Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Neighborhood Knife Sharpener

When I first moved to my neighborhood, every once in a while I would hear someone yelling some word at intervals. I thought it was a name, and this person was calling someone. It sounded like "OOOO TIIIII NOOOO!” I kept thinking: Tino, would you stop getting lost, for God's sake? But it kept happening, with a sort of regularity that I just couldn't make sense of. So I figured maybe it was a crazy person—I mean, how is it possible that the same person yells out the same name every week for the entire neighborhood to hear? As we say here when we have no idea about something: BOH.

One day when I heard it start up and Ale happened to be home, I said to him, “What IS that?”
He said, “Oh, that’s just the arrotino.”
“The WHAT?”
“You know, the guy who sharpens the knives.”

Um, ok. So, there’s this guy, you see. And he goes around my neighborhood to this day on Friday mornings, yelling out “AAA ROOOO TIIIII NOOOO!” in the apparent hope that people will come out of their houses with their knives for him to sharpen. I even read an article on Trastevere that says that people actually lower BASKETS from their windows, full of their knives to sharpen. Besides sounding quite perilous, is that not just a little too quaint, a little too nostalgic, even for my old-fashioned neighborhood? Is it possible?

In doing a bit of research for this post, I have come to learn that I am not the only one puzzled by this most mysterious figure. I myself have only actually seen him once. He rides around on a makeshift bicycle, and when there are knives to sharpen, he flips it over and turns the pedals with his hands to run the wheel that sharpens the knives.

I found some discussions in Italian about this and came up with two photos. Many of the Italians on the forums couldn’t believe that someone had actually captured a traditional arrotino in flesh and blood:

But folks, it doesn’t stop there. There is an even more high-tech version of the arrotino. Once when I understood Italian better, I was over at a friend’s house and heard something coming over a loudspeaker from outside. The piped-through-a-megaphone voice was shouting this: “Donne! E’ arrivato l’arrotino!” Basically it was a recorded voice yelling “Women! The knife sharpener has arrived!” My friends told me it was a classic thing that they had always heard as they were growing up. They said a car with loudspeakers tied to it would slowly drive around to announce "the arrival." They could all recite the recording by heart, word for word, which had me laughing. In fact, I found a hilarious yet very informative blog post that talks about this phenomenon, (unfortunately only in Italian), in which Mr. Diego tells us that the voice says the same thing and is the same man in ALL OF ITALY. It’s a recording and none of the Italians I found online seem to know who this famous man actually is. Does he really exist?

When I first heard it, I thought this whole recording was so incredibly, well, fifties. I mean, come on—did people really go outside to have this guy sharpen their knives? Yelling: "Women!" I’d never even heard of such a thing and was immediately intrigued.

I found an mp3/Flash video file that records the voice. It’s a funny article in Italian asking: Who is the Knife Sharpener? You can listen to it here (if you don't read Italian, click on "avanti" to go through the screens first, to get to the audio file. Even if you don't speak Italian, it's worth a look.) Here’s the translation (very loosely, as I did it myself) of what he says:

Women! The knife sharpener has arrived!
He sharpens knives, scissors, little scissors, silk scissors, prosciutto knives!
Women! The knife sharpener and umbrella repairman has arrived!
We fix umbrellas! The umbrella repairman, women!
We repair gas kitchens! We have replacement parts for gas kitchens!
If you have a gas leak we fix it! If your kitchen smokes, we take the smoke out of your gas kitchen! We work right away! Immediately! The knife sharpener has arrived!

In Mr. Diego’s post, he even mentions “my” arrotino here in Trastevere, one of the last of the traditional knife sharpeners. He asks if nowadays anyone really comes out of their houses with knives and umbrellas, and notes that the “gas kitchen” mentioned on the recording no longer exists. Yet, the omnipresent recording persists. Truth be told, many butchers still utilize this service, and the one time I saw my biking arrotino in action was when he was sharpening knives for the fruit seller in front of my house. These are the things that remind me that Trastevere is probably the only true village left in this big capital city, and I hope that enough people keep lowering baskets full of knives (slowly and carefully, of course, so as to avoid any unfortunate "mishaps") to have my arrotino pedaling along for many years to come.

So, another local mystery, somewhat solved...all that was missing was some evidence that I had actually seen an arrotino in action. Well, I guess the guardian angel of bloggers decided to smile down on me, because, although I had never actually seen one of these cars driving around before, only heard it coming from who knows where...just a few days after I wrote a draft of this post to publish later, I was walking down the street and I heard his native call! I felt like I was spotting an exotic animal on an urban jungle safari. I struggled with my camera: hurry, hurry, he's coming this way! And in the end, I got it. Not very exciting, I grant you, and I'm quite convinced that the arrotino himself thought I was either out of my mind or a very confused tourist (um, the Colosseum is THAT way) but still, proof that the elusive figure known as the arrotino does still exist. And his car's not all that shabby, either. Business must be good in the umbrella-repairing field lately. It is raining today, after all.


Expat Traveler said...

Shelly this is so cool! I just asked P about it and he said, this was totally normal. Just like a butcher etc., especially some 100 years ago...

I guess he knows more than we do about this. I'm happy you got to capture this.. So cool!

Julie said...


avery said...

Great post.
I've heard this in my neighborhood as well! That is so funny. I never understood what was blaring over the loudspeaker until recently but every so often there is a knife sharpener that drives by.....
And there is the dearest sweetest guy that comes by our restaurant in Piazza Cavour every two weeks that sharpens our knives for about 5 euro and he only has one hand. Crazy, but I never had the gall to ask him what happened. He's great at sharpening knives though!

Ekimrue said...

Would you please ask hime to stop by Port Orchard, WA next Friday? Our knives always need sharpening.

sognatrice said...

We actually don't have an official one of these in my my fidanzato is quickly becoming the go-to guy in the knife sharpening area (his father used to be the unofficial one, apparently, but he's moved down to the marina village). No matter what, though, I *refuse* to let him use a loudspeaker! Very funny post :)

Mr. Diego said...

Hi Shelley, thanks a lot for mentioning me in your very exhaustive post about the "arrotino" guy.
Actually there are two posts of mine about that sort of mythological figure, of which the second is this one (complete with a couple well made recordings of the "Call of the Arrotino"... how does that sound? ;-))

East of Oregon said...

This is such an interesting post! And funny and historic all at the same time.. thanks! take care :)

FinnyKnits said...

Another great nugget about life in Rome. Love, love, love it. Exotic safari creature for sure. With it's own mating call!

Hey, do you suppose this is what those folks were doing in Napoli when they were lowering baskets from their windows?

Jul said...

That is too cool! We need one of those here (not that the yelling would fly in CH) - my knives are so tragically dull.

Dixie said...

I absolutely love this! I feel like I've soaked up some important local culture.

Fantastic that you were able to capture the announcement car. You must have been thrilled!

liuia drusilla said...

A paralelism again ^^U: here in Spain they play a flute called "xipro" -here you'll find how to make one ^^ and here you can listen to it- they usually ride a bike like your arrotino trasteverino ;), but I've never seen one travelling by car @_@.