The Notorious Italian “Furbizia”

Since living in Italy, it’s become abundantly clear that there’s a cultural concept Jason and I are (and have been) entirely unaware of. It’s something Italian’s know well and are always on the lookout for, but we have been blind to.

It’s called: furbizia.

The word furbo often means “clever” — but also “sly”, “sharp”, “crafty”, and so on. It’s more sinister meaning is what typically prevails: clever in the sense of “taking advantage” for one’s own personal gain.

Which is a virtue in this country? I’m not sure.

Street in Perugia, Italy, with Italian flags.
Street in Perugia, Italy, with Italian flags.

Let me back up.

When Jason and I moved to Perugia (Umbria) back in 2014, we had two years of Italian living and a few questionable living situations behind us. By then, we thought we had wised up. We rented our first Perugia apartment through a housing agency, paying them the equivalent of a month’s rent for their assistance. Assuming, of course, that an agency would vastly improve our experience with reliable housing.

We were so damned hopeful and naïve.

Which is where furbizia enters the scene. We’ve had furbizia explained to us like this: someone else could screw you over at any minute, so to get the upper hand (to protect yourself), you screw the other person over first. It’s a source of pride if you’re first to do the screwing. Sounds like fun, until….

On a street in Puglia (Italy)
On a street in Puglia (Italy)

Now, not everyone in Italy is like this. There are plenty of good, honest people in in the country. Problem is, you can’t tell the honest people from the furbi ones. Folks will lie straight ta’ ya’ face — their word is not their word.

Which makes this furbizia thing ever-the-more elusive.

It could be that there’s an equally prevalent furbizia in the US, and because I’m a lifelong American, I’m simply more savvy to it. Could be.

But from what I understand, furbizia is the acknowledged norm in Italy, rather than the exception (as it is for us Anglo-Saxons). In fact, countless other bloggers write about furbizia (here’s one of my favorites). Yet despite the online ramblings agreeing on its existence and ensuing discussions on how to handle it, the picture of exactly what furbizia is and isn’t is a little more…murky.

Perugia, Italy
Perugia, Italy

For us, our most recent encounter with it went like this: when we paid the fancy housing agency in Perugia to help us out, we thought our apartment woes would be over. And they seemed to be (I had Alberto, the agent’s, phone number on my favorites list). So, when oven door broke in November, Alberto had it fixed by New Year’s.

A good sign, right?

But around Christmas 2014, things started to turn.

First, smoke started coming in the windows from our neighbors’ antiquated Renaissance chimney’s next door. Then the hot water heater started vacillating between cold and scalding. By February, we had together stopped dragging the mattress to the living room on smokey nights, and just left it there. We even started avoiding showers, both of us like jumpy lab rats from having been burned so many times.

View of the chimneys from our first apartment in Perugia (Umbria, Italy)
View of the chimneys from our first apartment in Perugia (Umbria, Italy)

We’d had enough.

Our lawyer sent a letter to the housing agency, threatening nonpayment of rent if they didn’t have these things fixed, and the agency even acted compliant, as a result. Buuuut…long story short: nothing was fixed. We never paid our last few months rent (which was our right), and all I could think was: My God, what next?

If we can’t trust the people we’ve paid to have our backs, who can we trust?

Leading me to my point: be prepared for the furbizia mentality. Understand that you can’t necessarily trust someone unless they are friends or family (friends of family, or family of friends) because that’s not the culture in Italy. After all, both the mafia and the Vatican are two of the most manipulative institutions on Earth. When in Rome, I guess?

The Colosseum in Roma (Italy)
The Colosseum in Roma (Italy)

In the end, I don’t generally advocate for being a suspicious person, but having a little healthy sense of cautiousness at your side can’t hurt you in Italy (this is probably more true for expats than tourists). That wide-eyed, darling American honesty and trust, hemmed in with a solid handshake — that won’t get you anywhere here.

Sounds awful, doesn’t it? Perhaps this is why I sometimes have such a hard time with Italian culture, longing often for my darling little hometown of Danville, KY, where everyone’s just to-the-bone honest. Nonetheless, I’d like to think I’m at least honing a much sharper bullshit meter.

Today, we’re living in our fifth, and hopefully final, apartment. So far: no furbizia. Just minor slivers of “this could turn into a furbizia moment,” but even after six months, it’s smooth sailing.

View from our current apartment in Perugia (Italy)
Early morning view from our current apartment in Perugia (Italy)

I can’t say the reason why we haven’t been struck yet by furbizia in this apartment. Luck, perhaps. Or the fact that our landlord abandoned Italy for Bruxelles twenty years ago, and is decidedly less Italian. Or we’ve wised up (and word got around that we have a lawyer on standby).

Better, yet — perhaps we’ve become more Italian than I’d like to admit.

Read about all the times we’ve been ‘furbizi-ed’ in Muffa And Other Italian Apartment DisastersTo learn humorous tips on preventing problems with landlords, check out The Key To Being A Tenant In Italy‘, and don’t miss all our jaw-dropping tales about the horrors of construction in Italy.

Tell me, what problems have you had with housing where you live (or have lived)? Have you ever encountered a situation while living or traveling abroad that left you clueless about how to deal with it? Share in the comments, I love to hear my readers stories!

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