How to Drink a Coke and other Painful and/or Itchy Cultural Topics

I was at a dinner party in the south of France a few years ago, where the hostess described excitedly to a skeptical and baffled group of her friends (and two visiting American teachers) how she finally came to UNDERSTAND and APPRECIATE Coca-cola. The drink.

The Frenchies were, of course taken aghast, but she continued excitedly assuring them that she had seen with her own eyes. It was when her family visited Disneyworld in the summer, and it was very hot and humid; uncomfortably so. I think someone ordered her a coke without her knowing.

“The cup,” she said, “was too tall, very tall, it seemed silly… and they filled it with ice cubes. But they FILLED it from top to bottom with ice cubes. Truly filled it, the ice was all the way to the top.” At this point her French audience was ready to bolt, but she continued excitedly. “And then they poured the coke OVER the ice, which made the coke very cold, and then some of the ice melted of course, and diluted the coke, so it didn’t taste like that very very sweet taste of coke. Instead it was cold, diluted, and very refreshing!” By the time she got to that part of the story she was ecstatic. The Frenchies shook their head in disgust and made a point not to make eye contact with the Americans.

“Yes,” I said to the hostess, “that is the correct way to drink Coke.”

France has a wine culture, they drink things at room temperature. If they taste of something is off, they put a little chill on it, but then they have to admit that they’re serving something whose taste is off. They chill white wines and rosées, and then take them less seriously. When you order a coke at McDonalds or wherever in France, it will be a tall, warm glass of coke with two ice cubes in it. Every once in a while you see an American in a backpack exhorting them to use A LOT of ice, but the French employee does not really understand what that’s about. To them it seems disrespectful to the customer to dilute the drink. Even if the backpack manages to convince the employee to hand him a cup FILLED with ice, the employee will think, “fine, you clown, I filled the ENTIRE cup with ice, is THAT what you WANT?” It’s very hard for them to believe that that’s how we WANT IT. To us, it’s disrespectful to serve a warm coke.

Anyway, that was a long time ago; France my have changed by now, who knows.

The other thing I remember from that trip is that we were doing a lot of walking, and of course the ladies all had these strappy shoes that cut into their feet and made them bleed and blister all over the place. So the American solution is to pout, to walk through the pain, to go home after hours of walking and then deal with the wound with a band aid.

Our French hosts were baffled again by our American culture of suffering. They took the girls to the corner pharmacy and picked up a little box of thingy things for “les ampoules” which were medicated adhesive pads that you put on your blister. The relief was immediate and the blisters were healed in 48 hours. To us Americans, this technology was cheap, effective, and almost magical. The Frenchies looked at us pitifully, like, “what is wrong with you people? Do you live in caves? You know we have pharmacies now…”

I have a friend here in Taipei that’s been dealing with a blister for about a week. He was making us think about it at lunch yesterday. Last week I told him about the place called the pharmacy, but apparently he’s dealing with the problem psychologically. Not my circus.

Two days ago I walked into the pharmacy next door to my apartment building. I went to the counter and said, in Chinese, “where I live… not as hot as Taipei… I’m not accustomed… Taipei weather very hot… I sweat. Because I sweat, my shirt… my skin does not like my shirt… I tickle/not comfortable.” At this point I make itchy face and do a scratching motion on my chest. Then I open my shirt one button. “Tickle/not comfortable, red color. Is there a solution or not?”

The pharmacist of course is flawless and professional; he looks me in the eye and does that thing where he repeats everything back to me to show me he has heard my issue. “You’re unaccustomed to the heat, and when you sweat, your shirt irritates your skin, and you have developed a red, inflammation on your chest which is itchy. Correct?”

“Correct!” I say. “Is there a solution?”

“Yes. Here’s a cream. Use it twice a day, no more, on the affected area. Once or twice.”

“I… will shower.. and then…”

“Yes,” says the pharmacist, with a firm and genuine nod. If he thinks I sound like a cave man, it’s not going to penetrate his armor of professionalism and competence.

I take a look at the box: there are little illustrations that show anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, and anti itch.

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“Very well, thank you,” I say. I pay and leave.

The relief was immediate. 48 hours later, that angry, itchy, sweaty rash is gone. I feel stupid for having waited so long.

It’s funny when our own cultural assumptions keep us from seeing or doing something that is so obvious to other people. It’s awesome, though when we sort that out.

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