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.

I remember reading a comment some years ago from a Long Island mother (quoted in, I believe, Newsday) who was infuriated to learn her 20 year old child might have had access to alcohol at a party. I was struck by her casual use of the word “child”…. to describe a 20 year old. I wondered how she might have felt about her “child” having found herself on a study abroad program in London or Paris, where alcohol would be legally available to her? Would her “child” have been mature enough to handle it?

It would seem unlikely. And that mother is definitely not the only one to speak that way in the U.S., of course. Clearly taking their cue from the wider society (in the context of alcohol at least), law enforcement refers regularly and patronizingly to 20 year olds as “kids.”

In comparison, by age 21 Europeans already have had some three years’ acquaintance with legal alcohol. If they wish to, they are free to experience pubs, clubs and bars as the adults they are, and from which their American counterparts in the U.S. are banned. Such experience exposes Europeans earlier than Americans to adult socializing, which assists in the inevitable maturation process that follows on from that exposure.

The higher U.S. drinking age is a bit of a culture shock also to 18-20 year old Europeans accustomed to being able to drink and socialize as the adults they are at home; when in the U.S., they find themselves abruptly relegated to “childhood.” The ability legally to buy and drink alcohol is certainly not everything. Yet legal access to alcohol and the social environs in which it is often consumed, is also one of the generally accepted, major signifiers, of adulthood.

Arriving in Europe on their study abroad adventures, often traveling without parental supervision for the first time, and out from under law which treats them as children well-beyond the age when they are actually children, are American students under-prepared to cope with finding themselves among European contemporaries who are more socially advanced and mature than themselves?

I worked for a British university for six years, and in the novel I touch on aspects of what I observed. It should not be this way, but in Europe too many U.S. undergraduates unfortunately display an almost shocking social naïveté and immaturity compared to their European peers. Socially, an American 20 year old seems far too often essentially the equivalent of a European 17 year old. It is hard to pinpoint to what extent the 21 year old U.S. drinking age may contribute to that, but it is difficult to believe it has had little impact.