As I raise a warm mug to my lips, steam wafts over its rim and carries the citrusy scent of chamomile tea to my nose, a scent never failing to remind me of a very bad day. Decades ago, I was a student on junior year abroad in Florence, Italy. Enrolled in a class on the history of the Italian language I was supposed to attend at least twice a week, I thought at the time I had better things to do than sit in a dark, dank classroom in an old University of Florence building in Piazza San Marco. That attitude led to my no-good, terrible day near the end of spring term.
I assumed I was auditing a class led by a renowned teacher of linguistics and philology, Professor M., and thought that meeting instead with Italian friends to discuss politics and literature would be more productive than the study of language from written historical sources. Arrogantly, I reasoned conversation would help me strengthen my Italian language skills and give me insights into Italian culture from a personal rather than academic perspective.
My accountant friend, Franco, for example, would arrange to meet me during his extended lunch hour. We’d walk around Florence’s parks and discuss the latest books we were reading. He introduced me to the sad but moving novels of Cesare Pavese, a body of work so compelling I eventually wrote my senior thesis on the author’s personal dilemmas involving the Resistance during Italy’s Fascist regime, his failed love affairs, and the mixture of anguish and attachment he felt for Le Langhe, a region in Italy’s Piedmont.
Franco also introduced me to the benefits of chamomile tea around the time I learned I had to stand for an oral exam on Prof. M.’s course. My study group director, Mrs. Lolli, informed me that, contrary to my assumptions, I never had been an auditor, but an actual student. Mrs. Lolli did not know that by the month of May, I had missed most of the course’s sessions. Other than Prof. M.’s textbook, which I learned later was a major breakthrough in Italian language studies, I had no idea what was going on in class. Nevertheless, I had an inescapable appointment to face three examiners for an oral, not written, exam on all Prof. M. had covered that term.
My only recourse was cram sessions. I plowed through Prof. M’s textbook, but panic must have numbed me for nothing stuck. The day before the exam, Franco called on me. He wanted to give me a copy of The Moon and Bonfires (La luna e i falò), an extraordinary novel and probably Pavese’s best, written in 1949 about the effects of war on the people of his beloved region, the Piedmont. Franco delivered the book to me while I was home studying, much to the amusement of my host family, who thought Franco and his last name were funny (it translated as “pigeon”). Seeing that I was overwrought, he recommended I go to Motta, our favorite center city café, order a huge pot of chamomile tea, and relax.
On the morning before the exam, I did just that. Seated in a booth where I remained until 11:00 a.m. or so, I drank cup after cup, then pot after pot of the brew. The tea did soothe me, although frequent trips to the restroom interrupted my final, intense cram session. By late morning, light-headed and less agitated, I took a bus to Piazza San Marco, entered the university building, and, unsteady, climbed the stairs to the classroom where my examination would take place. I convinced myself I was going to sail through this ordeal. After all, I spoke Italian so very well. I waited in the hallway outside the classroom designated for exams, in the company of several other students I recognized from the few sessions I attended who did not appear to recognize me, however.
When I heard someone call my name, I entered the classroom and politely greeted Prof. M. and his two assistants. Tightlipped, the professor said my face was not familiar. I gulped and shrugged my shoulders, then nodded my assent when one of the assistants asked if I was ready for the exam.
The panel posed a series of questions, most of which baffled me; and I expressed my ignorance and apologies. After I repeatedly failed to respond with appropriate answers, one of the assistants checked some papers he had, then leaned toward Prof. M. and urgently whispered something to him, all the while covering his mouth with the palm of his hand. Prof. M. slammed his pen on the table in front of him, held out both his hands, and asked me why I hadn’t told him I was with the Junior Year Abroad program and an auditor. Surprised, I mumbled some excuse.
Nodding to each other, the three examiners stood, then invited me to leave the classroom. In spite of, or perhaps in part because of my tea-induced befuddlement, I’d really made of mess of things. Ashamed of myself, I turned to leave, but the professor’s now soft voice stopped me. In English, he said, “You did not fail this exam. It was not necessary, but I urge you to review my text. It will be of great help in your studies.”
I thanked him and his assistants, said my good-byes, and, shaking, left the classroom and the building. Now I needed something to counteract the tea. I headed for Bar San Marco, a student hangout, and ordered a cappuccino. It was still morning, I had survived the orals, and I needed caffeine. Later, during my senior (thesis) year, I did take Prof. M.’s advice and studied his text, much to my chagrin. The work would have contributed to a more intimate understanding of the Italian language and its evolution over time.
While making no claim to a comparison with the power of Proust’s madeleine, I recognize the strength of a memory elicited by the simple aroma of a cup of tea. Although I know it produces a calmative effect, I now rarely drink chamomile tea. Its association with that day in Florence persists, even decades after the fact; but my love for the Italian language has never diminished.