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A Year In The Knife Capital Of Europe

Small town surrounded by trees with mountains in the distant background. The buildings are white and beige with traditional red roofs breaking up the green of the forest surrounding the town.

Staff writer Ella Buckley shares the ups and downs of living abroad.

I’m sure many would romanticise a year abroad in France to a similar plot of Emily in Paris… but perhaps with better French. However, something makes me think that Emily would not last five minutes in the so-called knife capital of Europe, where I spent my year away from home.

Well, welcome to Thiers. To set the scene, picture the beginning of a horror movie. Imagine a small town in the mountains, hours away from any nearby city. A place where thick fog covers the town every morning, a place surrounded by the Chaîne des Puys – in other words, surrounded by volcanoes.

Photo taken of mountains, behind green metal bars. Beyond the metal bars shows a small village with several typical French buildings. In the background is a forest, and there is a thick fog coming down from the forest - making the rest of the sky invisible.

One might describe this town as quiet, or maybe even peaceful. I might choose to use the words eerie, or creepy. Imagine a town of only 11,000 people, significantly smaller than my usual comfort of London. Oh and also… all the local shops are full of knives.

The start of the trip already brought a sense of foreboding, with all of my luggage being lost at the airport, along with the immediate language immersion of having to argue with the airport staff as to where to find it. In the end, with what felt like a metaphor for my anxieties and fears of moving to this remote horror-like town, I spent the first 4 days without – in my Mum’s words – ‘all my worldly possessions’.

Upon arrival to the town, after a 3.5 hour train journey into the French campagne, I quickly discovered that much of the town had been abandoned for decades. I took the public bus (with only 6 seats) to the appropriately-eerie 12th century Church (which only holds mass once a month), and through the equally disturbing streets filled with abandoned knife factories.

Whilst walking through the centreville shortly after dark, I was frightened by a clanging sound coming from the village centre. With a voice in my head telling me to run, I turned around and was introduced to Thiers’ Jacquemart. For those who have never come across a jacquemart, this one was a large clock where every hour an animatronic man appeared from the top, to make a knife – this clock would proceed to make a horrifying clanging sound for a full 2 minutes – which made the walk home particularly stressful. At this point, I felt perhaps I was in over my head and should escape to Paris…

Pictured: the Jacquemart in Thiers. It is a large clock on top of a brick wall with an animatronic man appearing out the top with an anvil and tools to make a knife.

To make matters worse, settling into the town was a nightmare in itself. I was an English Language Assistant in two local schools, in which the students endlessly made fun of me – coming to its worst point after the England loss against France in the Men’s Football World Cup (helped by the repeated ‘Harry Kane shot the ball into space’, as if I didn’t already feel defeated enough as a football fan). What seemed potentially even worse, was the friendliness of the thiernois (people from Thiers)… a man seemingly always walking around the town would constantly speak to me unprovoked when passing – a.k.a. a Londoner’s worst fear.

Whilst this might have seemed like a great feat to many, after spending seven months settling into my small town in the French countryside, I now think of it as home. I’m proud to be thiernoise, albeit only temporarily. A place that originally felt a bit beyond my abilities became somewhere that I now miss – I even became such a thiernoise that I own knives from the local shops (given Thiers’ European knife capital status, thanks to its long-held history of knife and cutlery-making).

Another photo of Thiers. This one shows a row of traditional buildings, with a hill with buildings and trees covered in snow.

Thiers became a place where I was happiest. Where I was able to lead a peaceful and straight-forward life. Where I made friends and could spend several hours a day sat in the local bakery talking to strangers about the nationwide strikes and local mayor (who I learnt was quite unpopular), while locals entered ordering between 1 and 6 baguettes. It became a place where I became so settled that the local grocery store quietly started stocking British food products (I was particularly pleased at the arrival of digestives).

It is truly strange how a place you once was nervous about can become a place that you feel homesick for. Perhaps someday I’ll visit… however the 12 hour round journey from London Bridge to the village is probably one to save for the distant future…

Thank you, Thiers, for welcoming me.

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