It seems that every small Italian town has its diggerman, the guy with the backhoe, tractor, chainsaw and other large machinery that most men yearn for. He is indispensable, especially in an emergency, but also in everyday country life. Italians seem to think nothing of reshaping the land and transforming antiquated customs to adapt to modern times — putting in plumbing where there was none, terracing gardens off of sheer hillsides, building a swimming pool on the side of a cliff…
The first time we meet Pierluigi, he is doing some work at the agriturismo where we stayed when we first discovered our town. He is trim with longish brown hair that gets in his eyes, a weather-beaten face and a ubiquitous cigarette dangling from his mouth. The agriturismo needs some new pipes to their septic tank and Pierluigi is doing the work. He unquestionably breaks every rule OSHA ever devised to keep working people from bodily harm. He wears a thin white tee-shirt, flip flops, smokes constantly while operating heavy equipment, and when we see him on break, he offers Jesse a swig from his one-litre bottle of beer. Nonetheless, this is the most precise ditch we’ve ever seen — it has perfectly parallel sides, exactly equidistant from each other and runs a plumb perfect straight line from starting point to destination. We are impressed.
After we’ve become property owners, Pierluigi does some work on the “driveway” to our house, while we are back home in Brooklyn. This steep and bumpy 300-meter tractor path that allows neighboring farmers to access their fields, now has to get our nice little family safely up the hill to the town road in a two-wheel drive rental car. Despite his best efforts, this driveway will be an ongoing headache for us since we can’t afford to have it properly paved. It probably functioned just fine when oxen used it centuries ago to access the stream towards the bottom of our valley. But cars, gravel, mud and other country weather conditions — it’s a recipe for mishap and constant upkeep.
Pierluigi returns the first summer we stay in the house to terrace a steep hill in the back area that overlooks our spectacular view. His assistant, Simone, picks out rocks from the hill so that the rocks don’t jam the machinery. He piles the rocks neatly beneath the oldest olive tree on our land, creating a lovely little wall we can sit on, that simultaneously retains the steep embankment on which I’ve since planted two red oleander.
As the terraces take shape and the underbrush is cleared, we see that the four young olive trees we’d noticed growing straight out of the hillside horizontally, parallel to the ground, actually seem to be pretty healthy. Pierluigi is enthusiastic to save them (after all, olives = food), and ties rope around their slender trunks, which he attaches to a chain, pulling them up with the backhoe to a vertical stance and staking them at the top of the terrace. I am again impressed, and comment to Serenella, one of the engineers who has overseen the restoration of our house, that he’s a bit like a surgeon the way he maneuvers that backhoe. Serenella nods grimly and says, “Yes, he is veddy good, but you have to votch…”, I see what she means when one of the olive trees cracks from the pressure of having been stretched to its limit.
Our first Christmas at the house is cold and wet. There is snow, but it’s not quite cold enough to freeze, so it’s slushy snow and our driveway becomes a muddy, rutted mess that we rightly fear. We’ve been advised to get a 4-wheel drive vehicle, but none of the car rental companies has them in their fleets. Though we’ve put chains on the tires, we leave the car at the top of the drive and drag our luggage to the front door. It’s not until the third day that we muster the courage to drive the car all the way down to the house. It seems like a good day to make a run to Ikea. Though there is some snow at the altitude of our house, once you get even a quarter of the way down the road leading to our town, it is dry and a very different climate.
I’ve gone for a walk up the driveway before our journey and turned left toward my neighbor Maria Luisa’s, agreeing to meet Jesse and Sophie, who will drive down to Maria Luisa’s chicken coop and make a simpler turnaround to get to the top of the town road. It is quiet and foggy. The only sounds are Maria Luisa’s chickens, and a car radio that’s been left on, either to keep company for whomever is tending the chickens, or to entertain the chickens themselves. Twenty minutes pass, then thirty and then I start to walk back to the house to see what’s gone wrong. I hear the spin of tires when I reach the top of the driveway and trudge down.
The car is perched on a hillock of mud just off the drive, the front left and right rear tires spin freely in the air; the other two are rutted into the ground. Jesse has been trying to maneuver the car out of this ditch for half an hour with no luck. We are neophytes and our Italian is still so terrible, the only thing we can think to do is call Pasquale, the other engineer who designed and built our house and speaks English. “Don’t worry”, he says, “I call Pierluigi”.
Pasquale arrives with his nephew Donato before Pierluigi does. Though it’s only noon, the sky is so grey it looks like dusk and it’s snowing. It’s beautiful. Our house is situated about midway down a valley. Looking up from the house, there is a ridge where the town road runs. So when Pierluigi approaches in his tractor, it’s kind of exciting ̶ you can see the flashing red light over the ridge and hear the slapping of the exhaust pipe raincap. The tractor lumbers down the drive and Pierluigi emerges smiling, cigarette stuck to his bottom lip.
It’s a pretty simple operation. He tows us out from behind, then attaches a rope to the ring in the driver’s side of the front bumper on our car, attaches that to the tractor and hauls the car up the hill. Donato gets to ride in the tractor, and he’s ecstatic, grinning ear to ear. Pierluigi will take no money for this service ̶ he’s out and about today, rescuing hapless stranieri in this surprise snowstorm just after Christmas.
The next time we need him is the first time we have guests. It’s August and the land and roads are bone dry. My brother-in-law’s rental car is an Opel wagon. They’ve driven from Rome and I guess took comfort in a larger car. We’ve cemented the lowest, steepest portion of the driveway so we know the relatives will complain about the bumpiness of the rest of the road, but we’re hoping that, with a good start on the paved portion, there will be no mishaps.
Wrong. Once the suitcases are unloaded, Bob is eager to drive into town. We urge him to be careful, but he’s not worried. Moments later we look up and that Opel wagon is straddling the paved portion of the road crosswise, the back tires have gone into the ditch where the cement stops ̶ we’d forgotten to fill that ditch with rocks and gravel. It’s a complete and total roadblock ̶ there’s no way we can leave the house with the car in this position. All the men try valiantly, shoving wood under the back wheels to form a ramp, spinning the tires, all to no avail. It’s now 7:30 pm and the car is not going anywhere. This time our Italian has improved enough that we call Pierluigi ourselves. It’s almost time for Sunday dinner, he lives in the next town over and we are mortified to call him at such an inauspicious moment, but he’s on his way with that same anticipation as the flashing lights appear over the ridge.
Once again he bails us out, and once again, he won’t take money. We’ve given him a lot of gifts over the years ̶ a bottle of Scotch, a folding knife, a leatherman. He’s essential to the town and we are praying that his son will take over the business when he finally decides he’s had enough. We often see him hanging out with his pals at the gas station/bar near Gualdo, so he may be gearing up for making the Italian male hangout his permanent status. As for our driveway, we’ve paved it in sections, a bit more each year, and it’s now nearly all cement, with earth and gravel at the sides to prevent getting caught in the side ditch. And as for my brother in law Bob, he refused to drive for the rest of their stay. We keep inviting them back, but they’ve yet to take us up on it.