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Home  > Article

The American Reputation

By Lydia Wilmot

The story of Amanda Knox has made being an American abroad even more challenging--especially for those of us who care to defend our homeland.

Americans are fascinating people.  We have a culture that is transmitted all over the world and a way of life so uniquely us (or US). But the foreign view of what that means is often grossly skewed. 

Here in Italy, where I've spent two solid years of my life,  American culture is transmitted through "great cultural icons" like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. On television, Italians see our Super Sweet Sixteens, and they hear how even songs about umbrellas become hits if you make them sexual enough.  

Since I've lived in my new apartment in Milan, my roommate has asked me about frat parties, pancakes and if New York City is really the way it looks on Sex and the City.  I answer her questions and try to tell her what it really means to be an American--while explaining that many people do actually study in college, and that our culture is about more than wallowing in an excess of everything.

Still, when I ask my roommate what she thinks of Americans, her response is "Siete fuori di testa" ("You're out of your minds").  

The death of Meredith Kercher, an English girl who was recently brutally murdered in the quiet city of Perugia, has stoked the fires of all the ugly American stereotypes in Italy and now, the world.  A terrible event that rocked a usually peaceful town known for its superior chocolate has been sensationalized by the Italian media, and the death of this unfortunate girl completely overshadowed by her American roommate.  

Amanda Knox, the "Americana" in question, has become a symbol of American culture in the Italian press. She claims not to remember what happened the night of November first, except that she had been smoking hash.  Speculation about her involvement has overshadowed the actual details of the event, as headlines portray Amanda as a rapacious partier and man-eater.

What I am left with, as an American trying to make her way through the streets of Milan, living and working alongside Italians, is the indelible impression of American life that Amanda has left in the minds of the people here.  She has become an example of the American way of excess in everything, from drugs to alcohol to men to murder.  Those of us left here who like to spend a Saturday night on the town can now enjoy our martinis with a garnish of judgment--and frankly, I prefer olives.  

The Italians I meet all ask me if I've heard the latest on that "Americana pazza" (crazy American), and subsequently I explain that she was one case gone wrong of the Thousands of Americans who come here to study, learn and expand their horizons.  I remember that before studying abroad in Rome four years ago, I was issued a pamphlet reminding us that while abroad "we all represent America." Our girl from Seattle has shown that to be true.

What we are left with is another reminder that America is known as a country of overindulgence and gluttony, where people do everything to an unrealistic extreme, and the case of Amanda Knox is yet another cause to defend ourselves by explaining that she is not necessarily the norm.

My only hope is that the other Americans I've met in my time here will do their parts as cultural ambassadors to diffuse the better aspects of American culture--the traditions, the fun-loving, hard-working nature of our people and, of course, the classic Billy Joel songs.

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