I turned from my friends, took one step, and immediately forgot the Italian name of the drink I wanted.
It was my second month in Italy, but only my first month openly drinking. Like most American college students, I drank much younger than the legal age limit. Also like most American college students, I mostly drank fake cocktails that I hastily and crudely mixed in my dorm room or a friend’s apartment.
Now here I was, outside of a chic Italian bar in Florence, fielding small conversations in Italian with Italian men dressed much nicer than me. I felt simultaneously overwhelmed and overjoyed, so when the conversation hit a lull, I did what most do in such a situation – went to get a drink.
In America it’s usually just called a rum and coke. In Italy, however, it’s a cuba libre.
Cuba Libre was actually an independence group that fought to gain Cuba’s liberation from Spain on January 1, 1898 with help from the United States. Afterward, the U.S. effectively took control of the island as a “protectorate” of Cuba. American products began to flow into the small country, one of which was Coca-Cola.
The popular soft drink spread through the island like a drug, but no one knows who made that first cocktail – adding rum, sugar cane and a squirt of lime – nor who named it in honor of the independence movement.
Walking away from the group, I was trying to force my memory, running words through my head and thinking about the last time I ordered it. What was it called? I left the outdoor patio and stepped inside the dark bar. Girls in heels and sleek Italian men towered over me. I weaved in and out of dancing, talking, drinking people, heading for the backlit bar. I couldn’t remember the name of the drink, but ‘no problem,’ I thought, ‘I’ll just describe it.’
Reddening, I tried again, “A rum and coke. A coca-cola with rum.”
My one-on-one Italian classes were nearly incomprehensible for me. My trips to the store usually resulted in only half of what I really needed and being relied on as my roommates’ Italian-to-English translator was fast unveiling me as a fraud. At the bartender’s blank stare my carefully constructed, smooth Italian-chic façade instantly began to crumble.
“Rum. Coke,” I was getting desperate. “A rum and coke!?” I screamed at the confused bartender.
Nose crinkled, lip pulled up at the side, he said: “Cuba libre.”
That’s the one!
I halted progress on the demolition of my new Italian-style self, grabbed my drink and whirled around to go join my friends.
Recently Barack Obama and Raul Castro reached an agreement, potentially leading the way to free travel between the two countries. Right after, on January 1, Cuba celebrated the anniversary of its liberation and, I now confidently call the cocktail a cuba libre in all relevant social situations.
I had no idea what to expect when I first came to study abroad. I had very little idea of how to handle myself and was all too aware of making a fool of myself. Too often we let our fear of embarrassing ourselves overshadow our upcoming trips, holding us back from experiencing it fully. Growing up, going abroad means making a lot of mistakes. Don’t let 50 years pass before reevaluating. Maybe you will make a fool of yourself, but you will also learn something – even if it is just the name of a cocktail. Maybe you will make mistakes, but you can learn from those mistakes. Maybe, just maybe, learning from those mistakes is the true way to be libre.