Antonella Lentini (left) rehearses a student-written play at the Florence International Theater Company, as part of a program that aims to give foreign students something to do at night that doesn't involve alcohol.
Antonella Lentini (left) rehearses a student-written play at the Florence International Theater Company, as part of a program that aims to give foreign students something to do at night that doesn't involve alcohol. Tommaso Fontanella
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.
At one of the dozens of pubs in the city's center, six U.S. students were tipping back mojitos on a recent Sunday night. Peanut shells covered the floor of the bar, where five euros buys you five drinks.
They might have enjoyed a night on the town, but their good times give some locals a hangover.
Letizia Biagi, a saleswoman at a nearby leather goods shop, spent part of the next day clearing the sidewalk of the nightly detritus: plastic cups and empty vodka bottles.
"Italians go to those pubs only on weekends, but the Americans are there every night," Biagi said. "And then they complain about Italian men seducing them. They go around in miniskirts up to here, half undressed. They get drunk. What do they expect?"
An estimated 7,000 Americans, 80 percent of whom are women, come to Florence every year through about 40 study-abroad programs.
In 1966, after a destructive flood hit the city, U.S. students were affectionately dubbed "mud angels" after helping to salvage endangered works of art.
But lately, the American image has become tarnished.
Graziano Cioni, a city councilman in charge of security, recalled a night when about 20 young women were found drunk on the street at 4 a.m. What sticks out about the Americans, he said, is that many are well-heeled women who are often seen vomiting off to the sides of the cobblestone streets.
Cioni stressed that only about 10 percent of the American students in Florence binge drink, and he said it is also beginning to be a problem among Italians.
"You have this group of students who come and they have great passion and enthusiasm, and then they don't know quite what to do when they get here or where to go," he said "The city is not open to them outside of their classrooms; it's a difficult city to get to know and connect to."
Many of the Americans have never traveled outside their home states before. And some turn the entire school semester into one long spring break. Italian bar owners are tapping into this burgeoning demand with special offers like ladies night, while tour operators organize night-long pub crawls.
"The No. 1 market in Florence is tourism and the second is the American college student," observed Bari Hochwald, who lives and teaches in Florence. "They are the dominant factors in the historic center of the city. Florentines don't live here, it doesn't belong to them anymore, and they're resentful of that and they should be."
As an alternative to pub crawls, Hochwald founded a program she calls "creative campus" at the Florence International Theater.
The program's latest student-written performance centers on stereotypes, such as the American party girl and the Italian Latin lover.
During a break from rehearsing lines with a young Florentine man, Antonella Lentini of New York said her scene was inspired by what she saw during her first week in Florence.
"After one of the experiences of seeing this American girl just like basically strip on the bar ... it made my friends and I feel really embarrassed to be here and be American and kind of want to hide that we were American," she said.
With the increased number of young women in Florence drinking until the wee hours has come an increase in the number of reported rapes, and perhaps many that may go unreported.
City authorities have begun to crack down. They've imposed a 1 a.m. ban on serving alcohol in bars and have placed closed circuit TV cameras throughout the city center. They're also working more closely with study-abroad programs to provide students with activities outside the classroom that don't involve raising a glass.