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.”
“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.)
[Update October 2013. Those links are broken. So I found the below clip from Youtube which is better.]
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.