“It’s the opportunity of a lifetime; you should apply,” said my Italian language instructor during my sophomore year of college. She was referring to the “year abroad” experience. I was a French major then and hoped to join a woman’s college group in Paris for my junior year. One evening, I climbed three flights of stairs up to the college library’s Stimson Room where several hosts for study-abroad programs had set up recruitment displays. One look at the crowd gathered around the Paris sign-up table persuaded me to reconsider.
I saw so many French majors and knew a very few places in the group were available. How could I compete? I looked around the room. No one was attending the table hosting the Junior Year Abroad in Florence, Italy. Right then, I decided to change my major.
The Professors Castiglione, recruiters for Smith College’s program, asked me about my course record and frowned at my answers. Pierina Castiglione wore her gray hair in a tidy bun and looked at me with large, kindly, brown eyes. Her husband, Salvatore, also gray-haired and distinguished in his three-piece suit accessorized with a bow-tie, reflected her sympathetic manner. “Peccato. Too bad. With only two terms of Italian language courses, you are not really eligible.”
When I released a deeply audible sigh, Mrs. Castiglione added, “But—we head the summer Italian program at Middlebury College in Vermont. If you commit to that program, we can count it as the equivalent of a second year of study. That would qualify you for Florence.”
I brightened at the thought of an immersion course. What fun, in a language I just loved to roll around in my mouth. Much chewier than French. Like a mouthful of cheese-laden gnocchi.
Mr. Castiglione added, “Just keep in mind that all of our students are required to speak only Italian during the entire program, regardless of skill level. No English, or any other language you might know, including French. Is that understood?”
I nodded in assent.
“If you break that rule, we expel you from the program. That would mean no Florence. No Firenze.”
I smiled and assured them I would be so engaged in the experience that I would never consider breaking that rule. With that, we proceeded to sign me up and the die was cast. I was crossing my own Rubicon.
After revising my declaration of major, my area of concentration, from French language and literature to the Italian version, I sailed through the rest of my sophomore year, returned home, and packed my steamer trunk, plus a suitcase for my stay in Vermont and the ocean liner crossing. My parents would send my trunk on to an address in Florence once they knew where I would be staying as a paying guest with a family somewhere in that beautiful city.
I arrived at Middlebury College and began my studies in the summer language school. I was intent on learning to speak Italian fluently before the summer ended. The course work and language labs were challenging, but I embraced them all.
Social life balanced the heavy study load. I made friends with two other women students, Gina and Bettina. We only spoke Italian with each other, of course, and we giggled a lot together. Gina, from Georgia, spoke with a Southern accent and Bettina’s inflection was all New York City. When we weren’t in class, we changed into bathing suits and sunbathed on the lawn of a broad, green park on Middlebury College’s campus.
One afternoon, a handsome young man approached the three of us and in French introduced himself and asked if we were in the French program as was he. Gina and Bettina demurred, but I spoke up in Italian and told him that no, but he should leave us alone because we weren’t allowed to converse in other tongues. He shrugged and left.
A few days later, the same French student appeared, this time in the college bookstore. He sidled up to me and asked if I’d like to go for coffee. I answered, in Italian, sure, why not? I assumed that if I spoke only Italian with him, I was obeying the rules.
We met often after that. By the end of the summer, I’d improved my language skills immensely and was looking forward to the next step, my big adventure in Italy, but I was sad I wouldn’t be seeing the young man again for a year.
Not to worry, he assured me. He’d be studying for a master’s degree in Paris all that year.
Now I was flying high. Everything was working out so well.
The last day of the summer term. The Profs. Castiglione asked me to follow them to their office. All smiles, I fell in behind them; I was sure they would be praising my progress and enthusiasm.
Mrs. Castiglione closed the office door and asked me to sit down. All too soon, I would understand the somber expression darkening both their faces, but for the moment I was eager to listen and folded my hands in my lap.
In Italian, they said, “We know what you were doing all summer.”
Where were they going with that? Of course, they knew. I was studying like mad.
“You were dating that French language student and you knew that was expressly forbidden.”
My mouth fell open. They were watching me? If they were, they would know I obeyed the rules. In Italian, I answered, “I never spoke anything but Italian.”
“Ah, but you were listening to French!”
Whenever I feel unjustly accused of anything, anger takes over in the form of hot tears. They did not fail me then. “When I signed up for this course, you never said I couldn’t hear any other language; and anyway I think I love him.”
The Profs. Castiglione looked at each, each taking a deep breath. I wiped my cheeks with the back of my hand. How stupid of me to risk this opportunity of a lifetime. Looking up, I saw Mrs. Castiglione standing in front of me. She held out her arms and gave me an air kiss on each cheek.
“Susanna, Salvatore and I must say you were one of our best students this summer. You worked so hard and expressed so much love for Italian language and culture. We didn’t have the heart to expel you, but we do want you to learn from this situation: rules exist for a reason.”
My puzzled look encouraged her to go on. “Think of how much time you spent with your boyfriend. Perhaps, if you had used that time to practice and study, your language skills would be even stronger.”
My thoughts raced. I’d disappointed two people who had placed great faith in me and my goals. My stomach was churning and the lump in my throat kept me from answering for a few minutes. I managed to apologize and thanked them for their support.
“I promise you I will value my year in Italy. Thanks to your kindness I will have the chance to grow and learn so much.”
We parted on good terms. A week went by and I was in New York. Meeting my parents at their hotel, I described everything I’d experienced and told them about my boyfriend who showed up quayside just before I boarded the Cristoforo Colombo, much to my parents’ discomfort. Mom and Dad came on board with me and descended many decks below to the windowless cabin I would share with three other women in the program. The steward happened to knock just as we were opening my suitcase. He seemed to be speaking in Italian and Dad asked me to translate. I couldn’t understand the man at all. Dad joked that he’d paid good money sending me to Middlebury, where I spent all my time with a boy and hadn’t learned a thing. Just as I felt embarrassed and humiliated again, thinking my fate as an Italian major was going to be one bad moment after another, the steward explained he was speaking in Neapolitan dialect, the only Italian he knew.
Saved again, by Italian intuitive kindness. The steward sensed parents and child needed to bid the most loving of farewells, so he spoke a few common phrases in standard Italian, which I answered with ease. Reassured, my father beamed with pride and my mother dabbed at her tears.
My parents left the ship. The Cristoforo Colombo sailed away from New York; and I was launched. I’ve never rued changing my college major, but the following year, while I was based first in Siena, then in Florence, I experienced a number of embarrassing, even humiliating moments I now remember not with regret, but with the realization that they were all part of my growing up and becoming part of the greater world.