I woke up this morning in a running frenzy. There had been no alarm. I searched frantically for the time and found my phone buried under pages of notes on my desk, unplugged and dead. My computer read 8:45, in 15 minutes I had my first oral exam. This was not a good start.
I threw on some clothes and ran out of my apartment. The bus was luckily there as I ran up and I got on at the last second. Breathe. Think. My brain, un-coffeed, was still half asleep and I had to think hard to remind myself where I was going and why.
Am I lost? No, still in Bologna. It’s been four months. I can speak Italian now. I know the city like my second home. Then why am I lost? I’m not lost, I’m late. For what? An exam. About what? Film. Did I study? Yes. Enough? Can I say why neorealism took over as the dominant film style after the fall of fascism or who directed La Dolce Vita, l’Ultimo Tango a Parigi and Roma Città Aperta? Yes, probably. Can I say it in Italian? Magari. This bus is taking forever. I have to be there in 10 minutes! I’m late. I’m lost. I’m not lost, I just need a caffè!
In Bologna you really stand out if you run down the street, yet still I ran, arriving out of breath. Gaetano was in the lobby and by his face I could tell I looked a mess. “Tranquillo fra, il prof non è ancor- arrivat-,” he said. Breathe. Think. I was late but the professor was too. They ushered us into a lecture hall with murals on the ceiling and classical marble statues jutting from the walls, where other students were studying tensely as the waited for their turn.
When the professor arrived, he sat at the front of the room with his assistant and called us one by one to sit down next to him. We were sitting in the front row and I could hear the questions that he asked the first students to take the exam. Sometimes he would start by asking, in Italian, ‘what did you find most compelling about this course?’, whereas the student would speak in detail about a significant director or decade they found interesting until he asked another question. Other times he asked, ‘tell me why the 1950s were important in history of Italian cinema’, to which the student explained how the film industry grew to international acclaim in these years thanks to Fellini, Monicelli and Rossellini. A few times he just asked, ‘who was Mario Soldati?’ and I watched my classmate’s eyes grow wide as they shook their head with no idea. The professor asked a different question.
I flipped anxiously through the textbook. I didn’t know who Soldati was either. I still felt half asleep. It was going to be a while before it was my turn so Gaetano and I left and went to a café. We stood at the bar for the basic Italian breakfast of a cappuccino and cornetto. Calmed and confident after coffee, I could concentrate carefully e quando qualcuno mi ha chiesto qualcosa, ho capito. I felt ready.
Eventually we were back in the tense, ornate room and it was my turn. I climbed up to the stage and sat down next to the professor’s assistant. Breathe. Think. It was kinda awkward for a sec because I felt like the next contestant for a TV show with no winner so I asked come sta? being careful to use the formal tense of the verb because that’s what they told us to do but instead of answering he laughed and asked me about La Nave, a silent film from 1921 that I watched yesterday. Breathe. Think. Speak.
I knew a lot about La Nave, I had prepared for this question. My thoughts collected in my brain and moved up my throat, but when they reached my tongue they were twisted and dumbed down into my fledgling Italian. My mind raced in one direction in English while my mouth stumbled along after in Italian. The result was a frustrating ten-minute conversation about only a small portion of what I had studied for and knew about Italian cinema. At one point he told me I could speak in English, but I said no.
After he had asked me four or five questions he told me I deserved a 24, which is based out of 30 and will transfer to a BC in Madison. I took it because it was over and done but I walked away feeling like I could’ve done better if I had communicated all I knew. But in the end, it was probably accurate to the effort I gave to the class. The lectures had ended the first week of November and when I went to them they were hard to follow. The textbook was in Italian but I picked it up for the first time only two weeks ago. The oral exam is the only obligation for the class and it can be taken or retaken at any time before graduation, the result is the only grade for the course.
But what I gained from the course is to me more important than the grade. Not only do I know a lot about Italian cinema, but I learned how to survive a class at an Italian university. Watching the movies and attending lecture improved my comprehension and by the time I read the whole textbook I could skim it with relative ease. Also I made friends with friends of Gaetano, who’s room I will sublease next semester while he studies in Amsterdam.
Oh yeah, by the way, I decided to come back to Bologna for another semester next spring, which means I can relax and take the finals for my last two classes in the end of March.
So in terms of finals, this is only the beginning.