She leaves the book splayed on her breakfast table and rinses her cereal bowl in the sink before returning to the table with a small cup of coffee. Her electric espresso machine makes a doppio nearly comparable to those she used to drink in Italy, years ago.
She glares at the book. Why can’t she read it now without a dictionary? Why can’t she remember the difference between spaventare ‘to frighten’ and spaziare, ‘to wander?’ Her command of Italian used to be so strong, but now she feels she’s looking up every other word. She takes another sip of her caffe and reminds herself to buy some fresh whole bean Italian roast the next time she shops.
The book’s title, printed only on the spine, means ‘Christ Stopped at Eboli,’ a hamlet in the ankle of Italy’s boot, neglected by Rome and trapped in an inescapable world of poverty and hopelessness. She plans to visit that region in a few months and thinks this book will give her insights into the people who populated it before wealth from tourism gave the local economy a boost. As she reads this memoir, however, she sees how little she understood when she studied it the first time in Florence, Italy.
She picks up the free tabloid lying next to her book, flips through a few pages, and glances at her horoscope. “Today,” it says, “you can do yourself a big favor by sloughing off the stale, worn-out, decaying parts of your past.” Translation: regret nothing. Should she shed her past like a snake molts its skin? She has never shaken the feeling that she could have made better use of her junior year abroad.
She crumples the tabloid and throws it in the recycle bin in the pantry. On the shelf over the bin, a package of biscotti brings back more memories, of her city bus trips to Piazza San Marco in Florence, Italy, and the university buildings that surrounded the square, of the hours she spent in cafes over endless espressos, and feeling oh-so sophisticated while smoking Nazionale senza filtro cigarettes, even when their acrid smoke choked her. Her memories of classroom hours were less vivid and much less welcome.
Her host college registered her for a course, supposedly about Italian grammar and vocabulary, with Bruno Migliorini, an esteemed professor in the Language and Literature Department (La Facoltà di Lettere). She quickly lost interest after the first few sessions she attended. The professor’s lectures, from the little she understood, concerned linguistics—an arcane subject for which she then had little preparation. She began to skip classes until one day she stopped attending altogether.
The one success she had during that year, which she remembers with pleasure now, was attaining fluency. Before the end of her first term, four months into a nine-month academic year in Tuscany, she was speaking like a native, with a large vocabulary, the correct intonation, and even a good sprinkling of Florentine slang. And she had little trouble understanding people in conversation or in class—with one exception.
By February, having avoided Migliorini’s class for weeks and having no idea where the course was going, she continued to use those classroom hours to share coffee and conversation about America, politics, or art with Italian friends. She improvised all her commentary because she didn’t know very much about any of those topics. The friends, however, thought she was brilliant, probably because American students in Florence were still rare then and her friends enjoyed her novel manners and appearance. If they chose not to sit but to walk and talk, several parks provided an unmanicured expanse of shrubs, lawn, and gnarled trees to add drama to the scene. Under an oppressive, gray winter sky, they would stroll and chat, sometimes even have an intense debate.
Her language skills expanded as did her appreciation for Italian culture. By spring, despite her naiveté and still burgeoning adult mind, she thought she was ready to call her junior year abroad a job well done. She declared her major—Italian Language and Literature—with confidence, certain she would master the subject now that she could speak so well.
Final exams crushed that optimistic view like a fist crumpling pages of a rejected manuscript. The academic supervisor of her cohort notified her that her oral exams with the linguistics professor were set for the third week of May. Orals. What were “orals?” she asked Franco, one of her friends, and he raised an eyebrow.
“All examinations here are orals. Three professors quiz you on the contents of the course and on any of the readings that they assigned. Then they ask you another question, designed to show you understood the course’s goals and objectives. It can be tricky.”
‘Tricky?’ Still at the breakfast table, she rubs her temples. She remembers her panic. What if those three professors ejected her bodily out of the classroom once they realized how little she knew? She sighs as she recalls Franco’s advising her to order a big pot of chamomile tea at Caffe Motta, to calm herself, and cram.
For the next two days in Florence, she sipped chamomile tea while she read and re-read pages of Migliorini’s textbook until the hour of the exam approached. Franco assured her that the tea would relax her. It worked. Never before had her mind felt so clear—so erased. She retained nothing.
Even today the memory of the proctor’s indifferent voice calling her name as she paced the ancient university building’s grimy corridor induces slight nausea. She remembers waving to signal her presence and entering a dark classroom. At the far end sat three men behind a long table. Two younger men flanked Migliorini—one, an assistant or fellow, was handsome and studious-looking. He asked her a few easy questions and she was amazed that she could respond. Her mouth was feeling like crepe paper. The assistant’s fogged eyeglasses hid his expression, but his smile was kindly.
Migliorini opened his mouth to ask his trick question. Her eyes lost their focus and her breath shortened. His words sounded like gibberish. At that moment, the assistant stood and turned to the professor. She couldn’t hear him as he leaned into Migliorini’s ear.
Her senses were on strike; she remembers despairing of a passing grade. She had no voice to answer any more questions. She could barely hear the professor. He joined his index and middle fingers and beckoned her to approach the examiners’ table. He spoke again and this time she heard him clearly: “You should have told me immediately you were with the American college group,” he said in English (what a put-down). “They expect you to pass.” He instructed the assistant to give her the Italian equivalent of a “C” and waved her out of the classroom.
She thanked him and hurried into the corridor. An Italian girl, met weeks before when they were between classes, was sitting on the inner window sill, smoke from her cigarette drifting toward the tobacco-stained ceiling. The girl sneered and said she hadn’t seen her for a while; she had failed, right?
With the memory of her sweaty blouse and hands, signs of distress that didn’t register while she was taking the orals, she now slumps in her kitchen chair and tugs open the collar of her bathrobe.
She sighs again and asks herself, would she still shake her head, mumble her passing grade, and walk away from that girl today? Hardly. No one would care. Americans are not that unusual anymore. She sips her coffee and shrugs her shoulders. She looks at the book and makes the closed finger gesture she learned decades ago. “Macché—meaning, ‘nonsense!’ I am going to finish you, book, and I’m going to remember a lot more when I do that. Good memories and especially the way I love to hear and speak Italian.” She bangs the table with her open palm. The espresso cup jumps in its saucer.
Could she have been a better student had she attended Migliorini’s class regularly? Probably not. Any regrets today? Actually…she pauses, grimacing at the taste of sour, cold coffee…actually, none. No regrets. She never intended to be class valedictorian. She wanted to learn to speak Italian. She did that. She still can do that. Why feel any regrets?
She washes her cup and saucer, sets them to dry in the drain, and with a lighter step strolls to her closet, ready to dress for another day