A Clash of Drinking Cultures for US Students in Italy

    One of the first major cultural contrasts I was warned about as an American studying in Rome was the vastly different attitude to alcohol. Drinking is commonplace in Italy, we were told by Student Life, but being truly drunk is taboo.

    Tourists and foreign students have a reputation for getting intoxicated and climbing into the priceless antique fountains here, something that is illegal and of course frowned upon. I can’t say how often this happens, but the papers cover such incidents with gusto. The Trevi Fountain tends to get hit particularly hard in the hot summer months.

    Naturally, we were all warned not to do this under any circumstances. Getting drunk at all, even far from fountains, was sternly advised against.

    Most of my classmates—and especially study-abroads—don’t exactly heed this advice. As yet, none of us have gone skinny-dipping in the Fontana di Trevi, but many go to the local student watering hole almost nightly, and show up to class hungover. Some sip mimosas or down shots at lunchtime, at the bars across the street from campus.  

    The ease of access to alcohol here—at low cost, outdoors and in family spaces—takes some getting used to.

    Here in Italy, un bar is a cafe-like space, open to all ages, where food and coffee are served in addition to alcohol. Many function as cafes in the morning, cheap eateries around noon, and places to sip a glass of wine in the evening. This is helpful for those of us who don’t drink, because it feels natural and easy to order other options in this environment, even while our friends enjoy wine or Peroni. The awkward questions I’ve been asked in American bars—“Are you, like, a recovering alcoholic?”—don’t tend to crop up.   

    The ease of access to alcohol here—at low cost, outdoors and in family spaces—takes some getting used to. And it can be perilous for Americans who are not accustomed to self-moderating their drinking—particularly those who are too young to buy liquor in the United States, and therefore lack experience. 

    Here, the drinking age is 18—in line with much of the world, when the US age of 21 is something of an outlier. In practice, younger teenagers tasting wine with their parents seems widely tolerated in Italy. 

    In the school garden, meanwhile, I often hear tales of horrendous drunken adventures told with glee, pride even. I personally don’t understand the appeal of getting smashed and embarrassing yourself, but to each his own. 

    It’s noticeable, though, that the Italian students’ attitude to drinking seems much more restrained than that of their American counterparts. In my limited experience at least, our Italian friends generally appear to drink not to get blackout drunk, but simply to enhance meals and other social interactions. Their approach reminds me of my various Italian-American relatives, who routinely take wine with meals but abhor getting messy-drunk.

    Wine is integrated into Italian life, yet the rate of problematic drinking is low.

    People have been observing such cultural drinking differences since long before I was born, and far more rigorously. A large body of research has documented how, while alcohol appears fairly ubiquitous in southern European cultures like Italy and Portugal, binge drinking is much rarer than it is in northern European countries. 

    Wine is integrated into Italian life, with a strong culture of drinking a glass or two at mealtimes. Yet the rate of problematic drinking is low.  

    “People who live in countries where drinking occasions often lead to intoxication—for example, Sweden and the Baltic countries—more often experience alcohol-related problems when they increase their alcohol consumption when compared to people who live in Italy, where the drinking primarily takes place with meals and less often leads to intoxication,” explained Jonas Landberg, a research at Stockholm University’s Centre for Social Research on Alcohol and Drugs. 

    According to the World Health Organization, the prevalence of alcohol use disorder in the Italian population is only 1.3 percent; it’s 11 percent in Sweden, and 13.9 percent in the US.  

    One theory around this is that it has to do with how people learn to drinkwine sipped at the dinner table with older family members, versus booze sneaked and chugged alongside equally inexperienced teenage peers. Parents who model moderation have been found to be more likely to raise teens who drink without problems, compared with parents who either drink to excess or abstain.

    Another, related line is that alcohol restrictions, far stiffer in places like the US and northern Europe, foster riskier behavior“crescebat ex prohibitione cupiditas [from prohibition grew desire],” as Petrarch expressed the lure of forbidden fruit. 

    As a non-drinker, I can’t claim to have deep personal insight. So I asked some of my classmates about their experiences.

    “The fact that they didn’t want me drinkin’ probably made me want to do it a good bit more.” 

    John* is a friendly resident student from Georgia in the US. He told me that he began drinking occasionally as a “kid,” which he attributed to his coming from the Deep South. That’s when he first tried moonshine and absinthe. 

    However, “I really started drinking when I was 19,” he said, “during my first semester.” He then discovered “the joys of drinking with friends.” In this period, he said, he “got blackout at least three times a  month, two sometimes. I was doing quite the blackout nights. Really blackout weekends. I did a good couple of benders.”

    John’s parents, he said, gave him permission to start drinking when he left home to study, but they personally “don’t believe in drinking,” and don’t drink themselves “except maybe a glass of wine twice a year.”

    To this day, they still don’t know John drank as a child. He now thinks their attitude made it more appealing. “The fact that they didn’t want me drinkin’ probably made me want to do it a good bit more.” 

    John holding his favorite drink


    He’s calmed down this semester, he told me, and is currently more of a social drinker. He does think there’s a major drinking culture at our school: “Especially with the study-abroads, they’re getting wasted every  weekend and doing massive, massive rallies every single day.” 

    John claimed that the Florida students are the worst. Having roomed with two heavy-drinking Miami students in my first semester, and spent time clearing up their half-eaten plates of chicken nuggets, I was probably not a neutral audience.  

    Katie* is a resident student from Florida who doesn’t fit that stereotype. Her relatives make fun of her “all the time” for not drinking as much as they do. But, “I would say the large majority of my family were alcoholics,” she told me. 

    She first tried a beer, with her sister and without her parents’ permission, when she was 9, she said, but didn’t start drinking casually until she was 18. “We would go to, like, family-owned restaurants, and I would have a glass of wine and it would be fine.” She never got “super-wasted or drunk” on these occasions. 

    These days, Katie really isn’t into drinking. “I just don’t like the idea of it, I don’t like how it makes me feel, and I just don’t like the idea of not being in control of your actions and your emotions.” She feels that “getting wasted or blacking out” places an unfair burden on the friends you’re with. At the same time, “a lot of people [here] drink very socially and if you don’t drink, you’re seen as more of an outcast.” 

    Her college-aged friends back in the States drink all the time, she added. “It’s just seen as completely  normal.” Katie’s manner suddenly became more intense, as she told me: “I don’t like the drinking culture the US has, and the idea behind it [of] getting wasted every day.” In Italy, she thinks, “people know how to control their alcohol [intake] a lot more.”  

    “It’s seen as normal to give tiny amounts of prosecco, wine or beer during family gatherings, even to the smaller kids.” 

    Andrea*, who comes from Rome, more or less concurred with this assessment. They recalled first trying alcohol independently at 14, when they took some drinks from a cabinet while sleeping over at a friend’s place. “Although technically I had already tasted alcohol,” Andrea said, “seeing as it’s seen as normal to give tiny amounts of prosecco, wine or beer during family gatherings, even to the smaller kids.” 

    Teen drinking is normalized in Italy, said Andrea, who began drinking regularly at 15. Still, “even as a teenager or college student, I have never seen alcohol as simply something you have to drink to feel inebriated … but rather as something you share with friends.”

    When Andrea turned 18, their parents told them to “drink with moderation and stay safe.” However, Andrea said that US drinking culture has been increasingly glorified by Italian youth due to media, including shows like Euphoria. “The impression is that of American students throwing immense parties, with giant crates of beer, and overall doing insane stunts while under the effect of alcohol, although not many Italian teenagers and college students can afford to do such.” 

    Andrea knows of a couple Italians who drink heavily, but said this is still outside of the norm. At 19, Andrea feels, “I have achieved a good balance and know my limits.” 

    I was able to continue the conversation with Andrea’s father. Lorenzo*, a police officer, is emphatically not in favor of introducing more alcohol restrictions in Italy. He recognizes that there are serious drinking-related harms, and even regrets that alcohol will always be “well liked” because of its “immediate benefits.” But he said that age restrictions, for example, are easy to circumvent when adults will often buy alcohol for minors. 

    “The case of the US demonstrates how prohibitionism, or generally speaking secrecy … is not an efficient reduction method,” Lorenzo said. “An eventual approach similar to the American one will not affect the statistics positively. There needs to be a cultural and educational approach.”

    Whatever the reasons behind it, the Italian tendency toward moderate drinking appears to me, at least, to be healthier and safer, as well as less likely to get you fined for ending up in the Trevi Fountain.  


    *Names changed to protect sources’ privacy.

    Top photograph by Lefteris kallergis on Unsplash. Inset photograph by M.L. Lanzillotta.

    • M.L. is a writer from the Washington, DC metro area. He’s the author of a number of novels. In his spare time he paints, dances, directs, acts, cooks and embroiders.

    • Show Comments

    You May Also Like

    Five Harmful Anti-Alcohol Myths and the Evidence Against Them

    In Temperance America and beyond, it seems no amount of evidence will be accepted ...

    Drug Reporters Know This Is a War―So Why Don’t We Cover It Like One?

    [This article contains graphic images of injecting drug use.] A picture may be worth ...

    With the Focus on Opioids, Don’t Forget About Meth and Cocaine

    The “opioid crisis” has dominated drug conversations for at least the past decade, while ...