My (almost) biggest climbing mistake

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First part

As a dirt mountaineer strolling and traveling over Italy in my mid-twenties, I made the ultimate #vanlife faux pas – well, two of them, to be precise. In Italian, the word for “van” is furgone: foor-go-nay (not “fur gone” – that’s something else). The direct translation of “van life” would be the vita dell’furgone; as melodic as it sounds, it’s also cumbersome. Not that #vanlife is common in Italy – or in Europe – anyway: on the continent, free camping is almost non-existent and/or associated with Roma, who bivouac on the outskirts of major cities in camps of vans and are often discriminated against for their rootless lifestyle (#theoriginalvanlifers #ogvanlife).

I took a crash course in European #vanlife in August 1996 while living in Italy, where I had moved after graduating from university to be with my Italian girlfriend, Chiara. Based in Turin, I worked for her father, a 6-foot-5, 300-pounder with a growling voice, at an open-air publishing house, Vivalda Editori, translating articles, web pages and guides in English. That summer, taking up the whole month of August like those quirky Euros do, Chiara and I took a trip to Slovenia, to climb around Osp/Misja Pec. Never mind that it was at sea level and hot as flames; we were going anyway. Chiara’s grandparents were kind enough to lend us their furgone for our road trip, so we headed to their house at the foot of the Alps to pick it up.

The author and his girlfriend, Chiara, in New Mexico in the 1990s. His hair has since turned gray and he’s not cool enough to wear an earring or have sideburns.

His grandparents were wealthy, old-school Italians, formal in diction, dress, and presentation. Hell, his grandfather, Ennio, even had fond memories of Mussolini, who he once told me was a much better leader than that. mascalzone Saddam Hussein, a real “rogue” despot if ever there was one.

I’m sure he was stunned by his granddaughter’s boyfriend, that clumsy American with greasy hair, and I couldn’t tell if he loved me or hated me. His only comment to Chiara after my first meeting was that I had the big reed (“big hips”), a notion she disabused him of after pointing out that I wore baggy pants, as was the grunge style at the time – at least in America, not Italy, the country of skinny jeans and scarves.

The van dated from the 1970s and had been carefully appointed with a kitchen, wooden cabinets, lace curtains and a luxurious soft bed. As we prepared to hit the road, Chiara’s grandfather pulled me aside and walked me through the beta. Everything was simple except for the engine – the old van burned oil so you had to refuel frequently or you’d burn out the engine, the only catch being that you had to remember to check the oil level since the warning light was broken.

“Go well, sir,” I said – that sounds good. Then I quickly forgot what he had told me. Something about the oil, a light, the engine? – I was not sure. My Italian was still fragile. Shit, when Ennio called Saddam Hussein a mascalzone I thought he said mascarponeand couldn’t understand what the Iraqi tyrant had to do with cream cheese.

Part II

In Misja Pec, Chiara and I slipped on tuffs, sweated on the flagstones and bickered. It quickly became apparent that we were there off season, and I dropped my project number just to keep doing stuff in the middle of the Mediterranean heat. The Slovenian locals – probably Janja Garnbret’s great-grandparents – seemed unfazed and could be seen attempting ascents of up to 8c, shoving their way through boulder holds in caves or scooting around. let off steam on tuffs in the central amphitheater.

Me, I just got choppy, and three days after trying a 7c, after finally crossing the knot, I fell 5.11 buckets on the chains as a thunderstorm moved in and soaked the road. Chiara and I had spent the entire trip joking about European climber slang like ronchio (jug), groover (water grooves/small stalactites), and ruler (crimp), and as I stood there, sweaty and defeated, Chiara said, “Matt fell again, and now he’s going to have a groover in her ass!” We laughed, and I asked her to bend me down. An occasional climber herself, Chiara was tired of being on the cliff all day, especially in the heat, so we set off for the capital, Ljubljana, and the mountains.

The drive back to Italy was fine – no smoking engine or check engine light – and we dropped the van off at his grandparents, thanking them profusely. It wasn’t until later that I learned that I had burned the oil to almost nothing – I had checked it exactly zero times during our trip – and that we were probably a few miles away from destroying the engine. I shivered when I heard the news; I felt like an idiot. The oil had literally been the only thing I needed to keep track of, and I had missed it. Between that and my big American hips, I was sure his grandfather would never lend me the van again.

Part III

But lend us the furgone again he kindly did, a few winters later when I went to see Chiara and we took a New Year’s trip to Provence. I don’t remember much from this trip other than it rained, a lot, almost all the campgrounds were closed, and we only climbed a little because of the wet rock. Sketch-camped in a roadside dump near Avignon, I got out of the van one morning to find a sad little stuffed dog atop a pile of broken bricks, its fur matted and muddy. I picked up the dog and put him in the van; later, back in Turin, I gave her a bath in the sink, giving it to friends of Chiara who had just had a baby.

On New Year’s Eve, Chiara and I found ourselves walking the cobbled streets of Aix-en-Provence, killing time until bed. As we pulled into a plaza, a lanky hipster in tight pants and a scarf (what are scarves?) shoved flyers into our hands. “Look at this, friends,” he said laconically. “The all-time rave of the century.”

“We should go!” Chiara said. “A rave – fun!”

“I’m not so sure,” I said. “It looks sketchy, plus it’s expensive.” It was basically my excuse for not going to a party. I needed to invent a new one each time this situation arose: I hated parties and always had. Chiara started seeing me in the van, how I was a boring recluse who only wanted to climb and never do anything else. All of this, of course, was true. I had no counter-argument. She was a city girl looking for constant stimulation; I was just a lazy, antisocial, hungry climber.

“But here,” I said. “Stop for a second. I’m not just a stupid climber; I am also an artist!

“You are?” Chiara asked.

“Of course. Find me some paper. Chiara began to put down roots around the furgone until she finds paper and a pen.

Back in college in Albuquerque, New Mexico, my smart friends and I spent time in class doodling. A favorite doodle was “Scum-Bob McKenzie,” a farmer with bug eyes, a giant Adam’s apple, and a penchant for, well, congresses with sheep. It’s literally the only thing I know how to draw – my only artistic “gift”. And so that, I have now drawn and given to Chiara.

“What is that?” she says. “You are repugnant.” But she was also laughing a little, and I could tell that I had defused the tension, kind of like her joke about the groover had back in Misja Pec.

“Oh, I’m not done yet,” I said, and put on my final flourishes. I then sent the drawing to her grandmother, Bianca, as if to make a New Year’s greeting card: “Cara Bianca, Buon capo d’anoI wrote. However, in Italian, as in English, there are homophones, like the words anno (year) and year (it’s a little hole in your body, you understand that). I very deliberately wrote year instead of anno because I knew it would be funny.

Which he did, and which made Chiara forgive me for not wanting to go to the rave. But here’s the catch: when we returned to the van a few days later, we forgot the drawing, which we had stashed in the glove compartment. So while I remembered to check and top up the oil on this trip, I forgot – much to my and Chiara’s horror a few days later – to pull out my dirty ticket. An epic misfire, yes, and a big thank you to his grandparents for lending us the furgonethat, by the way, I never asked to borrow again.

Matt Samet is a freelance writer and editor based in Boulder, Colorado.

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