Let me just save readers a lot of nasty comments by saying: “I am American. These are not necessarily MY views, but rather the views that have been expressed to me, many times, by multiple non-Americans (mainly Italians).”
So just calm down, everyone. I’m writing this to start a discussion, to open our minds, and to provoke some change or, at least, a little awareness. If the following 10 reasons don’t pertain to the way you act abroad; great! If they do, ask yourself if this the way you’d like to portray “American” to the rest of the world.
And, don’t get mad at me for writing, or Italians for thinking, these things. Stereotypes are often exaggerated, but usually based on some sort of truth.
Without further ado, the “ugly American:”
1. We “Don’t Know Anything About The Country”
I’d blame a lot of this on our education system. Americans learn a lot about the ancient history of powerful countries, but our enlightenment tends to stop somewhere between archaic kings and WWII. I can remember several history classes where we simply ran out of days in the year to finish our course book, leaving us guessing what the rest of the modern world was like. This question mark was filled in by 1) whatever was on TV (daily news about violence and war) and, 2) anyone we knew that had traveled outside the country. The latter might have been a bit limited considering a statistic I calculated myself (using the U.S. Department of State’s Valid Passports In Circulation and U.S. Population numbers): only 35% of Americans have passports (meaning, of course, that an even smaller percentage actually use them).
Do yourself a favor and if you don’t know anything about where you’re about to jet off to; admit it. Google search “Italy” or “Florence” before you get here and read basic things like where exactly the city is, what things are there, important people, etc. It will literally take a few minutes and it will save you from saying things like “I’d really love to go to Tuscany.” (Florence is in Tuscany) Or, “Oh my God! The Spanish Steps! (Those are in Rome). Or Italians least favorite, “Christopher Columbus was Spanish!” (He died in Spain, but was born in Italy).
2. We “Drink A Lot”
The drinking culture in Italy is very different from that of America. Italians are introduced to alcohol in their early years, (in fact, it’s not uncommon to see children having a small glass of wine along with their families in a restaurant), and become legal drinkers at the tender age of 16. They got all the crazy stuff we do after we turn 21 out of their systems a long time ago (under the watchful eyes of Italian moms), and think it’s funny that we still have this “youthful” mentality when we’re technically adults.
Americans in Florence get really excited about being able to legally drink in public. Italians will happily sip a cocktail outside a bar, but swigging from a bottle of wine or 40 oz. beer in the streets is generally reserved for drunks and teenagers. So, pop all the bottles you want in the piazzas, but know that it’s not “so Italian.”
Moreover, alcohol and spirits in Italy are divided into strict categories of what you drink before, during and after a meal, and are drunk slowly, to be enjoyed. Do Italians still get drunk? Of course. But, you probably won’t see them lining up shots or shotgunning beers. And sadly, almost all the people I’ve seen vomiting on, passed out in, or staggering barefoot down the definitely not clean Florence streets are American.
3. We’re “Loud”
Italians are the kings of dramatic language and exaggerated gestures, but it’s surprisingly often American voices that make heads turn. I’m still not sure if it’s the excitement, the intimidation, or the fact that the newness and impermanency of a vacation makes us feel like we’re living in a fantasy world; but we do tend to express these emotions emphatically. So if you’re wondering why “all the Italians are looking at” [you], it’s probably because you’re shouting. And, if you plan on singing or screaming your way through the streets late at night, expect a shower. I know both a lot of Italians who throw water out their indistinguishable, high up windows, and several American victims.
4. We “Don’t Learn The Language”
Americans can easily go their whole lives without feeling the necessity to learn another language. Sandwiched in between seldom traveled Canada and tourist paradise Mexico, the demand to communicate cross-culturally just isn’t there the way it is in in Europe. With top travel destinations including Florida, California and Cancun, there’s usually no need to whip out a bilingual dictionary. Plus, English is the world-language. Arrive at what you think is the end of the earth and there will probably be someone to greet you with a, “hello.”
In Florence, everyone speaks English very well; it can be difficult to win them over and get them to speak Italian with you. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Knowing how to communicate, or simply putting forth some effort, will dramatically change your experience abroad. You’ll earn Italians trust and respect. You’ll feel more comfortable, less confused and most importantly, like you really interacted with the culture.
If you’re going to be in Italy for a few months, take an Italian class before you get on the plane. If you’re just vacationing, at least learn “hello” “goodbye” “please” and “thank you” (Hey, with “ciao” you’ve already got the first two covered). Or, take a look at some useful phrases online. “10 Italian Slang Expressions You Can’t Live Without” written by the unbelievably talented, Whitney Richelle, is highly recommended. 😉
5. We “Complain”
In America, this store would be open on Sunday. In America, they have ranch dressing at all restaurants. In America, people don’t smoke so many cigarettes. Yes, but did you forget the reason you came here? You wanted to experience something that WASN’T America. So, point out differences gently, as it can often seem that we’re saying our country is better. Or, save the complaints altogether and silently appreciate the contrasts between your homeland and the new place you chose to come to. A lot of people dream of traveling the world and don’t have the money or means to do so.
6. We’re “Always With Other Americans”
Americans tend to hang out in “packs.” If you come to Florence, you’ll probably run into a parade of young, U.S. citizens marching down the street, in formation at the grocery store, or lined up at a restaurant. Why there’s absolutely nothing wrong with sticking with your friends, it also doesn’t do you any harm to integrate with Italians and other Europeans while you’re here. There are plenty of websites to help you get together: language tandem, couchsurfing weekly international meetings, AEGEE student association cultural events, or ask us about our own Studentsville activities. If these aren’t your cup of tea, try simply going to a cafe by yourself and starting up a conversation or letting one be start up with you. Mingling with different nationalities will make your time abroad guaranteed better. And your new friends will be the perfect excuse to come back to Italy, or jet off to another corner of the globe to reunite.
7. We’re “Always Looking For American Things”
Yes, there’s a McDonald’s, a Subway, a Ben and Jerry’s, a Hard Rock Cafe and plenty of American bars in Florence, and yes, if you don’t frequent these places in your 3 day to 3 month stay in Italy, they will all still be waiting for you when you get home. It really is a shame to see tourists in line at these places when there is potentially the best meal or time of their lives just around the corner. Do and try as many new things as you can while you’re here. I can assure you back in America, you won’t be wishing you had eaten more french fries in Italy.
8. We’re “Spoiled”
Wikipedia says that less than 1% (!) of American students study abroad, and my statistic above shows that only about 1/3 of us travel outside the country. From these numbers, we can all agree that Italians get to see a very limited picture of Americans. People that have the funds to live or vacation overseas are generally more well-off than the rest of the population, leading Italians to think all Americans are “extremely wealthy” and “have it all.” They see tourists with Louis Vuitton purses, the newest iPhones, checking into the nicest hotels. They hear students talking about how “their parents are paying for everything,” or they’ll just “put it on Dad’s credit card.” Why you obviously can’t do anything about your economic status, if you’re one of the fortunate few, try to keep your prosperity on the DL.
9. We’re “Promiscuous”
An overwhelming amount of American students and vacationers in Florence are female. The fairy tale palaces, enchanting art, and passionate people all have a seductive pull on the ladies, drawing them here in large numbers and with imaginative expectations. They’re often are a little too eager to make their own “Italian love story” unfurl, and allow dark and handsome (sadly, not usually tall) Italian men to sweep them off their feet. But girls, girls, girls, you can put a man into a more romantic country but you can’t put more romanticism into a man. While Italians are better at playing the game (and they know it!), men want the same thing, everywhere. Living in Florence is like having a piece of property on a cloud in Heaven for Italian men. There’s a constant stream of fresh, pretty female travelers, who are here today and gone tomorrow. Have fun, but keep in mind that in the end, a love story needs LOVE to earn it’s name. So before you jump into your own “Italian experience,” ask yourself if you’d be doing the same thing at home. Love in Italy is just as hard to find as it is on the rest of the planet.
10. We “Dress Inappropriately”
Italians take great pride in their appearance and manage to maintain a sophisticated air of classiness at all times. In line at the post office, taking out the garbage, leaving the landromat, expect to encounter Gucci model look-a-likes in the strangest of places. If you leave the house with wet hair and sweatpants you’re going to stand out, if you leave the house half-naked at any time of the year, especially when it’s cold outside, you’re going to cause a scene.
Contrary to America, Italian men are the ones in form-fitting clothes, while Italian women dress more modestly. Looking good in Italy means tailored not tight, flattering not revealing, and of course color coordinated and appropiately layered for the season.
I regularly see female Americans half runway walking, half stumbling all over bulky cobblestones in their 5-inch stilettos, a little cheek peeking out of their miniskirts in the 50 degree “heat” as Italians whistle and call out in what the girls believe to be gestures of affection. If they really knew what the locals were saying, I’m sure they’d teeter right home to change their outfits.
If you are some kind of expert high heel master, go ahead and brave the uneven streets of Florence on point. If you are a superhuman with thermal skin, take those bare legs out for a walk in January. Otherwise, put on a some flats and a scarf and look even cuter when you manage to stay upright and warm the whole night. Falling down and turning blue aren’t sexy.