Nino has been the barber of Taormina for more than 50 years. In his barber shop the locals shaved their beards, hair, listened to games and played cards with the scenery of Taormina and the Sicilian sea in the background.
Half past seven in the morning. In front, the sea is calm after a dip and the sun is starting to warm up. Antonino Di Franco, known as Nino il Barbiere, greets the only people with us on the beach: a gentleman and a fisherman whose boat everyone knows, with its red and baroque designs, very Sicilian.
“I have been retired for two years. I already had enough so I retired early, ”Nino tells me. Retirement is always an excellent topic of discussion in Italy. “I remember that in recent years I used to go to work with the Vespa, I passed by the seafront, right up there, and I thought: one day I will take the same route to go to the beach and not to work.”
The village barber is not just someone who cuts hair and beards, he is a confessor, a teacher, a character who must be trusted before entrusting your skin to a blade. He is an entertainer, often playing a musical instrument. In Sicily he can also be a magician. He cuts beards, but also removes the malocchio (evil eye). He is an unlicensed doctor, but with the same experience. And Nino has been all these things, in a dimension that is analogue and moves calmly instead of time that now runs insatiably fast.
Nino is 68 years old, the best known barber in Taormina and Giardini Naxos, right at the foot of the fortress, for 55 years. His back is slightly hunched, a perfectly manicured white beard, a small figure. Anyone passing by wanted a beard crafted by Nino the Barber. The doctor, the fishmonger, the tobacconist, the wealthy local gentlemen, but also the tourists who crowded the roads and alleys of Taormina since the 1960s. One of those tourists, Ingrid, from Sweden, married him.
I imagine him at twelve years old, as he recalls, standing upright ready to sweep the hair that his boss cut for customers in Francavilla di Sicilia, where he was born. “After months during which my job was to sweep hair and watch the boss’s gestures, I was able to have my first soap.” The brush, wet under water, hot in winter but also cold in summer, passed in Proraso soap to whip a cream. The dull sound of the bristles rubbing on the face, a very important, solemn moment, which serves to collect the beard. Two fingers tap on the skin to soften and open the pores.
“The first beard I shaved was my father’s, after a year. I was tired of just making soap,” says Nino. “Shaving was very difficult and scary.” The blade, the ancient ones, which were sharpened on the tear, travels obliquely. Care must be taken that the cream does not dry out, be quick and let your hands do their job. “Pull the skin, pull the skin or the razor doesn’t walk!” his father tells him. “But my hands were shaking, indeed, my whole body.”
Nino likes to say that after a few months he was already number one. He says that what he is telling is the story of a small, great barber. And the best, as you know, work in the best places. He started working in Taormina, in the center of the town, a stone’s throw from the view that embraces the coast and Mount Etna, which over there they don’t call a volcano, but a lady. A gruff lady to whom the inhabitants look kindly even when she lets out a little, with those puffs of smoke and lava.
“In Taormina I worked for Alfio il Genovese, who gave me food, a cot in the shop and 300 lire a week. I got up at a quarter to seven to go shave the sick in the hospital. “
Nino’s salon wasn’t just the place for a shave. It was the place to spend time, like a bar in the piazza. There were unspoken rules to be respected. When the salon reopened after the lunch break whoever arrived last had to bring coffee for everyone. The youngest of those present had to take the broom and sweep hair while the barbers were busy.
“We listened to the games on the radio on Saturdays and the songs on the other days,” says Nino. “There were those who read the newspaper, those who played cards and everyone smoked. We also organized checkers tournaments and in the off time we played instruments and sang all together.”
The bluish smoky air was the constant companion of all those gentlemen and boys who passed the time. Also of Nino, of course, who shaved with his expert hand, holding his razor “a piombo“, as he says, while squinting so as not to let the smoke into his eyes. He wiped the razor on the football bets played and lost.
The 70s patterned walls were the setting for perfect shaves and stories, and so too the walls of customer’s homes if they urgently needed a shave. Stories that Nino pulled out like a surgeon from the mouths of clients and others, secrets that he swore to keep to himself… Almost. Like the baker’s little secret: “Once a month I had to get up at five to dye the baker’s hair. He wanted it done soon, so no one could see him. “
The barber is not only the one who cuts the hair, who makes the faces presentable and clean, cleans the face of blackheads between one cut and the next; he also gave shots in the back of the shop and knows how to remove the minneddi, those pieces of skin that grow on the body for no apparent reason. A sort-of magician taught him when he was a kid; while his partner Carmelo had the task of removing the evil eye; popular miracles.
When he points me to the promenade from the beach, now that he finally goes to the sea with his Vespa, I see him running in the direction of the salon. “I absolutely don’t miss it,” he says confidently. And I believe it. But he shaves the fishmonger’s beard in the fishmonger’s bathroom when he can. Strictly paid in fish or cigarette packs.
He did it to me too.
As the razor passes lightly and quickly over my face I understand why everyone thinks it’s the best.
“I told you,” he says as if he had read my mind.