‘People here in London prefer to go to the smaller salons. Most of the bigger chains only train their employees in one way, they copy everything. They have a look book that they’ll follow, instead of creating anything on their own. As a hairdresser, you work with different personalities, which requires different skills. Being Lebanese, I know a lot about Middle Eastern hair.’
It’s thicker, I assume?
It’s a mixture, really. Thick, curly, straight, wavy, blonde and dark. Working in Hampton you work with all sorts of hair. I get English customers, but also Americans, Germans and Russians. A lot of people come here to have their hair cut when they’re on holiday, because it’s cheaper here.
So your customers come and go; you only see them once? Emile shakes his head. ‘I think ten percent is tourists, the rest is regular customers.’
We meet up in Emile’s salon, in the West of London. The salon is situated in a quiet street where residents make their way to work and entrepreneurs chat with one another when business is slow. The shop is divided into two smaller salons; one for cutting hair, and one for manicures and pedicures. ‘Londoners are always in a hurry. To make it convenient for them we have everything in the same place. We can do something in two hours which normally takes four hours.’
Yes, people here are pressed for time – such speed, everybody’s busy. Was it difficult for you to adapt to this pace?
‘Not really. I’m from Beirut, Lebanon where we don’t have tubes or an underground. This means much more people walking in the streets; it’s a lot louder. More similar to Rome and Barcelona.’ More Mediterranean. ‘Right. Here, it’s not as loud, not as unorganized. It’s organized fast. Actually maybe people are faster because it’s organized.’ Emile smiles at me, visibly content with this conclusion.
The salon is not very big and the furniture is simple. The room is lit by a few fluorescent lights and decorated with posters of good looking women with perfect, shiny hair. The radio is on quite loud, giving the salon a homey feeling. I can barely restrain myself from singing along with Queen.
What do you like most about your job?
The whole package. The customer comes here to feel good so I like to create a nice atmosphere. I give her a good haircut and make her happy, I feel happy myself. This means you have to talk less, listen more. Sometimes people come with stress and they’ll tell you a lot. They really feel better when you listen to them.’
Many hair dressers are practically psychologists, I guess
Yeah. Apparently, women tend to tell their hair dresser more than their psychiatrist.
Let alone their husband, he’s number three. ‘Right!’ Emile chuckles. The girl behind the counter giggles.
A few grey hairs are mingled with Emile’s thick black hair. He has a five-o-clock shadow, casual but not sloppy. His friendly eyes and easy laughter suggest he’s the laid-back kind of boss; the one who sincerely asks about your weekend and treats customers like old friends.
Besides fast, London is also very money-oriented, right?
It depends on what you’re here for. Some are here for the experience, they don’t care about the money. They live with five to six people in one apartment. They don’t mind living in humble apartments, they come for the experience and to study and then they go back. What I’m saying is, money is important everywhere.
True. But I feel like in London, a lot of rich Arab people buy houses they only live in during the summer.
True, most of London has been bought with foreign money. Not only from Arabs, also from Chinese and Russians. You can ask anyone who knows anything about investing and they’ll tell you the same: we need this money. Some people say London is becoming a place only for rich people; it always was.’
Seventeen years ago, Emile moved from Beirut to London. Having finished his training, he had already been a hair dresser for years. ‘I am still learning though, even here I attend a lot of courses.’ In London he met his wife, who comes from Poland, and with whom he has three kids. An international bunch.
Many Brits speak of Europe as “the continent”. They don’t seem to feel –
‘You’re in London’, Emile interrupts me. ‘You’re not in England. If you want to know about English people, don’t come to London. As a Londoner, I can tell you I feel European. Ask people in Liverpool or Manchester and they’ll tell you they don’t. London is London, and London is Europe because it’s so mixed.
I asked European people if there’s something like a European identity. Most of them don’t know, while people from outside of Europe can tell you instantly what’s typically European. Can you?
Emile frowns his face, almost covering his eyes with his brushy eyebrows. ‘I don’t think so Spanish, Portuguese, Finish; it’s all different.’ They have nothing in common? ‘Perhaps they do, But I don’t see a Dutch person making all these gestures when they speak, like Italians do. And even among cities there are a lot of differences. A Londoner is very different from someone from Manchester.’
So it’d be hard for you to tell me the difference between a European and a South American?
‘I could tell you ‘that’s typically South American’, but a French person can have those same traits. Having lived here for seventeen years, of course I can tell the difference between an Italian and a Swede. But I can’t tell you anything typically European.’
Because of EU regulations it’s easier for Europeans to come and work in London, which many people do. Is that a good thing?
I think so. Everybody coming in brings their knowledge, their best. I think anybody can come work here, but entrepreneurs should stop taking advantage of foreigners. They think “Oh, he’s from Europe – I can give him less money because I know he’ll take it anyway”. I don’t know about the rules around minimum wage but I don’t think it should be allowed to pay people less than English people. It’s good to have some competition.’
I heard Cameron saying that England shouldn’t allow any more foreigners to come work here, especially those from Eastern Europe. He said it had become too easy, this free transfer of labour thing.
Emile shakes his head. ‘But they’re not bringing anything bad. And I’m not just saying this because my wife is Polish. I experienced those people, they’re hard workers. Some are dodgy, of course. But when Europeans come here buying a house, opening restaurants and paying their taxes; what’s the problem? When you work here, you spend here; London is not cheap so you have to. That means London money is staying in London. You can come here for the experience, but at a certain point you have to start working. And then years later, you move out of London again. Just like I did.’
(interview by Mark, written by Sophie Moerman)