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Everyone Makes Mistakes … But This Was A Big One

The author was young, stoked on life and had a sweet loaner van to tool around Europe in. The trip ended with a real bang.

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Part I

As a dirtbag climber loafing and roadtripping about Italy in my mid-20s, 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 for “van life” would be la vita dell’ furgone; as melodic as this sounds, it’s also cumbersome. Not that #vanlife is common in Italy—or Europe—anyway: On the Continent, free camping is nearly nonexistent and/or associated with the Romani people, who bivy on the periphery of the big cities in van encampments and are often discriminated against for their rootless lifestyle (#theoriginalvanlifers #ogvanlife).

I had a crash course in European #vanlife in August 1996 while living in Italy, where I’d moved after college graduation to be with my Italian girlfriend, Chiara. Based in Turin, I worked for her father, a 6’5”, 300-pound mountain of a man with a rumbling voice, at an outdoor publishing house, Vivalda Editori, translating articles, web pages, and guidebooks into English. That summer, taking all of August off as those shiftless 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 blazes; we were going anyway. Chiara’s grandparents were nice enough to loan us their furgone for our road trip, so we headed to their home in the foothills of the Alps to pick it up.

Climber Matt Samet in Italy with girlfriend.
The author and his girlfriend, Chiara, in New Mexico some time in the 1990s. His hair has since gone grey and he no longer is cool enough to wear an earring or have sideburns.

Her grandparents were old-school, wealthy Italians, formal in diction, garb, and presentation. Hell, her 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 “rascal” of a despot if there ever was one.

I’m sure he was befuddled by his granddaughter’s beau, this awkward, greasy-haired American, and I couldn’t tell if he liked me or hated me. His one comment to Chiara after first meeting me was that I had le anche grosse (“big hips”), a notion she disabused him of after pointing out that I wore baggy pants, as was the grunge style back then—at least in America, not Italy, land of skinny jeans and scarves.

The van was of 1970s vintage and had been carefully appointed with a kitchen, wood cabinetry, lace curtains, and a soft, deluxe bed. As we prepared to hit the road, Chiara’s granddad took me aside and walked me through the beta. Everything was straightforward except for the engine—the old van burned through oil, so you needed to top it off frequently or you’d fry the engine, the only catch being that you had to remember to check the oil level since the warning light was broken.

“Va bene, signore,” I said—sounds good. Then I promptly forgot what he’d told me. Something about oil, a warning light, the engine?—I wasn’t sure. My Italian was still shaky. Hell, when Ennio had called Saddam Hussein a mascalzone I thought he’d said mascarpone, and couldn’t figure out what the Iraqi tyrant had to do with cream cheese.

Part II

In Misja Pec, Chiara and I slid off tufas, sweated our way up slabs, and bickered. It quickly became apparent that we were there out of season, and I dropped my project grade a number just to keep getting up stuff amidst the soupy Mediterranean heat. The Slovenian locals—probably Janja Garnbret’s great-grandparents—seemed unfazed and could be seen trying climbs up to 8c, cranking their way out blocky holds in the caves or romping up tufas in the central amphitheater.

Me, I just flailed, and three days into trying a 7c, after finally getting through the crux, I fell off the 5.11 buckets to the chains as a thunderstorm moved in and soaked the route. Chiara and I had spent the whole trip joking about Euro climber slang like ronchio (jug), canneleur (water-grooves/little stalactites), and reglette (crimp), and as I hung there, sweaty and defeated, Chiara said, “Matt fell off again, and now he’s going to get a canneleur in his ass!” We laughed, and I asked her to lower me. A casual climber herself, Chiara was tired of being at the crag all day, especially in the heat, so we left for the capital city, Ljubljana, and the mountains.

The drive home to Italy went well—no smoking engine or check-engine light—and we dropped the van off back at her grandparents’ place, thanking them profusely. Only later did I learn that I’d burned the oil down to nearly nothing—I’d checked it exactly zero times during our trip—and that we were likely just miles from destroying the engine. I shuddered when I heard the news; I felt like such a dumbass. The oil had literally been the only thing I needed to keep track of, and I’d flubbed it. Between that and my big American hips, I was sure her grandfather would never loan me the van again.

Part III

But loan us the furgone again he kindly did, a couple of winters later when I flew out to see Chiara and we took a New Year’s trip to Provence. I don’t recall much of that trip other than it rained, a lot, that almost all the campgrounds were shuttered, and that we only climbed a little due to the wet rock. Sketch-bivied at a roadside trash dump near Avignon, I emerged from the van one morning to find a sad little stuffed dog atop a pile of shattered bricks, its fur matted and muddy. I picked the dog up and put it in the van; later, back in Turin, I gave it a bath in the sink, giving it to friends of Chiara’s who’d 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 came to a plaza, some lanky hipster in tight slacks and a scarf (what’s with the scarves?) thrust flyers into our hands. “Check it out, 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. “Seems sketch—plus it’s expensive.” This was basically my excuse for not going to a party. I needed to invent a new one every time this situation came up: I hated parties and I always have. Chiara started in on me back in the van, how I was a reclusive bore who only wanted to climb and never do anything else. All of which, of course, was true. I had no counterargument. She was a city girl in search of constant stimulation; I was just a lazy, antisocial, bottom-feeding climber.

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

“You are?” Chiara asked.

“Sure. Find me some paper.” Chiara began rooting around the furgone until she came up with paper and pen.

Back in middle school in Albuquerque, New Mexico, my smartass friends and I would pass time in class doodling. One favorite doodle was “Scum-Bob McKenzie,” a farmer with bug eyes, a giant Adam’s apple, and a penchant for, well, congress with sheep. This is literally the only thing I know how to draw—my one artistic “gift.” And so this I now drew and handed to Chiara.

“What is this?” she said. “You’re disgusting.” But she was also laughing a little, and I could tell I’d defused the tension, much like her joke about the canneleur had back at Misja Pec.

“Oh, I’m not done yet,” I said, and put my finishing flourishes on. I then addressed the drawing to her grandmother, Bianca, as if to make it a New Year’s greeting card: “Cara Bianca, Buon capo d’ano!” I wrote. Now, in Italian, as in English, there are homophones—like the words anno (year) and ano (it’s a small hole in your body; you figure it out). I had very deliberately written ano instead of anno because I knew it would get a laugh.

Which it did, and which made Chiara forgive me for not wanting to go to the rave. But here’s the catch: When we returned the van a few days later, we forgot about the drawing, which we’d stashed in the glove box. So while I’d remembered to check and top off the oil on this trip, I’d forgotten—to my and Chiara’s dawning horror some days later—to remove my dirty note. An epic fail, yes, and one hell of a thank you to her grandparents for loaning us the furgone, which, incidentally, I never did ask to borrow again.

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