Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Turkish Kuafors

I have learned many lessons from living in Turkey. One of those is, there is nothing wrong with taking time for yourself to look good. Turkish women always look beautiful and well manicured. I quickly learned this is with a little help. They all go to the salons to their hairdresser, or kuafor, regularly. I am not sure of the history of this or how this came about. In the past there was a regular trip to the hamam. Since the word kuafor is French, I do not know if there is any influence from there. However, many Western countries were often influenced by what they found when visiting the Ottoman Empire.

I have been going to the same kuafor for at least 10 years now. When I first moved to Turkey I was a typical American and did my own hair and make up. I found it quite frivolous to always be done up for nights out on the weekend. I was quite okay with myself and dried my own hair. I would get it colored and cut as needed, but that was about it.

For the first few years I was in Istanbul, I took Turkish lessons a few times a week. I worked, so I always took evening classes. However, since Istanbul has so much traffic, timing is everything. I had a very short window of opportunity to get to my 6:00pm class before the evening traffic began, which would make me very late for class if I got stuck in it. Its amazing what a difference 30 minutes could make. I hated to get there so early, but if I didn't leave around that same time every day, I would be better off staying at work.

Some days I was amazed and there would be less traffic for no obvious reason and I would have more time to use than usual. Not really sure what to do, one day, I got up enough courage to walk into a salon to try out having a manicure and pedicure. I had done it a few times when I had my hair cut and it looked quite nice. Well, I still didn't know Turkish very well so it was a challenge to communicate. Fortunately, the basics were easy - manicure, pedicure, color, but any discussion beyond that was out of the question.

Every time I would go, I would ask for the same girl who was very good. Her name is Senay. Slowly she began to understand me and my poor Turkish. As I learned a few more words everyday, we could slowly communicate more. One day she told me she was going to another salon. I really appreciated her work, and it was just a few blocks away, so I followed her there and went on the weekends whenever I could. She was great, and really one of the first people I could converse with in Turkish - granted I was doing it badly, but I was doing it.

One day I had somewhere to go, so I decided to get my hair done. That was a nice experience and it would look 10 times better than anything I would even attempt, so for a special occasion every now and then, I would do it. The challenge then becomes that you get used to seeing your hair that way and you prefer it to look that way all the time. It was also not very expensive, so that made it even more tempting.

I was still not very enthusiastic about getting a hair cut though. Any kind of blow-dry or up-do that you wanted, it was always amazing, but my experience with hair cuts was awful. Friends would take me to the most well reputed places and the cuts I would get were just awful. At one point I wanted a shorter hair cut - kind of a long short hair cut. In what Turkish I knew, I explained, took pictures. Even showed the guy what I did NOT want - a mushroom. What did I get? A mushroom. I made him do it again and cut even more off because I did not want that haircut. He wasn' t happy and neither was I. I didn't want shorter hair, but that was better than looking like a mushroom.

I tried to have my hair cut where Senay worked, but it still wasn't quite getting to where I wanted. For years after that I went to the woman who did my husband's hair. Men and women's salons are a very separate thing in Turkey, but after probably at least three or possibly four years, I was fed up and had enough bad hair days. She agreed to do it. Usually men cut hair in Turkey - this is both the case for men and women. So when I would come to the men's side of the salon to have her cut my hair, it was all a big deal. She was great and would always tell the guys working there I went to her because none of them, the men, could do a good job.

Well, one day Senay changed salons again. I quickly learned that people in the beauty industry move around quite a bit in Istanbul. In many ways this doesn't surprise me. They start very young - as soon as they finish the required level of grade school, or sometimes even younger. They work under someone as kind of an apprenticeship. Girls who wish to do manicures and pedicures will work as an assistant to someone and get their supplies, water or whatever is needed. The guys who wish to cut hair start at the bottom, sweeping up the hair, washing hair, etc. There is no training on paper. For those who have become successful and can afford it, they travel to Paris once a year for a course in new techniques. Something probably sponsored by Loreal or some other name brand. In addition to the education, I am sure it is a great thing for them to travel as well since getting a tourist visa to enter Western countries with a Turkish passport isn't always the easiest thing to achieve.

There were new guys who were fixing hair and that was fine. I would still get my occasional blow dry and still get a cut from my husband's place. Then, one day Senay convinced me to let this guy named Suat cut my hair. She said he was very good and wouldn't cut too much. - Another thing I knew from experience about the average Turkish kuafor, they are heavy handed with the scissors. At that point I had known Senay for several years, and I had to trust her. I mean after all, she convinced me that it was okay to be a little daring and wear red nail polish sometimes and that waxing was much better than shaving! Ouch! I must say though, she was right and I do not miss shaving at all.

So, I agreed. Before Suat took the scissors to my hair, she warned him: "Don't cut too much or Pam will never come back again". He paused, not sure if she was joking or not. I also thought he might actually do a good job because I had watched him do many hair colors, highlights and cuts when I was getting my manicure and pedicure. Honestly, I was always so impressed. All the women looked fabulous. I was also a wee bit envious of their beautiful auburn hair and the colors he applied to enrich that were gorgeous.

And the results. Wow. It was the first time ever I really was so pleased with a haircut by someone at a women's salon. I could have hugged him! After that he was the main man and I kept going back to him. I would also get many compliments on my hair as a result. As my husband changed his job and moved to another company that was amazing, and still is, in supporting the arts in Turkey, we had more occasions for "special event hair" so I became more experimental with up-dos and more comfortable with him.

After several years of several shades of blonde, I decided to be daring and try something different. I went a little darker. Nothing too crazy, but a nice chestnut brown. I really enjoyed that, but what I really wanted was that amazing auburn hair color that I always saw and loved. So I did it. I really liked it. After that, I would pretty much let him do what he was in the mood to do with my hair. Of course we would discuss it, but I was always open to whatever he was thinking.

So now that I am living in Dubai, I don't really have anyone specific I prefer to do my hair. I've tried a few, and there is no one I've come across yet who is really that good. This is why almost every time I go to Istanbul, I pay him a visit for a color and cut. Since those visits are several months in between, I don't do anything too extravagant. I keep my hair long because I would not trust anyone in Dubai to do a good job of anything outside of a trim, and the color or highlights I've had have been a bit off.

So, of course on this last trip on the first day I knew I would go to Suat. He just recently left the last salon he was at and now has a place of his own, with his own name on it. Regardless, even before the service I always received from him and his team was great. This time we had an interesting thing happen. The electricity went out. Istanbul is not unknown to this happening from time to time. It decreased over the years, but still people were used to it. I was getting some highlights and needed those washed out, but they were worried because no electricity meant no hot water. I didn't mind. The weather was cold and rainy outside, but more important that my hair is not over highlighted, so I can take the cold water for that.

They wouldn't have any of that, so they washed my hair, but mixed it with hot water they boiled in the kettle. That was very nice of them. We had finished and still the electricity was not back on. In true Turkish fashion, they were quick to find a solution and called another salon a few blocks away to see if they had electricity and if we could finish up there. So, me with my head wrapped in a towel, my kuafor with his box of scissors and one of his assistants jumped in his car and went to another place. However, of course just as we were about to arrive he got a call. The electricity came back on. That wasn't so bad, and I got a little tour of the neighborhood nearby where I used to live that I wouldn't have seen otherwise.

In addition to this, I had another surprise waiting for me. Suat's birthday is the same day as my husband's, which happens to be the day after mine. Every year he remembers that and they've given me flowers, or done something to celebrate. Since I don't live in Istanbul, we celebrated early and he sent out one of his guys to buy a bottle of wine. So, I got to enjoy my hair cut with a nice glass of Turkish white wine. Very thoughtful, and very excellent, personalized service that you won't find anywhere else! When something is good in Turkey, its really good and this is a true example of how hard working and entrepreneurial they can be.

Of course we have a special relationship as we've known each other for several years and through several salons, several colors and hair styles, life events - births, deaths.... I realize Turkish women have a very special relationship with their kuafor. When they are seeing them at least once a week, or maybe more as I am not sure what the average statistic is for weekly visits, they become a part of your life. Women put a lot of trust in them - both physically and perhaps psychologically as they share a lot of personal information with them over time.

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