I thought I was having some sort of attack. My whole body was shaking, and passersby were starting to turn their heads.
But then they just kept walking.
Maybe my heart would give out, or maybe I’d faint. My teeth were chattering so hard that I wondered if I might send pieces of them flying onto the sidewalk.
I had arrived to Atlanta hours before and tried to enjoy the time I spent hiding in the airport using the free Wifi to check emails. My friend and client, Ron, was driving in from South Carolina with his family to visit, but had been delayed. And the client who bought me the ticket to Atlanta in the first place was still on her flight from Texas.
For the time being, I was alone. In the final minutes before my friend’s arrival, I’d left the airport to wait for him downtown. And, standing outside the Coca-Cola museum, much though I paced the sidewalk and squeezed my shoulders together under my coat, I couldn’t stop shaking from the cold.
The strangeness of this exaggerated reaction was not lost on me. Born on Christmas Eve in the quiet capital city of Iowa, I should have been accustomed to the winter.
Accustomed, I thought. Habituated. Acclimated for what you experience on a regular basis.
The distraction of synonyms and their delineation entertained me for a moment, and I examined the Atlanta skyline as I shivered. It was February and maybe 50 degrees. The air had that crisp, bright quality that comes with the cold, and I was grateful for the height of the buildings downtown for shielding me from the wind. As I watched Atlantans walk by, with no jackets and only the occasional long sleeves, I felt unexpectedly out of place.
My phone vibrated, and I hoped it was my friend announcing that he’d arrive at the museum so we could go in. It was my boyfriend. As soon as I tapped the message and the chat window filled the screen, I felt the memory of sunshine and high humidity shimmer across my shaking shoulders. It was summertime in Lima, and I found myself missing the heat as much as I was missing my other half.
I’d grown especially accustomed to my new home, my new life. That same day, two years earlier, I’d arrived to Lima, Peru with nothing but a backpack and a single roller bag. On arrival, my heart positively bounced with the effervescence of a new start—and it had pumped that way ever since.
Three redheads and four brunettes
My friend finally arrived, and we spent 20 minutes texting back and forth while I tried to locate where they had parked. At least the walking heated me up to the point that I stopped shaking.
But it was the hugs that really warmed me. Ron was barely five years my senior, and he and his wife had four young children that all leapt out of the car with an energy that left the parking garage shaking.
Ron (brunette number one) and his wife (redhead number one) acted fluidly as all-star parents herding their four boys (two brunettes and two redheads), and I joined them to create the motley crew that was finally ready to approach the museum.
Truth be told, I had dreamed of this moment. The quantity of Coca-Cola products I’d consumed over 30 years was mindboggling, and my fandom crossed borders when I fell in love with the Peruvian soda the company had acquired years before: Inca Kola.
Lines and double doors
The seven of us filed into line at the ticket booth, Ron’s wife and I immersed in conversation. The boys were swinging off the railings, bumping into the occasional stranger, each of whom were generous enough to throw the kid a smile. Everyone in eyeshot laughed when Colin, the youngest, was found licking one of the handrails.
After that line came another. We were shuffled into a waiting room where we were each offered a six-ounce can of a Coca-Cola product, and I happily obliged.
And then, after all the anticipation, and with bubbles in my belly to boot, the doors opened. What I had thought was an emergency exit was actually an entrance into a small theater. A voice called out over the crowd, instructing us to file in and sit on the stairs and on the floor at the lowest level, if necessary. Four minutes later, I was seated with 100 other visitors in the theater lined with LED-lit cases filled with vintage Coca-Cola memorabilia.
This was the start of the tour, and it was clear that it would be a heavily guided one. There was indubitably a very specific way that Coca-Cola wanted you to see the sights.
It started when a young and overly-enthusiastic employee came out and delivered a short routine. He engaged the audience and made canned jokes as he pointed out key trinkets on the shelves around us.
Several minutes into the presentation, the guide asked, “now, where’s everyone from?” Families stole glances at one another before slowly starting to raise their hands. The guide called on them.
“Shanghai,” one father said.
“Sweden,” said another.
When North Carolina was shouted out, the obligatory joke about South Carolina was made by the young guide. He then selected Ron’s raised hand, and it was when Ron said “We’re from South Carolina” that the crowd laughed. People were loosening up, and Coca-Cola’s message had hit home: the global relevance of the product was absolute.
A final hand
My hand was still in the air. Where my arm might have tired, I was still cold enough that I felt like there was hardly any blood in my fingers, anyway. The guide pointed to me and asked, “how about you? Where are you from?”
Without hesitating, I said, “Lima.” But I’d never said that before. Every time anyone had ever asked me, I’d always said that I’m from Des Moines, Iowa. But I felt unexpectedly out place—despite being in the headquarters of my favorite beverage. I was on American soil, and yet that entire day I’d felt like a visitor.
My answer surprised me, and throughout the tour I was distracted. Introspection took me through a disarray of questions and answers.
That day was the first time in weeks that I’d spoken English with friends. And apparently I’d lost all tolerance to the cold. Even the tour of the museum left me feeling out of place and time as we were shepherded through the displays of Coca-Cola consumerism.
In Lima, I’m at home, but I do feel like a foreigner. And in the U.S., I’ve begun to feel the marionette strings of my past life dissolve away.
My brother once told me, after his time in the Peace Corps in South Africa, that moving abroad splits your life in two. There’s the life you have on one side of the pond, and another life you create in a new place. But I see it differently. I feel like, somehow, I’m starting to see myself clearer with this distance from norms that once defined me.
I had grown so accustomed to those norms that I thought they were part of me.
And now, I’ve acclimated to my new home—the sunshine and the sea, the language and the lifestyle. But no norms or labels can define me anymore. No taxonomy can prescribe what’s expected of me.
I am nothing more and nothing less than who I choose to be.