ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
America's image abroad is also shaped by Americans abroad. Now, we'd like to think that most American tourists treat the people and cultures they encounter with respect, but there are those who don't. And we're talking not only about the stereotypical ugly Americans, the ones with loud voices and boorish manners. It turns out that some U.S. students in Italy are hitting the bars as much as the books.
NPR's Sylvia Poggioli tells us about one place where young Americans are making a nuisance of themselves: Florence, Italy.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: It's Sunday night, 10 p.m., and peanut shells already carpet the floor of one of the dozens of pubs in the city center. Six American students are drinking mojitos. Here, five euros will buy you five drinks. Next day, at a nearby leather good shop, saleswoman Letizia Biagi has just cleaned up her sidewalk from the nightly detritus: plastic cups and empty bottles of vodka.
Ms. LETIZIA BIAGI (Salesperson): (Speaking in foreign language)
POGGIOLI: In their country, they can't drink so young. Here, even children are offered wine, but Italians go to those pubs only on weekends, Biagi says, while the Americans are there every night. And then, she adds, they complain about Italian men seducing them. They go around in miniskirts up to here, half undressed, they get drunk, what do they expect?
About 7,000 Americans study in Florence in some 40 study-abroad programs, and 80 percent of them are women. American students here were affectionately dubbed the mud angels when they helped salvage endangered artworks after the destructive 1966 Florence flood. But lately, the American image has been tarnished.
Graziano Cioni, the city councilman in charge of security, remembers when he found about 20 young women plastered drunk, out cold on the street at 4 a.m. What sticks out about the Americans, he says, is that so many are well-heeled young women, often seen vomiting on the side of the cobblestone streets. Cioni says binge drinking is starting to be a problem also with Italians, and he stresses it affects only 10 percent of the entire American student population here.
Mr. GRAZIANO CIONI (Public Safety Officer, Florence City Council): (Through translator) But Americans do stick together. It is hard to see American students hanging out with Italian students. They are a clique, a close community.
Ms. BARI HOCHWALD (Artist; Teacher, Florence International Theater Company): You have this group of students who come, and they have great passion and enthusiasm.
POGGIOLI: Bari Hochwald lives and teaches in Florence.
Ms. HOCHWALD: And then they don't quite know what to do when they get here or where to go. The city is not open to them, outside their classroom. It's a difficult city to get to know and to connect to.
POGGIOLI: Most of the students have never been out of their state before, and some of them turn the entire school semester into one long spring break. Italian bar owners have tapped into the big student market with special offers like Ladies' Night, while tour operators organize night-long pub crawls.
Ms. HOCHWALD: Number one market in Florence is tourism and the second is the American college student. And that's why both tourism and the American college student own Centro right now. They are the dominant factors in this 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.
POGGIOLI: As an alternative to pub crawls, Hochwald founded a program she calls creative campus at the Florence International Theatre. The theme of the latest student-written performance was about stereotypes like the American party girl and the Italian Latin lover.
Ms. HOCHWALD: All right, so whenever you're ready.
POGGIOLI: At a rehearsal, New Yorker Antonella Lentini and a young Florentine man were reciting their parts onstage.
Ms. ANTONELLA LENTINI (Actress): (As character) In fact, many female students who study abroad fantasize of meeting a hot Italian man, and I can't help but wonder, is it our own fantasy that builds the chauvinism and stigmatism that we receive from some Italian men?
Unidentified Man: (Speaking in foreign language)
POGGIOLI: Lentini says her scene was inspired by what she saw the first week she was in Florence.
Ms. LENTINI: After one of the experiences I've seen, this American girl at Astro Café basically stripped on the bar and, like, my friends and I feel really embarrassed to be here and be American and kind of want to hide that we were American.
POGGIOLI: Angia Biel(ph) of North Carolina says it took a while to get used to Italian men ogling her on the street, but she admits the Italian language can be seductive.
Ms. ANGIA BEIL (North Carolina Resident): In America, you're not going to have - you have guys, like, hey, girl, you know? But for some reason, a romantic language like Italian, it sounds a little better than hey, girl, what's up, you know? They're acting just like American guys, but the language makes it more entertaining, I think, for the female.
POGGIOLI: Drinking until the wee hours of the morning leaves many young women Florence off guard and more vulnerable to sexual assault or even rape. City authorities have begun to crack down. They've imposed a 1 a.m. ban on serving alcohol in pubs; they've put closed-circuit TV cameras throughout the city center; and they're working more closely with administrators of study-abroad programs to provide alternative activities for young students -something like this performance at the Florence International Theatre, where Jordan Classic(ph) of Nebraska pays tribute to Italian popular music.
Mr. JORDAN CLASSIC (Nebraska Resident): (Singing) Cantare, oh, oh, oh…
POGGIOLI: Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News.
Mr. CLASSIC: (Singing) …through the clouds, away from the maddened crowds. We can sing in the glow of the stars that I know…