Friday, November 9, 2012

The knife sharpener

Once a year, when the weather gets cold, a small man of indeterminate age knocks at our door. He is not a prepossessing person. His black watch cap is too small, his weathered blue parka is too large, he has fewer teeth than nature intended, and he is clutching a handful of knives, poorly concealed in a plastic bag. “Need anything sharpened?” he asks.

The first year he came I only gave him two little Opinels, in case he decided not to come back. But he did, and now I wait for him, and I hand him all the knives and scissors I can find, and he spirits them off for ten or fifteen minutes, and when he brings them back they are sharper than when they were new.

His name is Jean-Baptiste, and he likes to travel. Not for the scenery, because one village is just like another, but for the people. He likes to talk to people. Alba is just like any other place, for example, but it stands out in his head because the people here have a sort of a cultivated way of talking. I ask if he enjoys that, and he says no, it is tiresome. 

Toulon is where Jean-Baptiste was born and it is the place he names when asked where he’s from; Le Teil, down the road from Alba, is where his six kids live; and if he had his druthers he’d settle down in a town he calls Ameragues, which I have never heard of and cannot find on any map. He assures me it is calm and restful there. He spends most of the year on the road, in a little caravan hooked to the back of his truck. Every six months or so his truck breaks down and he plies his trade on foot until he’s raised enough for repairs.

Sharpening knives is what he does, but poetry is what he is. He likes poetry because it is beautiful, direct, and natural: it just comes to him, just like that, an inexplicable gift. He doesn’t write it down – doesn’t know how to write – but once the poetry is in his head it stays there, and he carries it with him.

I ask him what it’s like to be a Gypsy in France today, since Gypsies are in the news all the time over here; French policy and public sentiment have been particularly angry and inhospitable to them in the past few years. I ask if things have gotten harder, if he encounters any distrust or hostility, and he is very tolerant of my question and its boring lack of imagination. Lightly, he says that there are all kinds of Gypsy, then finishes his coffee, stands up, and leaves me with a battery of sharp knives and a poem about a rose.