January 18, 2009


I’ve been needing for some while now to get my hair done again here. The last time was a complete disaster. And not because it was in Spain. I can only too well recall the time I had my hair done very expensively at a top salon in London - only to emerge looking like one of the stylists who all had the same ‘house’ style and obviously practised on one another. And this despite explaining very clearly beforehand what I’d wanted…

So, it was with some trepidation that, just before Christmas, I approached a Spanish hairdressing salon called Mary where I knew Señora Noriega (coincidentally, another Mary) went. Now Mary may be an English name but that’s where any similarity ends. Spanish Mary speaks only Andaluz - the local, well, Andalucian patois - and I speak broken, self-taught Spanish. Imagine a conversation between a Geordie and a Martian who’s learnt basic English from a BBC language course and you get the idea.

Mary, who runs her small salon on her own, made it clear she didn’t like the interruption from a potential new client. She had one client’s hair to wash and another to tint. She scowled as she tore herself away from them to check her appointments book. No, she couldn’t possibly fit me in until well into the New Year. Why not, when her appointments book still showed a few gaps?

The reason, she added disparagingly while grabbing a tuft of my hair, was that it was in such a bad condition she would need at least several hours to hope to make anything of it. I couldn’t wait another month - I was beginning to resemble Geoffrey Howe’s mauled sheep - so I racked my brain for any recommendations received in the past year and called around friends.

"There is someone I like a lot but, of course, I do have thick hair which is so easy to manage," purred one, a beautiful Dutch girl. Great! So it’s an open secret I’ve got lousy, difficult hair! "Look, I’m getting desperate so give me her number or I won’t speak to you ever again!" I wailed into the phone.

An hour later, I was sitting in the tiny, shoe-box salon of hairdresser number two. Like hairdresser number one, she worked alone and was in great demand but, unlike Spanish Mary, she spent the half hour of her lunch break talking through the options including dietary advice. Yes, by now my hair was running the risk of becoming so self-important it might even have got its own show in the UK.

The bottom line is that the second hairdresser, a smiling Scandinavian, has booked me in for a long, therapeutic session before my research trip to Cambodia and Laos next week. And her name is…Mary.

Now, this isn’t a mini gripe against Spanish hairdressers - after all, the disaster I mentioned earlier was at a British-run salon - but at the difference in customer care. Spanish Mary is surrounded by customers for now - as she has been throughout all the boom years Spain has enjoyed. However, even Spanish Mary can’t have failed to notice that times, they are a’changing and that, in a failing economy, attitudes need to change too. Towards customer care in general - not just in service industries but in the professions too. As the other Mary so effortlessly demonstrated.

And so - perhaps appropriately as the time of year of my initial visits - a tale of two Marys…

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