my neighbors without persuading me that it’s a good place to be. I doubt they’ve noticed the stairs have been cleaned, but at least my new look gives them something else to criticize.

Shawn Lomax is a writer of sketch pieces and reviews. He lives and works in Barcelona, Spain.

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