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Drunken Debauchery in Rome

27 Jun

I was NOT planning to write a post on this, but yesterday I was sent this article by three different people, and I’m figuring if three people saw it and sent it to me, then probably a lot more people have seen it and were left wondering if the situation is really like this in my neighborhood.

The article shows a photo of a bottle-littered Piazza Trilussa, a drunken body lying prone on the steps on a Sunday morning. Not exactly what the little old ladies going to church are probably wanting to step over.

The article also talks about residents of my neighborhood hanging white sheets off of their balconies to protest the noise level and rowdy tourist behavior going on below their windows.

Late last week, I received a flyer from the person organizing the white sheet initiative. I have to say that I feel quite blessed because my side of the neighborhood is about a 10-minute walk from Piazza Trilussa, the focus of the article, and that really does make a world of difference. We are lucky to be tucked away in a quiet little corner where there’s no real tourist action. Although our street is one of the liveliest in the neighborhood, luckily our side of the street is a small portion that is cut by the main street. Most people congregate on the other end of the street, a couple minute’s walk away, and disperse when they reach the main street, before they reach our end. Thankfully there’s not much going on downstairs where we are to attract people after dark. We have a fruit stand, a stationery shop, a coffee bar, a photographer’s gallery, and a hospital clinic, all of which close in the early evening. The restaurant downstairs is very low-key and attracts the occassional accordion player, but besides that, our area is very calm and quiet in comparison to the other side of the neighborhood.

Now that any potential future guests of mine can rest assured that they won’t be seeing images like the ones in the article underneath the windows of their rented vacation apartment, I’d like to address the larger root issue here, which has existed for many years in Rome but is only now really seeming to reach a boiling point. That issue is the drunken debauchery and lewd behavior performed nightly by tourists out for a good time… their definition of good time involving binge drinking in the piazzas.

If you talk to older generation Romans about Campo de’ Fiori, they’ll tell you that it wasn’t always the drunken college alley that it is today. They’ll tell you that it used to be quiet and peaceful. Hard to believe if you’ve been there any time past dark in the last few years. The piazza has been transformed into a mecca for tourists (and younger generation Italians) looking for a cheap way to get drunk. In the wee hours, fights can break out and bottles get broken on the street. It’s gross.

What I think caused the change is that about 10-12 years ago, some enterprising bar owners tapped into the US college student market and tailored bars to suit their tastes, fashioning them like bars near most college campuses in the States (hence the names of sister bars “Sloppy Sams” and “The Drunken Ship”). I used to be the director of a study abroad center here in Rome where we managed a large program for a prestigious US university, so I am all-too-familiar with what some (not all) students get up to when they are here. Binge drinking has perhaps always been somewhat of a problem in the realm of study abroad, but in the last few years when I was involved in the field, it seemed to be growing by leaps and bounds. Bars in Florence seem to be worse than Rome, offering drink specials like 15 shots for €15. At a conference once, I heard story after story of dangerous levels of alcohol poisoning in US college students told by the doctor in charge of a Florence hospital emergency room, and my colleagues all had horror stories of dangerous episodes that resulted from binge drinking. But Rome is hot on Florence’s heels. Just two days ago I saw an ad at a bar in Piazza Trilussa offering one-liter mint juleps.

For the under-21 study abroad students, obviously part of the allure is not being carded (the legal drinking age in Italy is 16). In Italy, alcohol (wine primarily) is such a part of the food culture that it’s never really seen as a means to get drunk, but rather as something to appreciate with a good meal. Italians of all ages seem to respect this, and I’ve read that Italy has one of the lowest rates of alcohol abuse in Europe.

For tourists, I think sometimes they feel that when they’re on vacation, they’re in a fairytale land where whatever they do on vacation stays on vacation, and they can really let loose and be someone they can’t be back home. For many people this involves binge drinking and the aftermath we see on Sunday mornings in places like Campo and now, sadly, Piazza Trilussa as well.

But the people who take part in this will defend it as well, saying that they have a right to have fun, and it’s not their fault if bar owners and tour operators offer pub crawls and drink specials that encourage people to overdo it.

I’m all for live and let live, but I do often feel for the people who live in Piazza Trilussa and Campo. Many of those families have probably been there for generations, like my husband’s family on our side of the neighborhood, and they just had the bad fortune to have a bunch of bars spring up underneath their windows. It’s really out of their hands now, and it is getting worse.

Another sad side effect of this new drinking culture is how it’s changing the views of Italian youth towards drinking. Ask most Italians in their 30s today and they’ll probably tell you that drinking just to get drunk wasn’t something they did when they were teenagers or in their early 20s. Italians of that generation have asked me, “Why do you Americans drink until you throw up?” Good question, right?

But today’s Italian teenagers and college generation have been introduced to this concept through the American-style bars and drink specials offered in places like Campo de’ Fiori, and it’s becoming more mainstream each year. I used to always tell my US university students that an Italian their age would never dream of being drunk in public, as it is seen as completely tacky…but that is becoming less and less true as the years go by.

I don’t really know what to say about this problem or how it can be resolved. I don’t know if we can clearly point the blame at just one source, or whose real fault it is. If there’s a market for it, it won’t go away. Where money is involved, and willing participants, my feeling is that it can only grow.

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19 Responses to “Drunken Debauchery in Rome”

  1. jessica in rome June 27, 2007 at 11:34 am #

    I have to admit when I first came as a tourist to Rome and stayed in a hostel, the pubcrawl was practically forced down my throat. I wanted to have a good time and had never been away from the US so I did it. I didn’t get CRAZY crazy but I got really drunk. And you are right Florence is worse than Rome. I think the appeal, like you said, is not being carded, but also in many places in the US you can’t drink alcohol on a bus, in the street, or anywhere in public. Now, I still can’t walk near a major attraction without getting hounded by a person my age with a flyer for a pubcrawl (those days are over, I’m married-haha). It’s sad because all the rowdyness can really ruin the atomsphere if you just want a nice passeggiata in the center. Will it get to the point where it is illegal to drink in the streets? It looks like it is heading that way.

  2. Michelle June 27, 2007 at 1:39 pm #

    If Giuliani were mayor, he’d nip it in the bud. 😉 If he could even pick on jaywalkers and the harmless hot dog cart guys in NYC, I’m sure he’d have some choice methods for eradicating drunken revelers. Probably create special gulags or something! On one hand, I too was a stupid college student once so I hate to be an old guastafeste. Thankfully when I studied in Mexico, I lived with Mexicans and knew no other Americans so I had little opportunity to be drunk in the plazas.

  3. nyc/caribbean ragazza June 27, 2007 at 4:53 pm #

    I stayed in Trastevere the two times I rented apartments. I was shocked by the drunken crowds. I know the bars just want to make money but can’t they lose their license or something? As for my fellow Americans, binge drinking is a major problem on college campuses. I guess being in a place where you can legally drink makes them feel like they can really cut lose. The larger question is why is there so much drinking to get drunk in our culture?

    Michelle, you are too funny! Giuliani as the mayor of Rome? Those guys selling bubble makeers in front of the Pantheon would be gone.

  4. Elizabeth Abbot June 27, 2007 at 5:01 pm #

    Hi Shelley,
    I received this article from a couple of friends and have spent the past two days writing on different aspects of cultural differences in drinking in my blog too (stop by — love to hear what you think). It is actually scary when you have an 18 and 19 year old, although from what I have seen, there is still a degree of “good taste” in today’s Italian youth and binge drinking is still not “in”. We even survived Matteo’s 18th birthday party (two drinks a head served at the locale, lots of food and soft drinks too) with no incidents (and we were there as they filed out at the end of the evening). The difference is quite striking and makes the Italian kids seem so much more mature despite living at home….

  5. Shelley, At Home in Rome June 27, 2007 at 5:02 pm #

    As far as I know, the city hasn’t taken/isn’t taking any measures to ban drinking outside. There isn’t much of a police presence in Piazza Trilussa. They’ve increased a bit in Campo de’ Fiori after residents’ insistence, and if I remember correctly, a couple years ago they even tried an initiative where there weren’t open containers allowed from certain hours, but I think it was “experimental”… I can’t remember if it actually worked or did anything.

    Veltroni, the mayor, has done a little bit in terms of parking (there are restrictions on cars entering the neighborhood), but like all things in Rome, there are ways around it, because not all entrances to Trastevere are equipped with a camera. In terms of drinking/noise I haven’t seen any real reaction…that’s what the posters hung from the windows are asking for.

    It’s a shame the bar owners/pub crawl people can’t be just a little bit more responsible, but after all, I guess they figure they’re in the business of getting people drunk, so that’s their job!

  6. Giulia June 27, 2007 at 5:10 pm #

    I’m not a big drinker. Will do so when I am in company, so I guess I am more of a “social drinker.” I too wonder why people drink soooo much to the point til they throw up? I never went to college, so maybe I am just out of the loop. Even if I had gone though, I don’t think I would have done that amount of drinking. It just seems so senseless!

  7. cheeky June 27, 2007 at 7:38 pm #

    It’s a sad state of affairs really. It seems it is a vicious circle. I’m sure the bar owners saw an opportunity to make money but in the end we are each responsible for our own actions. There is nothing attractive about drunken behaviour by anyone.

  8. dt June 28, 2007 at 1:35 am #

    I went to Florence last year as “mature” college student, and was amazed by the level of debauchery and drinking there. In my younger days I habituated the party resorts in Mexico, but they don’t hold a shadow to the drinking in Florence. Additionally since most of the students were girls, and underage for drinking in the US these girls got quite drunk and the Italian men congregated to these bars to take advantage of them. Parents beware if you send your daughters there!!!!

  9. marina June 28, 2007 at 2:49 am #

    I was fortunate enough not to see anyone getting drunk during my entire stay in Rome. Cart always insisted that Italians never drink to get drunk and that it was definitely not a classy trait.

    I think thats the bad part where tourism goes. That there is a possibility of bringing in certain influences. But that doesnt mean that nothing can be done about it.

    For example, in Italy and France, there are a number of fast food restaurants but not that many as residents prefer slow, real meals.

    These negative traits can be alarming. But if the majority of civic minded residents are aware and will do something about it, I think the problem could be contained.

    (Maybe I’m being too positive?)

  10. Rebecca June 28, 2007 at 4:41 am #

    When my boyfriend and I visited Rome we purposely picked a hotel further away from all the tourist areas. Not only did we not want to deal with the noise at night but we also enjoy exploring the “lesser” traveled areas of a city. Staying further out allowed us a quiet, scenic walk into the heart of the city each morning. I can imagine as a resident this is more frustrating having to deal with noise issues year round. I’m always amazed at how inconsiderate many tourists are (no matter the destination.) People seem to forget their manners when they travel.

  11. Shelley, At Home in Rome June 28, 2007 at 10:01 am #

    I really enjoyed reading all of your thoughtful comments on this issue!

  12. Gil June 28, 2007 at 10:42 am #

    Kids today! Litter o the Church steps is what upset me the most the first time I went to Rome.

  13. Kataroma June 28, 2007 at 12:09 pm #

    I was a study abroad program director in Moscow about 10 years ago and I saw the same thing with American college students. They drank like fish when they were there – it was gross. The only difference is that drinking just to get drunk is also a huge part of Russian culture.

    I blame the puritan nature of American society re drinking and the incredibly stupid ban on under 21s having a drink. Not saying it’s all perfect in Australia, but at least you can drink in a pub at 18 – so there is less mystique with alcohol and you learn how to handle it. I never saw study abroad students from other countries go as ga ga over alcohol when abroad as the US ones in my care did.

    Some really nice young American girls who were staying at the B&B recently in fact went on a pub crawl (I tried to warn them!) and they got really drunk and spent their last day in Rome hungover. They said that drinks were more or less being forced on them. They guys who run those pub crawls are really sleazy!

  14. Buda Baby June 28, 2007 at 7:25 pm #

    Interesting – you were the first person I thought of when I saw this article! I’m glad you posted about it, because I was interested in your local’s perspective. The last time I was in Rome was two years ago in July, and the one thing my husband and I were struck by was the LACK of nightlife. In fact, that was his one and only complaint about the city (we both love it). Believe me, we looked for it wherever we could reach by a reasonably short cab ride or on foot, but we never really found it. Yes, there were throngs of people at all hours, but it was mostly mellow, maybe groups of young people hanging out drinking beer in the Campo, but nothing at all out of control. We went into several bars around there as well and were either the only couple or else there were only one or two others. I’m sorry to hear that there is truth to the article; I’m all for live-and-let-live, but booze tourism is really, really disgusting. Trust me on this, I live in Stag Party Central.

  15. TomassoCroccante June 29, 2007 at 5:08 am #

    Thanks for a very thoughtful entry from your vantage point. And thanks to all the contributors.

    I must say offer that one thing Mayor Rudolph Giuliani did not do for New York City was rid it of loud drunks. I do believe he managed to make our big parades – such as St. Patrick’s Day, Puerto Rico Day, etc – alcohol free zones, which accomplishes something for the quality of life.

    If there is one thing the USA did not need to export, it is the spring break syndrome. I hear that Brit bachelor parties also descend on Rome, and I’m sure there are others. But this is very unfortunate, and I hope the people of Rome and of Italy can nip it in the bud. Also hope it won’t take an epidemic of drunken vespa and motorcycle accidents.

    Why college kids or anyone else needs or wants to recreate the hometown atmosphere when abroad is beyond me. Particularly students, who, if they’re lucky enough to spend a term in Europe, ought to be making something of it. Debauched spring breaks have become a rite of passage, I guess; passage into what, is the question.

    I was at a wedding recently and had a conversation with one of the young bridesmaids about her semester abroad in Rome. We didn’t talk about partying, but she did mention that she didn’t see that much of Rome and met almost no Italians!

    A note: here in NYC there is a new popularity for outdoor bars with very casual restaurants tagging on. They are mostly popping up in the financial district, on streets where few if any people live. After work in summer they are the latest thing for the stock market crowd. A couple of differences here in NY, we DO have open container lws, and bar owners, as well, have been under pressure the past year or so because of some nasy abduction/murder crimes at a couple of bars. Worse than these crimes – in numbers at least – are the many, many deaths and serious injuries in car accident caused by drunk driving and drunk-drowsy driving.

  16. casacaudill July 7, 2007 at 6:07 am #

    When visiting Rome in November, we read about the Campo and decided we should take an evening stroll through the neighborhood. While the side streets were darling, I hated the main square – young, 20-something frat boys behaving like they do in the bars across America. We actually left a restaurant after our glass of wine because it was just so unpleasant. Such a shame too; I imagine during the day it’s a peaceful area where families can shop at the outdoor market.

  17. marco August 7, 2007 at 1:22 pm #

    very well written. you give an accurate portrayal of the situation here and the differences with american culture. IMHO, the italian’s newfound behavior with respect to alcohol is only the tip of the iceberg. we’re assimilating many of america’s “bad habits”, along with a few of the good. this is probably normal as time goes by and information travels globally faster and faster, but I think Italy is one of the countries less prepared today to deal with it, considering the political and social climate.

  18. Rachele January 14, 2008 at 2:45 am #

    I agree its embarassing to American culture. These kids didnt grow up having a glass of wine with their family during a great meal. They didnt witness seeing their mom or dad having a small glass of Grappa after, making an example of what these liquids are for. We as young Americans growing up had to hide it from parents and had the mind set that underage it was hard to actually get it or have a secret place to drink it…so when the occasion arose they took serious advantage of it and drank as much as possible…this created a viscious circle and became habit. Its sad.But,living in Italy and having my wonderful fiance show me that wine and other aparatives can be enjoyed in a better way really shed light on my own cultures shortcomings with this issue. I know there is a lot more reasons why this drinking thing has gotten out of hand and we havn’t the time to list and analyze, but if the kids must drink, al least could a tour guide or something at least explain to them before that this is NOT America, drinking and getting wipe faced is RUDE,UNACCEPTABLE and gives America a bad name. I have seen this behavior first hand many times and it makes me embarassed for my fellow Americans.

  19. Mike April 18, 2011 at 3:46 pm #

    I have worked for an American study abroad Program in Rome for several years and have also been weary of the situation. We tell our students that to A Roman being noticeably intoxicated is just as bad as defecating in the street.

    I have been hearing rumors that bar crawls in Rome have become illegal and I couldn’t be happier. It will not end the problem but it is a start. It is a shame that Trastevere is being lost to the students.

    I really enjoyed your post.

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