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Don't Trust the Italians

The song “Italians” by the Belgian artist Raymond van het Groenewoud is one of my favorite songs. Now we have a new Italian store in our town of Olhão in the Algarve. In the Rua Dr. João Lucio, named after Olhão's most famous poet and a side street of Rua Vasco da Gama, Miguele, from Venice started a shop and restuarant with Italian products. The pastas, beautiful wines and noble Grappa are on a display next to the Limoncello, the Italian Prosciutto and the fine Gorgonzolas. He also has pizza flour and you get a cheerful explanation, accompanied by the arm and rotation movements to make it spin high in the air. The owner Miguele is not the youngest, but he still has that appearance. He loves humor and talks just as charmingly about the Carnival of Venice as he does about the dangers of cycling in Portugal. An asset to Olhão.

Some years ago, when I was working for a Dutch construction company in the former Portuguese colony of Guinea Bissau, my boss in the Netherlands was allergic to doing business with Italians. He would rather would not do it and if he could not avoid it, I had to impose all kinds of conditions to guarantee the correct payments and on time. The Lira, like most currencies from Southern countries, sometimes suddenly devalued so the calculated profit on a construction project suddenly could disappear. I always said to my boss: “Italians, they are a bit of bandits but they are the nicest ones”. Once I had an Italian customer in Bissau who wanted to set up a development project in Bafata. The subsidy for his project was labeled for thís year and therefore it had to be spent also this year, while there was not even a construction plan for the project. No problem, I made a price per m2 and asked to transfer the money in advance, then we would start building next year. It turned out to be no problem for my Italian customer and I also avoided a possible devaluation in the future. The money was already in the bank before we even started.

I had previously experienced doing business with Italians in another former colony of Portugal: Mozambique. Here, as an architect for the Council of Churches, I did business with Gino, an Italian contractor, who had a construction company in Swaziland. Due to the civil war in Mozambique, there were almost no building materials available in Mozambique and Gino was the solution with his construction company that could quickly start building and supply sufficient materials. Our student housing project at Seminário Unido de Ricatla near Maputo was split into two parts because the financing through the German organization 'Brot für die Welt' also took place in two parts. For the first part of the project, contractor Gino's price was higher than we had budgeted and for the second part slightly lower. So I didn't have enough money for the first part. No problem for Gino. We would build the first part for the price I estimated and then we would settle the additional cost for the second part.

Working with Italians can be that easy. Not only easy but also pleasant. Like every contractor, Gino knew that handing out T-shirts and ballpoint pens, as my Dutch boss sometimes thought during my Guinea Bissau period, will not gain any new building orders. But I had never experienced 'the game' as subtle as our Italian Gino presented it. The first time he showed up at my house with a box of cigarettes. He said that his best friend, who was the director of the LM cigarette factory in Maputo, had given him a few boxes of cigarettes as a gift. He didn't know what to do with it and... whether I could possibly help him get to rid of it.

The next time he had an even better story and suddenly showed up one weekend at my door with 6 frozen lagostas. Now anóther friend, this time from the Greek embassy, had a problem. His freezer had broken down and now he was left with 6 frozen Lagostas that he had to get rid of. If I could help him ? Especially to help him, I accepted them. Sometimes I still think back with nostalgia to those delicious logostas from the oven that my friends and I enjoyed that weekend. It convinced me even more of the saying: “They are criminals, but they are the nicest, or to say it with Raymond van het Groenewoud. “Don't trust Italians, they steal from your car... They deserve the first prize in lying....

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