Lifestyle & Culture

Lisbon’s street knife-sharpener: A traditional job withstands the test of time

I have been living in Lisbon for almost five years. And for almost five years I have been trying to get hold of this guy who passes with a special bicycle and a whistle which produces a distinctive sound announcing his knife sharpening services.

 I heard him everywhere. In my first apartment, in my second apartment and in my current apartment. And whenever I ran to the window, I did not see him. You can hear him so close, yet you can’t locate him once you exit the building or when you look out of the balcony. All my friends managed to see him, but I didn’t, for some reason.  

Jobs withstanding time

I wasn’t chasing the knife sharpener to get my knives sharpened (though they could use some of that, to be honest). I have just always had an immense passion for jobs which withstand time, change of pace of life and modes of consumption.

A knife is not sharp enough, buy another one, or take it to a shop which has predictable working hours, or try to sharpen it yourself with stuff readily sold on Amazon which helps you to do that at the comfort of your own house.

Anything would make more sense than hoping one day that the knife sharpening guy would pass by your street, and that you can catch his distinctive whistle, and that you are out of the balcony on time to stop him.

Then, you collect your knives, go down in your PJs, and wait for him to sharpen your knives one by one as he takes his time and passersby observe his work with curiosity. 

Finally, it happened. As I was having lunch at home the other day, I heard the famous whistle of the knife sharpener. I sprinted to the balcony and saw him with his bicycle. I called out and asked him to wait. Then, I realized that I had just bought a new set of really good knives and didn’t need to have anything sharpened!

I grabbed a random one (brand new, only used it once, and prayed he won’t ruin it). I went down with a notebook, a pen, and a knife. I expected him to charge me a lot for the job, but he said that it will only cost 2 euros. As he was sharpening my knife, I started asking  him a couple of questions.

He looked too cool for how impressed I was. 

Thirty-seven years of knife-sharpening

Simão has been going around Lisbon sharpening knives for 37 years. He took on the skill from his father who took it on from his grandfather. He is almost sure that his kind of work (people going around with a bicycle sharpening knives) only exists in Portugal. “If it exists anywhere else outside Portugal, it could be in Spain too, but that is it” Simão assured me. His clients are mainly restaurants though he also sometimes gets people screaming from balconies, like me, asking him to wait for their knives. 

Simão tells me that he could do up to eight hours of walking a day. And he walks all over Lisbon. He does not have a specific area to which he goes. However, he also told me that he is not the only one doing knife sharpening as there are a few others in town. So, our knife-sharpening encounter was not really written in the stars, not only because I did not come across very cool and was too impressed, but also because there is a chance that it was not always Simão I have been hearing all along. 

Almost everyone in Lisbon recognizes the sound of this whistle even if they don’t know its source

A tourist passed by and was amazed as Simão was sharpening knives only by pedaling on his bike. He started taking a video of Simão too. When he was done, he proudly took out a piece of paper, held it with one hand, and cut through it with my newly-sharpened knife with the other hand. The new knife was ten- times sharper. He gave it to me saying: “Careful, you do not seem to be careful enough with those things”.

He is not completely wrong. 

In a European capital – especially in a place like Lisbon which is becoming more popular and increasingly “trendy” – it is a rare joy to chance upon more simple, personal ways of doing things, especially when these ways are traditions dating back through generations of families. This is another reason for the special connection I have to Portugal. It reminds me of being back home in Egypt when in the middle of the fast-paced, increasingly modernized lifestyle, something a bit understated – a bit less polished – can still be found.


Read more here about Lisbon in Dispatches’ archives.

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Sarah Nagaty has a PhD in cultural studies, She’s lived in Portugal for six years.

As a student of cultural studies, Sarah is drawn to what connects people from different backgrounds to new cultures and places, how they relate to their new surroundings and what kind of activities they could engage with in their new hometowns.

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