Shortly after my wife and I moved to Italy to open our tourism business, I needed a chainsaw to clear the jungle behind our villa so we could landscape and put in a pool and terrace.
We didn’t have much extra money, and I didn’t want to buy a chainsaw that I would likely only use once. Instead, I asked my across-the-alley-neighbour Antonio if he knew anyone I could borrow or rent one from.
We’d only been living in the Abruzzo region of Italy for a couple months, and Antonio, who told us he was 72, 78, 81 or 84 at different times, had already become an expert in getting me to help him with various pieces of junk and emergencies in his garage. I had dealt with a flood, fixed an ancient grape press, chopped logs, got his antique weedwhacker going again, and changed the plugs in his museum-worthy rototiller among other things.
So, after I asked about a chainsaw and Antonio smiled, turned around and motioned for me to follow him into his garage, I was curious to see what kind of broken-down piece of crap he was about to show me. After searching though piles of oily rags and bits and pieces of rusty equipment, there is was; an almost brand-new Stihl saw.
The chain was sharp. The plugs were clean. This thing was nice. In Canada, I never bought a Stihl, the Caddy of saws, because they were so much more expensive than the others.
I told Antonio I would need it for about two weeks, but I would return it with a new chain and clean. He said he was glad to loan it to me and in return maybe I could trim some of his olive trees later in the fall. He said he physically couldn’t do it anymore.
No problem, I thought. It would be nice to help him out. Trimming olive trees. How quaint? A true Italian experience.
Our backyard was overrun by weed trees and brambles due to almost three decades of abandonment, but the chainsaw was up to the task. It ran almost constantly for days on end as a team, including my wife and mother, tamed the jungle. Afterward, I cleaned the saw, sharpened the chain and returned it along with a brand-new chain.
About a month later, it was time to return the favour, and I was looking forward to my good deed.
Early one morning, Antonio and I and the chainsaw headed out to his trees across a stream at the base of a big, very steep hill behind our villa. Antonio’s mobility is almost nil, and I was a little worried that he wouldn’t make it up the slight incline to his land, but he did. There were more trees than I thought there would be, maybe 40, but they were in good shape and nicely trimmed. I figured a lop here, a lop there, wine and cheese and salami for lunch, a few more cuts and ta da … an Italian experience realized complete with Facebook photos.
However, as I walked towards the trees, Antonio stopped me.
“Non quest’alberi,” he said (Not these trees.) “Quell’aberi,” he said. (Those trees.)
He was pointing about 300 metres up the hill to a thicket of trees that looked like they hadn’t been touched for about a decade.
I told Antonio I didn’t know how to trim an olive trees. He said not to worry, he would show me how to do it when we got there. I said it was too steep for him to climb. He smiled, reached into his satchel, pulled out a length of rotten old rope, tied one end around his waist, and handed me the other end. “Andiamo,” he said. (Let’s go.)
There’s no way this is going to work, I thought, but what the hell. A deal is a deal.
I took the rope, threw it over my shoulder, turned and started pulling him up one step at a time. After about 20 minutes, we had climbed maybe 50 metres when the rope snapped. I fell face forwards onto the path, and Antonio fell on his ass and rolled a few metres down the hill before coming to rest in the long grass.
This was stupid and getting dangerous for him. I wanted to abort, but Antonio refused and instead handed me the end of the rope again. This time I had to walk backwards up the hill facing him because there was only about a metre of rope left dangling from his waist.
Uno, due, tre, step. Uno, due, tre step. Five steps in a row. Break for a couple minutes. Repeat. Antonio’s face turned deep red.
Fifty metres from the top, the rope snapped again, and I fell backwards, but he was ready this time and fell to the side, only losing a couple metres. The problem was, the rope had snapped on his waist. It was now too short to use at all. I was about to start back down the hill to get another rope when Antonio struggled to his feet and told me to push him the rest of the way.
I got behind him, lowered my right shoulder into his left buttocks, and, uno, due, tre, grunt, step. Uno, due, tre, grunt, step. Then, uno, due, tre, grunt, step, fart, scusi, and to my knees I went. After listening to him blame his wife’s cooking for a couple minutes, I regained my footing and for the next 15 minutes it was grunting, farting, yelling, falling, swearing, and apologizing until we reached the first trees.
And there were way more trees here than down below. I made a quick survey and found 82 badly overgrown trees, each encircled by a wall of sucker shoots sprouting from the roots.
When I was done, I found Antonio sitting on the ground, leaning against a tree, smiling, drinking wine out of a plastic water bottle and eating a chunk cheese as big as his fist.
At that point I realized, I had been thoroughly had, and one look at his bemused expression told me Antonio had planned this all along. He had played the part of a furbo, a classically Italian approach to life, and I was the sucker.
Furbo has no direct translation in English. It’s like a person who is shrewd, sly, smart, clever and deceivious all rolled into one. These people are scammers, sharp operators, manipulators, and maybe even cheaters who seek an edge on the rest of us and preferential treatment in all endeavors.
A furbo is a person who finds a way to get to the head of the line while the rest of us dutifully wait our turn. It’s a person who sells you a used car, but doesn’t tell you it’s been in an accident.
And a person who barters the trimming of 82 olive trees that have not been touched in a decade in turn for the loan of a chainsaw is definitely a furbo.
The interesting part though is that as much as Italians complain about furbos, there is grudging respect and even admiration for them. They have the audacity to be selfish in the face of social norms and rules, and in a country built on mistrust of authority, and disregard for rules in general, being a furbo is seen as a good thing.
In Italy, furbos get ahead. The rest of us get screwed.
This whole chainsaw/olive tree trimming thing was turning into an Italian experience in more ways than one.
I had two options:
1. Get all indignant, call it off, and risk getting labeled as a deal breaker in our town of Torre de’Passeri; or
2. Pretend everything was perfectly fine and carry on.
I chose the latter and for the next two hours, Antonio directed me on the finer points of trimming olive trees. It’s an energy intensive chore requiring a lot of stooping and cutting and an equal amount of holding the chainsaw up high cutting branches to shape the tree for optimal olive picking.
In those two hours, we trimmed exactly two trees before I had had enough for the day. I needed time away from Antonio to process the magnitude of my predicament.
So down we went. With no rope, I walked backwards down the hill face-to-face with Antonio; my hands on his shoulders propping him up as he stumbled and slid towards me. A couple of times, I lost my footing and fell causing him, and his substantial girth, to pancake on top of me. We would roll around on each other for a while and then I would get him on his feet and start again.
Going down took us an hour, and when we got home, I quickly said good bye. I was annoyed with Antonio, and I was annoyed with myself for not clarifying things before borrowing the chainsaw. This was the guy who would invite me into his garage for a drink of his wine, and then get me to help me with five different things. I knew he was a furbo, but I underestimated his shamelessness.
On the other hand, I had time on my hands, not a lot to do, and I still wanted those Facebook photos.
The next morning, I got up early, trudged up the hill with the chainsaw and started working. I did 10 trees in about eight hours that day. The next day 20 trees. Then two days of 25 trees. It was exhausting. My back ached from bending over. My ankles and knees were sore from balancing on the steep hill, and my arms and shoulders felt like rubber.
But the days were filled with beautiful sunshine and clear skies, and the mountains really did shimmer in the distance.
I was proud of my work when I was done, and Antonio was able to hire a couple guys later that fall to pick olives from those trees for the first time in a decade. I even got some olives.
It really was an Italian experience in more ways than one, but can tell you one thing.
If I never trim another olive tree in my life, it might be too soon.