Nardolilli: American students abroad not immune to predisposed notions

Columnist comments on prejudice felt during her first weeks studying in Rome.

Annie NardolilliI never really thought people could take one look at me and know I’m an American. With my big curly hair, brown eyes and skin that tans in the summer, I thought my Italian heritage and I would be able to blend into the Italian landscape with relative ease. But I have been quite surprised to find that most people here know I’m American without me doing anything. And that’s a little weird.

I don’t really know what it is about me that gives me away before I even open my mouth. Maybe it’s because I’m much taller than your average Italian. Maybe it’s the fact that, unlike most Romans I’ve seen, I actually wear colors other than black. Really, I think it’s my calves that give me away seeing as every single Italian woman, no matter the size, has no definitive calf muscles and wears super-narrow Italian boots to prove it. Of course, thanks to a deadly combination of 10 years of basketball, seven years of marching band and Eastern European genetics, I happen to have large calves even by American standards, which is great if I have to walk backward on my toes for half an hour but not so great if I want to wear fashionable boots. I definitely think it’s the calves.

There’s an interesting sentiment toward Americans here in Rome. On one hand they really like us because we contribute to the economy and have that whole down-home American thing going on and, on the other hand, we tend to drink a lot, are generally ignorant of European history and culture and like to think it’s our way or the highway. You can tell a lot of preconceived notions about Americans come from pop culture. It’s a pretty frustrating barrier for those of us who don’t fit the American stereotype, which, like any stereotype, doesn’t really define any of us.

The intimidating prejudice against Americans is everywhere. The locals look my friends and I up and down and judge our outfits, easily identifiable as thrift store finds from back home. The second any of us say anything in English, eyes roll and whispers are abound. Storekeepers would rather speak English with us than let us use our Italian. I admit to being overly perceptive sometimes, but I still stand by the assertion that no matter how nice we are or how culturally sensitive we can be, I find I can read what so many a Roman passersby are thinking just by the looks on their faces: look at the big, dirty, dumb Americans.

But while being in Rome has made me hyper-aware of the prejudice toward me, it has also thrown back the curtains on my own prejudice. I have three roommates here, one of whom is a friend from Temple while the other two are from a different university.

The second I saw them, a million things went through my head: straight-haired, perfect skin and about 12 pairs of heels each – I realized I was going to be rooming with sorority girls, my secret arch nemeses.

These last few weeks here in Rome my friends and I have talked about them a lot, making fun of the things we hear them say and judging the things they wear out. Never mind that they have only had the utmost consideration toward us, like asking if we want some of their leftover dinner or requesting our permission before they invite their friends to our common area late at night. From what we know about girls like them, they must actually be really dumb and fake, because they have a million sorority shirts and wear designer jeans and because the only time I’ve seen them eat carbohydrates was when they drunkenly made an entire box of pasta at 3 a.m.

But now I’m beginning to realize this prejudice against stereotyped sorority sisters comes from a place of fiction, of pop-culture references and movie depictions. In truth there has always been something secretly romantic to me about the idea of being in that quintessential college sorority, of wearing letters and looking pretty in pictures and going to fraternity parties.

Unfortunately I have never fit that so-called sorority girl mold, having been a bit overweight for most of my life and having been more interested in graphic novels, marching band and playing MMORPGs rather than what are considered more feminine pursuits. I was never a Girl Scout, I still don’t know how to do make-up right and I rarely shave my legs in the winter. But even though I don’t think I could ever be in a sorority, I am not justified in being rude or judging others for being what I’m not.

We all have our stereotypes and our prejudices, but that doesn’t make them OK. Sometimes stereotypes and prejudices are harmless, but history has also taught us that it is the very act of stereotyping that has led humanity to commit some of its worst offenses.

Maybe Americans are seen as the rich, fat casts of the world because our reputation precedes us, but give us a chance and get to know us and you’ll find we’re not really all like that. Maybe sorority girls tend to dress the same and talk about superficial stuff, but in reality we all do. As the great philosopher and revelator of our time, Cady Heron, once said: “Calling someone stupid doesn’t make you any smarter – all you can do in life is try and solve the problem right in front of you.”

If we could just let go of our prejudices toward each other, I’m certain we’d get along much better.

Maybe the United Nations should watch “Mean Girls.”

Annie Nardolilli can be reached at

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