ROME DIARY: Pass the hairdryer, my peiga is just too much

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The Italians have got a thing about hair. I know this because a few years ago there was an advert on television for dandruff shampoo, or split ends, in which two glamorous professional women (the sort of people the papers here like to call donna manager to make them sound efficient and important) were exchanging small talk across their desks.

"Che stress!" the first one sighed melodramatically, even though she looked drop-dead gorgeous and unruffled by life's little vicissitudes.

"What is it? Your computer?" asked the other.

"No, it's my hair!"

Although this advert seemed hilarious, the Italians I knew thought it was a perfectly ordinary conversation for two immaculate fake blondes to be having in the course of a morning's work. Can't stop worrying about her hair? That sounds perfectly plausible to us, they said.

I also know the Italians have a thing about hair because of a curious recent opinion poll conducted by the state broadcasting network teletext service, in which viewers were asked to name their favourite pastime. The outright winner, picked by 68 per cent of respondents, was going for a hairdo.

Not watching football, not eating pasta, but a hairdo. I have visions of legions of Italians staring at themselves in the mirror each morning and wondering how many more days they will have to wait before they can at last justify another scintillating trip to the hairdressers'.

At last I understand why my own barber makes no effort to lure me in when I pass his shop. He must assume I'll be leaping into his reclining seat as soon as I can slot it in to my hectic schedule.

After all, the establishments near my house are usually brimming with customers demanding a cut, or blonde highlights, or just a "do", known in Italian as a piega. To this Anglo-Saxon sensibility, a piega is hell on a head - lots of useless bouffing and application of gel, resulting in a confection that doesn't so much resemble hair as an 18th-century wig. But Italians love it, and are apparently willing to pay extortionate sums to have one as often as possible (my wife has had to scour every hair salon in central Rome to find one that will cut her hair without insisting on the piega too).

So diffuse is the culture of the piega that one specialist salon operating near our house until recently even offered them to dogs. Outside, the shop sign announced canine stripping, trimming, toelettaggio and a host of other services, while inside the hapless pooches were chained to a medieval washbasin, given the once-over with shears, shampoo, conditioner and blowdryer, and then, the ordeal over, were served a congratulatory bowl of Weetabix out of industrial-sized sacks.

I have to confess my understanding of the Italian obsession with hair is probably more acute because I used to have a thing about hair myself. A couple of years ago, I became convinced I was losing great clumps of it. A kindly doctor eventually laughed in my face and told me to take life a little easier, but for a while I was scrupulously examining the manes of all around me to see who did, and who did not, have a Hair Loss Problem.

I recall a trip to Palermo. Sicilians are on average shorter than most Italians, so I could gaze down on their scalps with ease. I failed to enlighten myself much on my own hair loss, but I did see the most extraordinary parade of hairdressing artistry, particularly among the men - dark curls perfectly gelled into place, thinning patches brilliantly camouflaged with what meagre streaks were still available. I saw evidence of hours of painstaking labour, of visits to specialists, of scores of bottles on bathroom counters, of combs surreptitiously pulled out for little touch- ups. It had to be a labour of love.

And where there is love there may be fear. I suspect Italians are also scared stiff by the whole subject. This is a country where appearance is not only of paramount importance, but one where the right hairdo requires a balancing act of singular delicacy. Look too young and nobody will take you seriously. Look too old and your bella figura is shot to pieces. Thus the media magnate turned politician, Silvio Berlusconi, always insists on being photographed from his right (he looks less bald that way). Young people wanting to get ahead, meanwhile, either have their hair cropped conservatively short (men), or else (women) go in for the curlers-and- blowdry jobs one might have expected of their grandmothers. Foreigners like me can't hope to compete with this capillary obsession. I'm waiting for hats to come back into fashion.