Being an American in Europe comes with responsibility



Mary Rugolo

We walk into the cafeteria in a clump, talking over each other about classes, teachers and homework. After all, it is a new semester and there is a lot to say. At first our easy conversation distracts me from the fact that upon our arrival, the entire cafeteria grows hushed. Yet as we walk further into the room it becomes impossible not to notice. As though a pariah had emerged in their midst, the rest of the students at the tables openly stare and whisper. Some even point. Their murmurs fell inaudibly on our ears, yet one phrase was understandable, “gli americani.” 

We are the Americans. And as Americans we were born thinking that we are the center of the world. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing because in our defense America is all we know. We went from our cities and towns to our high schools to Villanova, which—let’s face it—is sheltered. In our little Villanova world we are comfortable. We understand the social norms, the cues of society and most importantly, the language. We blend in because we are all the same. 

But what happens when we are placed out of our comfort zone, let’s say in a foreign country? All of a sudden everything we knew is questioned. We are no longer the norm, we are the exception. 

This semester I am studying in Italy. Every day when I walk outside my door to go to class I am reminded that I am not in America by the narrow cobblestone streets, the smell of coffee and the rapid Italian chattering. But even with the different view outside my window it is obvious that what is normal in America is not considered normal here. 

As Americans in a foreign country, we have different expectations we need to live up to. Although we are only 19 and 20, to some of these Italians we are the only representation of America they will encounter. We are the voice of our country, and that’s a lot of pressure to put on a teenager. 

For one thing, we are expected to be up to date on what is happening in our country and the world in general. We need to know America’s stance on these issues as well as the policies being made. Not only are we expected to know the details of these happenings, but we are also expected to have opinions on them and be able to defend those policies and our own opinions. I have been asked my opinion on President Obama, Donald Trump and American healthcare. These are conversations that I barely have at school, but in Europe they are considered everyday topics to talk about over lunch or at the bars. Even if we are only teenagers, for Italians, talking to a real American is a chance to get an insider’s look on the issues they have learned about. 

The bars are another scene where Americans have expectations to live up to—but in this case we have stereotypes to overcome. We’re not 21. That means that in America we can’t legally drink. In Europe there is a completely different drinking culture. In America college students are known for ripping back shots or hard alcohol and drinking out of kegs. They are known for getting drunk and their sloppiness. For lack of better words, they are known for being immature. The opposite is expected of European college students, specifically in Italy. The drinking age in Italy is 18. However, most of the students at the University have been sipping wine with their families for years. It is part of their culture. Their idea of a night out is to go drink a glass of wine or a beer before dinner, called appertivo, and then to hole up in a bar somewhere and share a bottle of wine between friends. They go out to talk and dance while drinking in the process. Americans go out with the sole purpose of drinking. 

Pair this with the portrayal of American teenagers in movies and there is a large amount of stereotypes American students need to overcome while studying abroad. For some college students in Europe the only portrayal of America and Americans is movies such as “The Hangover,” “21 Jump Street” and “The Neighbors.” In other words, movies where teenagers are known for having limited control when it comes to alcohol and social scenes. This idea of the party culture results in American students having to be more aware of their limits and behavior at the bars and when out with the other students. We need to break down that stereotype of being wild and drunk and adapt to the culture of the cities and countries we are in. We have the power to break down a stereotype. 

To some Europeans, we are America. And in many ways that is so incredibly exciting and humbling to have that responsibility. We have the power to represent our great nation, even if it is in a small way. We are gli americani.