June 27, 2007

Drinking codes 2

While I am on a spree (see yesterday’s post), I would like to tell you a story that happened a few years ago while I was working in cultural exchange sending Italian high school and university students to do work and study programs abroad.

An Italian 17-year old girl went on a three-week high school program run by an American university for both American and foreign students. In addition to language study, they could take academic courses and activities such as art and drama -- an expensive and prestigious program.

On arrival, the students had an orientation in which they received THE RULES, lots of them. My sons have been through the same process every summer at day and overnight summer camps in the US. As my then 13-year old told me, “they tell us not to do the stupidest things that we would never have even thought of doing…..until they told us not to do them.”

At the end of the session, the students signed off on THE RULES and a ZERO TOLERANCE clause – immediate expulsion from the program on infringement of any rule, for example, no alcohol.

A few days later, our Italian student was discovered in a pub with two American girls. She had a small beer in front of her, half empty.

First I made a “cultural case”. Although she had signed a zero tolerance form, she had intimately understood (it’s a context thing) that she simply shouldn’t get drunk (and why would she want to do that?). So, when the American girls invited her to join them (what a great way to practice her English and fit in) she went along. The American girls were “transgressing” alla grande. Our Italian, not being so used to rules and their universal and inevitable application, was….let’s say, culturally confused. Only a few days before leaving Italy, she had gone out with her class and Jesuit priest teacher for a pizza to celebrate the end of the school year. With the pizza they all had shared coke, water and beer, so what was the big deal?

Then I made a “learning opportunity” case. I pleaded with the program director, “You could use this incident to have a frank, open discussion with the students about cultural differences in approaches to alcohol. The American students could even learn something from the Italians.”

In the end, rules are rules, and zero tolerance means zero tolerance – everyone is treated exactly the same, in every case, uniformly, with no consideration for outside circumstances.

She was sent home the next day. No reimbursement of fees. She had broken the rules. I think she is still confused.

A dopo-domani (from Trento),


Shelley - At Home in Rome said...

Interesting story. The punishment was pretty severe; she probably should have gotten a second chance. When I worked on study abroad programs here in Rome, no one was ever sent home after a first offense. But, at the same time, perhaps she should have been forewarned that in the States, sometimes it really is "rules are rules" and that there isn't such a tolerance for gray areas and "let's find a workable solution" when someone breaks the rules, as there might be here in Rome. I've certainly found that (in general, of course) Americans are more prone to respect a directive due to the fear of having real consequences, whereas a Roman might tend to think, yeah, that's what they're *telling* me to do, but surely there's a way around it. And this attitude stems from the fact that in their experience, it usually proves true. What do you think?

gillian said...

have been obsessivly eating grattacheca for the past 10 days or so and have had great fun watching the teenage boy interaction around my two neighborhood stands...to my eye, they seem to take up less "oxygen" than a group of american teens would in a similar space...talking quietly, noticing where my son had gone (when we were walking around each other on the corner)...a possible extension of public social norms?

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

I can't believe she was sent home. I guess they weren't playing when they said zero tolerance.

However, I bet if she was related to the program director she would have received just a warning.

I hope the city does something this drinking problem. Rome should not be like Daytona beach during spring break.

I was thinking of living in Trastevere when I move to Rome but many of my Roman friends (including some who live there) are advising against it, unless I find a place near Piazza Santa Cecilia which is quieter.

Elizabeth said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments.
Shelley. It was a severe punishment! It is true that in Italy (at least Rome -- I am in Trento now) there is more room for "interpretation" of rules, or their flexible application depending on the circumstances which leads to less fear of consequences.

You are certainly tuning into the subtle cultural differences! Isn't watching teenagers fascinating, the different way of interacting. Have a grattacheca for me.

NYC/Caribbean gal,
I would agree on the Santa Cecilia area over Pizza Trilussa. It is disturbing to see the drunken crowds and unfortuntately new norms will have to be enforced (for the foreigners!!)

silvia cambie said...

Hi Elizabeth,

thanks for visiting my blog. I'll be happy to meet up next time I am in Rome. In the meantime I will read your blog. Best, Silvia

Anonymous said...

I think the punishment was severe, even though she did sign a form and rules are rules. Maybe Americans just make too big of a deal about drinking. When I studied in the States I drank more than I ever had before in Europe. Maybe because a bud was cheaper than pop or sparkling water (my favorite)?

Elizabeth said...

Hi anonymous (Enrico I presume)
Americans do make a big deal about drinking that pushes youth to exceed. Then the big companies enter into the scene and underprice water -- figure that out!
thanks for your comment

Anonymous said...

Hi Elizabeth
just a quick note to let you know I'm not the anonym. that posted yesterday. But I too like sparkling water.;)


casacaudill said...

like others have mentioned, it's pretty bad when sparkling water costs more than a bottle of beer. i have to wonder if the repressive rules we have about drinking is what leads to so much binge & purge once teens head off to college (or in this case, Italy for a grand European adventure)?

As I mentioned in Shelley's blog, when we were in Rome in November, I was really turned off by the Campo at night because of the frat-boy mentality. I was disappointed that I hadn't been able to see it during the day, before the freaks come out at night, because it sounds like a really lovely area until the drinking starts.