American Study Abroad Students … And Alcohol

Back on Saturday, CNN reported on the death of a American college junior in Rome:

A U.S. student who went missing while studying abroad in Italy was found dead inside a railroad tunnel in central Rome, police there said Saturday.

Investigators are looking into the death of John Durkin, an economics major from Rye Beach, New Hampshire. The 21-year-old attended Bates College, but was one of six students from the Maine school taking part in a study abroad program in Rome through Trinity College in Connecticut, his school said. Both colleges are working with Italian authorities….

….He’s been in Rome for a little more than a month as part of a semester-long program, according to Tom Durkin, a family spokesman.

Two days ago, he went to a bar with a group of friends and never returned, according to the spokesman, who said he left the bar alone….

We do not know exactly what happened there yet, of course, so we should not jump to conclusions. That said, whenever we hear of such tragedies, I wince. I find I cannot but think on the incredible disservice we are doing in essentially infantilizing 18-20 year old American adults when it comes to banning them from access to legal alcohol.

Yes, we are told that young man was 21 – so had reached the “21 year old” age to drink legally in the U.S. However, that would have meant he was encountering alcohol legally for the first time in Rome three years later than young Europeans around him in that bar. Even if he had drunk legally at home briefly before venturing to Europe, the legal social alcohol scene (including how to consume sensibly, with whom to engage in a bar, when to stop, etc.) would still have been very new to him; and on top of that, he finds himself ignorant of local European social signals.

Obsessed as we appear to be in the U.S. with “protecting our kids,” are we honestly preparing study abroads for “18 year old” alcohol legality outside of the U.S.? Do we not realize that American 18-20 year olds in England, France, Italy, and elsewhere, find themselves mixing with young Europeans who are familiar with legal alcohol and adult behaviors surrounding it? In compelling American 18-20 year olds at home into drinking as an “underground activity,” when they find suddenly they can consume booze “above ground” legally in places like Italy are those young Americans mature enough to handle it?

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It seems not, and it is no joke. When I worked in a London university, I noticed that when it came to alcohol American study abroad undergraduates often behaved like kids let loose in a candy store without parental supervision. Effectively, we force an extended childhood on them at home, but we don’t appear to want to reflect on the dangerous ramifications of that for when they “leave the nest” and fly off to study abroad.

She Had Better Not Get Less Than A “B”

Leaving aside the question of whether one Amanda Knox is guilty, let’s briefly consider a broader issue. I had noted back in December that there seem to be Americans ages 18, 19 and 20, wandering around abroad who look just like adults. Usually they speak like adults too.

However, behind the adult facade, far too many are still, emotionally, essentially little more than “spoiled children.” Their being so far behind in their maturation process is not their fault; it is America’s fault. It should be a source of U.S. national embarrassment and a cause for soul-searching, yet it prompts neither.

It all starts at least a decade before. As they are schooled, they are “adored.” They are always assured they are “special.” As the saying now goes, “Everyone gets a gold star.”

By 18, they don’t lack for “self-esteem.” In fact, often quite the opposite. They may well possess a “superiority complex.” They think an affected naivete and a (“What? Innocent me?”) grin will always serve as a – no pun intended – get out of jail free card. They are sure they are never in the wrong, never to blame for anything.

“I am a wonderful person.” Of that, they are totally convinced. “I have a voice!” they cry out. “The world just doesn’t understand what I am.” How often do we hear that?

With that mentality, many venture overseas. If you have seen Amanda Knox interviewed, or read any of her voluminous – usually opaque, often muddled, and sometimes incoherent – literary efforts, there is something disturbingly ordinary, and irritatingly familiar, about her. You know her somehow. I suspect many of us have run into “Amandas” at times over the last two generations. (And don’t think this is only about women; they are young men also.)

Too regularly, I taught them in U.S. college classes. You can spot the type almost immediately. She had better not get less than a “B,” or she’ll complain to the Dean and her parents.

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Of course, almost none of those other similarly stunted 18-21 year old Americans abroad end up going as far as also being convicted of murder. Yet given all that has been said, written, and revealed in global media about her immature behavior in Italy as a 20 year old prior to the murder, Amanda Knox is now probably the most well-known American study abroad student ever. That is nothing to be proud of as a country.

Creativity From Anger?

You may not have considered this, but it may be worth asking it of yourself. Do you find you write better when you’re feeling generally contented? Or does it come easier when you’re irritated, down, and even angry?

I suspect the latter may provide a burst of extra creativity over a short-term which likely cannot – indeed, should it? – be maintained throughout an entire work. Meaning a brief keyboard-thumping literary tantrum might be helpful … up to a point. For if you do have one, you may have also accidentally produced an outline for something which, after a good clean up (and a few deep breaths) may result in a sharp (and perhaps unexpected) story-point.

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Why do I raise this? Personal experience. During mid-2013, I found myself increasingly infuriated as I became aware of fawning news coverage granted to a certain individual. For several weeks, the incessant media background noise seemed inescapable.

One morning, with Twitter open on my PC next to Word (as it usually is when I write), some tweet I saw jolted me into realizing that person’s stupid and immature behaviors years earlier provided story material. It was like the proverbial light bulb going off above my head. It was too good to pass up: I found myself weaving in a subplot revolving around the troubles caused by, uh, a tearaway, self-absorbed U.S. college student in Italy who makes life extremely unpleasant for her English roommate.

Once again, from where “fiction” sometimes comes….

Consular Access? Uh, Maybe….

Americans’ reactions to Amanda Knox‘s treatment in the Italian justice system are often intriguing. Some seem to feel she is an “innocent abroad” Italian prosecutors have decided to persecute despite there being “no evidence” of her guilt. Others appear to think she is a victim of a foreign miscarriage of justice.

Italians “targeting” her – from among thousands of other U.S. students in Italy each year – hardly seems credible. As for a “foreign miscarriage of justice”? U.S. official responses to her arrest, trial and conviction undermine that contention also.

The U.S. Embassy in Rome was notified by Italian authorities within hours of her arrest in November 2007, and she was subsequently visited in jail regularly by American consular officers. U.S. officials kept an eye on her murder trial and visited her in prison after her conviction. Throughout, the U.S. appears never to have lodged any complaints with the Italian government about a “biased” or “shoddy” prosecution.

Interestingly, commiserating with Ms. Knox’s plight, Tony Renzo, a 23 year old Italian who had participated in a semester-abroad program in the USA, recently told USA Today:

“This story is like a nightmare for students abroad,” … “It’s so frightening to think about getting arrested in a foreign country.”

Mr. Renzo makes an excellent point there perhaps inadvertently. Objectively it could be extremely “frightening” to be a foreign national arrested…. in some states in the U.S. Due to the U.S. federal system, “international law” is often of no concern to state-level officials. CNN:

….Edgar Tamayo Arias, a Mexican national, was executed at 9:32 p.m. [January 22] CT, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said….

The Mexican government had vehemently protested his pending execution, asserting that he, as a Mexican national, had been denied access to Mexican consular help. CNN continues:

….The Bush and Obama administrations had urged Texas and other states to grant Tamayo and inmates in similar situations new hearings, fearing repercussions for Americans arrested overseas.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has also weighed in on Tamayo’s case, arguing that setting an execution date is “extremely detrimental to the interests of the United States.”

“I want to be clear: I have no reason to doubt the facts of Mr. Tamayo’s conviction, and as a former prosecutor, I have no sympathy for anyone who would murder a police officer,” Kerry wrote. “This is a process issue I am raising because it could impact the way American citizens are treated in other countries.”

That “process issue” evidently matters not at all to the state of Texas:

Lucy Nashed, a spokeswoman for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, said the state was committed to enforcing its laws.

“It doesn’t matter where you’re from — if you commit a despicable crime like this in Texas, you are subject to our state laws, including a fair trial by jury and the ultimate penalty,” she said.

However, as Secretary Kerry noted, Tamayo’s guilt was accepted; the issue was the question of disregarding the process agreed under “international law,” and in doing so creating difficulties reciprocally for Americans arrested abroad. Meaning is the U.S. upholding its end of the 1963 Vienna Convention, which the U.S. ratified, and allows U.S. diplomats to visit Americans who are arrested overseas?

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It is easy to imagine the indignant rhetoric that would have come flying from the Texas governor’s office if Ms. Knox had been a Texan and Italian authorities in Perugia had denied her U.S. consular help. Yet given that Texans do travel outside of the U.S., we may hear some for real someday regarding someone else, because with that execution the state of Texas may have just made life a little tougher for U.S. citizens abroad like Amanda Knox. It will become harder for the U.S. to argue it is entitled to consular access to its arrested nationals abroad when certain U.S. domestic jurisdictions choose to wave aside that reciprocal right to access when it comes to someone else’s.

Escaping An Extended Childhood

The other day it was reported American Amanda Knox (who had been convicted in Italy of the murder of British student Meredith Kercher in Perugia in November 2007, had seen that conviction overturned in 2011, and then saw that overturning itself overturned in March 2013) had sent an email from the U.S. – via her Italian lawyers – to the appeals court in Florence. That court is expected to rule in January on the original conviction. In the email, Knox maintains her innocence, and again asserts she was mistreated by Italian authorities.

Syracuse, Sicily, street signs. [Photo by me, 2006.]

Syracuse, Sicily, street signs. [Photo by me, 2006.]

The specifics of the case, and her claims, are not the concern here. Rather, given Knox’s email, suddenly I flashed back once again to an NPR piece from March 2008, a scant five months after the murder. It addressed the issue of U.S. students in Florence, and may be worth revisiting here briefly:

Every year, tens of thousands of young Americans decide to take a year and study abroad. But in places such as Florence, Italy, reports of widespread binge drinking and rowdy behavior are increasingly causing concern….

….Many of the Americans have never traveled outside their home states before. And some turn the entire school semester into one long spring break….

What is evident about Knox is not how unique she was in Italy, but that prior to the murder it seems she was unremarkable there. As with others, she appears to have viewed her sojourn mostly as a get away from home lark. Similarly, her lifestyle seems to have been, one might say, fueled by finding herself able to enjoy alcohol legally and frequent bars and clubs for the first time…. at age 20.

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