When it was announced that I would be the first to take my test with no other than the head of the entire Anthropology Department, I knew waiting until the last minute to study was probably a bad idea. Instead of practicing all the information I had crammed in my head in Italian with my roomates, I decided to memorize the more useful phrase of Per favore avere pietà di me, or “Please have mercy on me.” Back in the US I would call studying 2 or 3 nights before the exam a cram sesh. Taking into account that I was doing everything in a foreign language I gave myself one month to read 4 books in Italian, and memorize it all competently enough to repeat it. That was the ideal goal… come test day I had read 2 of the books and had somewhat of a vague idea as to what one of the other ones was about just by hearing other people talk about it. With a grading scale of 18 to 30, I knew I had to get at least a 23 to pass.
I must say that throughout my entire schooling I have never been more stressed than for my first Italian exam. Unlike in the US where the exams are a miriad of multiple choice or short answer questions, the exams in Italy are mostly oral. This means that the professor bases your grade on about 5 questions he decides to randomly conjure up for you. It’s you and the professor one-on-one in a small exam room, or in a lecture hall in front of the 40 other people taking the class. People compare the power of Italian professors to that of God, because their word is the final word, and if you screw up there is no one else higher up you can talk to about fixing it. Horror stories started running through my head, from students getting bocciato, or flunked, on the first question in front of the entire class, to others getting publicly ostracized and having their grading sheets ripped in half.
“E’ presente Alessandra Roqueta?”
“Sì sto qua.”
“Entra per favore”
With all of this daunting information at hand, I almost expected Mozart’s “O Fortuna” to start playing as I walked through the door into the professor’s exam room. The head of the department was a middle-aged Italian man dressed sharply with thim rimmed glasses and a stern look. He made the basic intro small talk where I revealed how nervous I was with hopes he would say there was nothing to be nervous about, but no, there was no reassurance, not even a smile. Any Italian I had learned up til now seemed to magically fall apart into babbling nonesense. He fidgeted with the computer to open my file, and decided to start the questions. He asked about an anthropologist that I had studied like the back of my hand and I started reciting everything I had memorized about him without even comprehending what I was saying.
Then came the bomb drop: What is Levi Strauss’s take on organizational systems? Yes, I know Levi Strauss by name, he is one of the most important anthropologists of the 20th century, but unfortunately I never got to that chapter in my book. Holding my breath I told him I didn’t remember. Then came the second bomb, yes the part where the professor says “OK, now let’s talk about that book you didn’t read and have somewhat of a vague idea as to what it is just by hearing other people talk about it.” I scrambled my way through that question with bits and pieces, and by relating back to another book I had read. Then finally he adressed the book I had read. The fighter in me took the reigns and I quickfired as many themes and facts from that book I could muster up.
At the end there was silence. He fidgeted more with the computer, and afraid of what was ahead I asked if I could add some more details, and spat out any leftover knowledge about cultural anthropology that I had left. He scribbled a number on my grading sheet, a number I was shocked to see: a 29. I thanked him and almost ran out of the room with glee and fear that he might run after me and take it back.
And so ended my first Italian exam, only 5 more to go!