Coca-Cola Abroad

Or walking like a Medieval Man in the Middle East

If I don’t write this now, I won’t write it. The idea came to me when Reagan and I were sitting at this Mexican restaurant in Jerusalem. It was afternoon, somewhat warm, and we were eating tacos. Carne for me. Pescado for her. Chips, salsa. One coke we were passing back and forth.

If you had asked me the year prior about my relationship to soft drinks, I would have told you that I didn’t have one. If you had asked me the year prior about my take on Levi jeans, I would have told you that their quality was not my usual preference. The denim not thick enough. The cuts too generic.

But if you saw me that day in Jerusalem in my Levi jeans, sipping a coke, eating Mexican, going back on my unconscious personal words to myself, well, what would you think? “Ah, an American,” maybe.

We were laughing at me, Reagan and I were. I’m sure that I’m no different from anyone else. Petty preferences over petty things that I usually think are peculiar to me. I don’t drink Coke. I don’t wear Levi’s. I must immerse myself in the local culture. I don’t do the things that I think most of the people around me are doing. I’m a contrarian like the rest of my countrymen, and countrywomen. This is the American way. Mass contrarity.

But in the Spring of 2020 we were almost a year into being temporary expats in Jerusalem. The virus had kept the world mostly indoors. And Israel had just begun to let people out onto the streets again. Restaurants to open, bookstores, gyms, the lot.

I think I was homesick. In certain respects Israeli culture is very similar to American culture. So you can feel very at home. The people there are industrious. They are a young nation, entrepreneurial, comprised of migrants. Their national identity is constantly being debated; is it ethnicity or common ideals and shared history that make the country?

G. K. Chesterton is often quoted as having said, “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed.” But I think Israel was also founded on a creed. It just so happens that the Jews—preserving their religion and the long cultural history which surrounds that religion—preserved their founding Abrahamic creed, that the Lord their God is one LORD. So there are two nations in the world that were founded on creeds: The Abrahamic Nation, and the United States of America. But I digress.

Some may take issue with me here. I know that the the issue of what exactly constitutes an Israeli, or a potential Israeli, is hotly debated. On the one hand, some say that if you are at least religiously Jewish you can become an Israeli. On the other hand, some who are more lenient say that if you are at least ethnically Jewish you can become Israeli. And still others on other hands want to require both, or none at all.

What does it mean to be Israeli? I don’t know. What does it mean to be an American? Who can say? We can point to history, but then not everyone agrees; not everyone shares the same interpretation. Everyone is constantly changing their mind. We can only hope that each society will be around long enough to find satisfying answers to these now uncomfortable and unsavory questions.

I remember our first arrival to Jerusalem. Reagan and I had been in Tel Aviv for ten days. We loved it there. Then we were in the North for a few weeks—in Sfat, and the Golan Heights. But now we were in Jerusalem. It was a few hours into Shabbat. We had parked our car in the basement of a hotel building and taken our bags up the sabbath elevator; an elevator we had entered by accident. It stopped at each floor so that the persons getting into or out of the elevator would not need to do any work to make their way up or down the building.

We were on the ninth floor and were as yet unfamiliar with the concept of the slow shabbat elevator: One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Open. Hallway. Walk. Room. Door. Kitchen. Living room; luggage.

When we were done making a few runs with our bags, we went out to find one of the handful of restaurants that were still serving food on a sabbath evening. Normally, I would have liked to keep the sabbath, but we had gotten into the city late, and we were hungry and unprepared; I figured that whoever was open on the sabbath probably needed some customers, so we would help them with that.

I realize now that on this particular evening the sidewalks were quite empty and we had no trouble getting to the nice corner cafe we had found in Rehavia. But as I write I am trying to get to what I wanted to talk about, which was what the sidewalks were like on a crowded day.

I remember being on the phone with my mom, a few months into living in Jerusalem. I told her that I felt like I had to relearn how to walk on sidewalks after moving to this city. In the United States, unless you are in New York—but then even if you are in New York—people are generally pretty genteel when you encounter them on a sidewalk; they see you coming; they slightly alter course; the two of you are passing ships; some acknowledgement of each passing person occurs, and you steadily continue on your way. Not so in Jerusalem.

What we found in the culture of the Jerusalem sidewalk was that people keep walking directly at you until the last second when the person with more will-power—or the person with less reckless abandon—swerves to give the other person the right of way.

American Westerner that I am, I initially walked about on the streets displaying my habit of constantly giving way. But what I quickly found with that approach was that it was much longer getting anywhere, and more awkward. When you allow yourself to give the right of way too freely, you find yourself wandering too much to the right, and too much to the left of your path, rather than moving forward toward your destination.

I found that I was a poor and clumsy walker upon first arrival to Jerusalem. Sometimes people would give me funny looks, as if to say, “Quit hesitating and get on with it.” So I learned in a short amount of time that if I wanted to keep up with the flow of traffic then I needed to be more assertive. So I began to walk at my normal pace, but whenever there was a person coming at me, I would continue walking at them until they turned. This felt silly at first. And sometimes when I encountered a stronger-willed, or more right-of-way positioned person on the sidewalk, I would give the right of way. But eventually both modes of sidewalk-passing-by became second nature.

One thing I could not give up, however, was my habit of holding doors for people. My father taught me to hold doors. So, no matter where I go, if it’s appropriate I hold the door for a person trailing just behind me into a building. This seems a polite thing to do. But in Israel, I often received suspicious looks from people when I did this, or at least in Jerusalem. For them it must have been something akin to saying, “Hurry up and get in!” rather than something genteel.

Observing these little things about walking on sidewalks and holding doors into and out of buildings got me thinking. Why wasn’t there a culture of giving the right of way here? And why was it awkward to hold a door for a person trailing behind me?

I can’t say that I know the answers for sure. But my suspicion is that these different sidewalk mannerisms are explained by the lineage of the culture. The mixture of Middle Eastern and European ways of being that produces what is really the new culture of new Israel, does not have a long history of chivalry and knight’s tales informing its everyday interpersonal interactions—at least not in the same way that people from, say, England and France do. The Thousand And One Nights has its princes and princesses, but Middle Eastern culture did not always allow for open air displays of romance and chivalry the likes of which we find in Western Europe.

(Though, I should add, every people has their edges and curves, and I’m sure someone will find exception to my general comments here.)

An American, unconscious of it as he or she may be, can never get away from the deeply buried Medieval ideal of the genteel knight laying his coat over a puddle of mud— or taking his feathered cap off—for a lady. These small mannerisms, and the many others like them, are children and relics of heraldric times; they are deeply embedded into the structure of many a Westerner’s thoughtless everyday interaction. The elements of these deep cultural structures, though, are not the same everywhere. And that is why I found myself feeling coerced into playing chicken with Israeli mothers and their strollers, and old men with their canes on the sidewalks and streets of Jerusalem.

This is the scenic route to what I wanted to say about Coke and Levi jeans.

It kind of crept up on me—the Coca-Cola habit in Israel. And the pair of Levi’s was also a surprise. I had not packed too many pants for the trip. I had some ancient APC’s with me, and a pair of Japanese denim that I was meaning to get tailored but didn’t get around to. I also had some dress pants—part of a suit from Club Monaco. At some point, though, the blue APC’s ripped at the knees and I started wearing these huge Japanese denims. Had I been anywhere else—say, back in America where the trend is returning to the wide pant—I probably would have been fine. But nearly everyone in Israel wears skinny jeans, or pretty near to. So I felt a bit out of place with these tan colored wide-pant denims, making me look like Jesse from Before Sunrise. Or like a sloppy American in general, which I didn’t want to be.

Simultaneous to this, next to it—apposite—I had been missing America, and I don’t know what got into me but I decided that when the stores and shops opened back up I would go get myself a pair of Levi jeans because that was the most American thing I could think of doing.

None of these thoughts were really conscious, by the way. They were all subconscious, and only later did I realize what had been motivating me to make these small choices that would sooth my longing for what was missing; a place where I did not have to apologize before speaking English, or for trying my hand at my poor beginning Hebrew with impatient shopkeepers who would switch to English at the earliest sign of an accent.

In hindsight, I would have come to the country better prepared. I would have finished the whole Hebrew course on Mango or Duolingo. And I would have read a couple of modern Hebrew primers—made my way through a short translation of something I know well, like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, which I purchased a little later on into living in Jerusalem.

Anyway, we always know how we would have done better after we have done poorly.

When I was a junior in high school an English teacher of mine had my class read through a book called Fast Food Nation. It was basically a tour of America’s fast food industry. A dip into the history of America’s fast food chains; how the foods are produced, and where, and with what ingredients.

As a kid growing up in Hawaii I thought fondly of happy meals. You’d get French fries, a burger, a soft drink. For me the drink was usually a Barq’s Root Beer. Later on I liked to get number 3’s are McDonald’s. And Chalupa Supremes at Taco Bell. I lived in Oregon for four years and didn’t have Taco Bell the whole time I was there. Then I lived in Boston for six years, and it wasn’t until year four in Boston that I heard there was a Taco Bell on the campus of Northeastern in the cafeteria. Berklee student that I was I made my way to my school-neighbor’s house and raided the fridge. Three Chalupa Supremes that night. Tweeted into the void about that discovery.

I learned to swim when I was six years old. It was a week long course that I did with one of my brothers in the afternoons. On the final day of swim lessons we had a small graduation and I remember diving into the pool for soft drinks, candy, and coins at the end of the ceremony. Competent swimming in the deep end of the pool leading to as many Cokes, Barq’s and Sprites as could be gathered.

Fourth of July’s always had similar wares. There was a massive Independence Day party my family attended every year. It was at a beach called Kalihiwai. An older man and his wife footed the bill for a day’s worth of burgers, hot dogs, beer, soft drinks, and all kinds of other barbecue potluck foods—enough to feed whoever might come by. All of this took place to the soundtrack of live music, and some DJ-ing. The first time I heard Lou Reed’s Take A Walk On The Wild Side was at one of these 4th of July parties.

So for years I didn’t really think twice about fast food or soft drinks. But after reading Fast Food Nation I stopped cold turkey. I probably didn’t have a burger or a root beer for ten years after that book. And later on, add to that the rumors of what can happen to a man who partakes of too much high fructose corn syrup…It was all Blue Sky and Mexican Coke for me, and only once in a very blue moon.

So we’re in Israel, in Jerusalem, and we’ve tried the local cuisine and we like it very much. We’ve had our humus, and fish, and shawarma, and tomato and cucumber breakfast salads; and it’s a few months into our time in Israel and we discover this Mexican place near the Old City that serves real Mexican food. And they also have Coke with sugar instead of corn syrup. And we’re ordering one day and we decide to share one of these slender shaped cans of Coke and I realize that this feels really homely. So when I’m out I start bringing home six packs of Coke and Reagan and I kind of nurse them throughout the week—this was all on the latter half of our time there, by the way. But it happened nonetheless and made us laugh. Reagan caught it first, and then me.

The funny this is—we’ve been back in the U.S. for three months now and I don’t think I’ve had a single Coke. Was even in Atlanta for a couple of weeks and thought I’d have a Coke down there because it’d be appropriate, Atlanta being the home of Coke and all of that. But I suppose that since I’m home now I don’t need any signs of home. I’m still wearing my Levi’s, though I’m conscious that I look dated and slightly out of style. Oh well. The trends move too fast, I’ll catch up later. ☗

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