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The Knife Sharpener Has Retired

Knife sharpener in Anghiari

I love my village.  It has everything I need and I could live here without ever straying beyond it’s tidy stone walls.  But I do stray, partly because that’s my nature, but mostly because like small towns everywhere, there is bigger and better just over the border.

Anghiari is a town of about 5,000 inhabitants.  Greater Anghiari is probably twice that size, but I’m talking about the town proper.  These medieval villages were designed to keep bad guys out and provide everything the residents could want.  That tradition carried forward long past the time when marauding armies could show up at a moment’s notice for a little sack and pillage.  Every village, no matter how small, has the basics – a baker, a butcher, an orto-frutta (fruit and veggies), a bar, and a farmacia (pharmacy).  You won’t find a big grocery store or a Brico (like a Home Depot).  There may or may not be a hardware store.  The basics.  Food and medicine.  And these places are just as much for socializing as they are for providing necessities.

Anghiari has more variety than most towns this size.  In addition to the basics, Anghiari has a wealth of food options ranging from slices of pizza to fine dining.  A host of bars, gelato places, clothing shops, gift shops, hair salons, general store-type places where you can get pitchforks and paper towels in the same trip.  The world famous Busatti linen company is headquartered here with a lovely shop.  There are churches (all Catholic) and schools and museums and a performing arts theater.  And until just recently, a knife sharpener.

One day we noticed that Fabio the knife sharpener was clearing out his shop.  Now this may not seem like a big deal to you, but having our own knife sharpener within walking distance was a luxury beyond words.  I can’t tell you how many times in Atlanta I tried to find someone to sharpen my knives only to be led from place to place and finally finding a place that had someone come and pick them up once a week.  And charging about $10 per knife.  Fabio charged three euro and I could drop them off and pick them up in a few days.  No names, no claim tickets, no paying in advance.  I just went into his ridiculously untidy shop and picked my way to the counter, stepping over piles of chain saws and stacks of ax handles and offered my knives to him.  He would nod and we would exchange pleasantries and I was on my way.  When I came to pick them up he would ceremoniously hold a sheet of paper aloft and slice through it like a whisper to prove just how sharp he had managed to make my butcher knife.

But no more.  Fabio has sharpened my last knife and if I had known he was retiring I would have gathered anything I have with a blade and taken it to him for one last honing.  There was no closing soon sign plastered on his door, no going out of business sale, no warning at all of his impending retirement.  The locals here knew it like they know everything – through word of mouth along some secret network that only they have access to.  I’ve tried to tap into it, and sometimes I’m in the know, but more often I’m caught standing gape mouthed like I was in front of Fabio’s abandoned shop.  Once we went to a concert at a church just a little bit outside town.  We arrived a little early and found the church dark and locked, no cars in the parking lot, no notice on the doors, and no sign of any concert about to take place.  We waited a while and finally came back home.  We asked around town the next day and found out that several members of the choir had gotten sick so it was cancelled.  We asked why there was no sign on the door and were told, in a somewhat “I’m surprised you have to ask that” way, that it’s Anghiari.  Everyone knew.  Except us.

The real tragedy of Fabio closing is what it means for these small Italian villages.  Just like small town American died with the advent of the big box stores out on the highway, I fear that these villages are slowing losing their character.   We’ve witnessed this in our small village.  There used to be two butchers here.  Now only one remains.  There were three green grocers, now there is one.  Most young people aren’t interested in taking over the family business and living the quiet village life.  Times are different now and people live in different ways.  We now have big box stores here on the highway out of town.  They’re not as big as the boxes in the US, but they are big by Italian standards.  And I think that what happened in the US is not far from happening in Italy.

One of the reasons we love Anghiari is that is a charming, picturesque medieval village that has postcard appeal.  But it is not a ghost town of a village like so many others that exist solely for the tourists.  It’s a vibrant, functioning town where people live, work, worship, and are schooled.  Many of the older residents don’t have cars.  They walk to the various shops, stocking up at the weekly market, and take the bus if they need to venture out.  And there are many young families here, some plying the trades of their families and others tapping into the innovations and technology that define our age.  Two young families come to mind, both living in the center of Anghiari.  One is taking over the family business, a 180 year-old enterprise, and the other makes a very comfortable living as a drone operator.  So much wonderful scenery here that is even more dramatic from the bird’s view.

Italy is still a land of artisans and craftsmen.  People who take pride in their trade and are carrying on a long held tradition, usually a family one.  But that is slowly changing.  It’s not that Fabio lacked for business.  It’s that no one wanted to take over from him and he was ready to retire.  I fear that each time a craftsman closes a shop, another step is taken toward the ordinary and away from the uniqueness that is such a central characteristic of these villages.

I wish Fabio a happy retirement and I hope like hell that he took his tools to his basement and will still sharpen the odd knife for me.  But I wish more than anything that someone had wanted to be the official knife sharpener of Anghiari and had studied under his tutelage.  I wonder how the town would feel about an American female knife sharpener with pitiful Italian language skills?

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