For many college students, a year abroad is an experience of a lifetime — an opportunity to learn a new language and live in a new culture. But it’s often just as much about partying in a place where alcohol and drugs are readily available.
Now, the murder of a 21-year-old Briton studying in this picturesque Italian city is throwing a light on the wild life of college kids abroad.
Meredith Kercher was sexually assaulted and stabbed to death Nov. 1 in the apartment she shared with her American roommate, Amanda Marie Knox, who is in custody along with two other people in connection with the death.
The gruesome tale of sex, drugs and murder has gripped Italy, and even the Vatican has weighed in on what it called the “dangers” of students living far from home and family.
Knox, 20, and her one-time boyfriend and Italian co-defendant, 23-year-old Raffaele Sollecito, are due in court Friday for a hearing on whether they should remain in jail while the probe continues.
A third suspect, Rudy Hermann Guede, a native of Ivory Coast, is in detention in Germany awaiting extradition to Italy. Another man, Diya “Patrick” Lumumba, a native of Congo who owned the Perugia bar where Knox worked and whom she accused of the murder, was recently released from jail for lack of evidence. All four deny wrongdoing.
Dean's list student embroiled in case
The case, and particularly Knox’s alleged role, has made headlines in Italy, Britain, the U.S. and beyond in part because of the light it has shone on the seemingly privileged world of students studying abroad.
By all indications, Knox was a bright and eager student proficient enough in languages to read Harry Potter in German.
She grew up in Seattle, where she attended a $12,000-a-year Jesuit high school. Her parents married in 1987, the year she was born, and divorced two years later.
Last spring, she made the dean’s list at the University of Washington, where, according to her profile on the MySpace.com social networking site, she was majoring in German and Italian, and minoring in creative writing.
Before arriving in Italy in September, she worked briefly as an intern at the Bundestag in Berlin, a job she lined up with the help of an uncle. On her first day of work, she described leaving her apartment three hours early since she had to navigate Berlin’s public transport system on her own and wanted to be on time.
Different side to 'angel face'
Yet, Knox also comes across as irresponsible: She walked off her Bundestag job after just a few days because, she wrote, she had nothing to do.
Her MySpace page, in which she calls herself “Foxy Knoxy,” includes images of her drunk and acting silly in a video, and she referred several times to drug use and nights spent working and dancing at Lumumba’s bar — providing a different side to what the Italian press calls her “angel face.”
Lumumba said after his release from jail that Knox was a flirtatious girl who was intensely jealous of Kercher.
“Amanda hated Meredith because people loved her more than they did Amanda,” Britain’s Sunday Mirror quoted Lumumba as saying. “She was insanely jealous that Meredith was taking over her position as Queen Bee.”
In a Nov. 9 ruling ordering the suspects jailed, a judge wrote that Knox, in her statement to prosecutors, had accused Lumumba of killing Kercher while she was in another room, saying that at one point she covered her ears to drown out her roommate’s screams.
The judge said Knox’s memories were confused since she had smoked hashish earlier in the day.
Knox’s parents, William Knox and Edda Mellas, have traveled to Perugia to visit their daughter since she was taken into custody, saying in a statement that the family was “shocked and devastated” by the case. But they have kept a low profile and could not be immediately reached for comment Thursday.
Perugia off the beaten path
In many European capitals, the close-knit world of foreign students is hard to miss.
Groups of rowdy, mostly English-speaking students are routinely seen staggering through central squares, like Rome’s Campo dei Fiori, on any given Saturday night, frequenting bars that carry “Two-for-One” or “Lady’s Night” signs that clearly target English-speakers out to get drunk.
But Perugia, population 150,000, seemed to provide a different experience for students.
With its steep medieval streets and heavy presence of European students attending its University for Foreigners, Perugia was off the beaten track for Americans, said Carol Clark, the American director of the Perugia Umbra Institute, which offers programs for U.S. students.
“Here, foreign students tend to live in apartments with international roommates, buy food, interact with locals,” although the foreign community still has their own pubs and meeting points, she said.
Bar owner: Abroad is a break for students
The students who come to Perugia, she said, “want a place which is less Americanized,” than the big cities that attract many U.S. college programs.
But alcohol and drugs are certainly available, said Esteban Garcia Pascual, an Argentine whose bar “La Tana dell’Orso” is a top destination for foreign students in Perugia.
“Perugia is more of a break to them than a commitment,” he said. “For them, it is a new world. They come here, have fun and get trashed in the evening.”
Not all students come to Perugia — or go on study abroad programs — just to have fun with other Americans, said Zachary Nowak, a 30-year-old New Yorker who fell in love with Perugia during a study abroad program and never left.
“They are really integrated,” he said of the foreign students. “There’s no Campo dei Fiori here, they have to make an effort. If they want to order a margarita in English in a bar, they’d go to Rome or Florence.”