Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Talking Midwest in the Middle East

I'm washing my hands in the sink of a billiards bar called Cafe Noga, which feels like the sort of joint you'd find in my beloved Midwest, not in Tel Aviv. I'm marveling at Israel's bizarre unisex bathroom trend & the many ways it manifests itself in establishments throughout the country. In this particular bar, the bathrooms are divided, men & women, but the two sides share one sink - literally, the sink bowl sits beneath a dividing wall, so if a man were to wash his hands at the same time as me, we wouldn't be able to see one another's faces, but we'd have to make way for one another's hands.

I've finished washing my hands (alone) & am reapplying my red lipstick when an Israeli girl makes her way up to the sink alongside me. She is tall & thin & beautiful, the way so many Israelis are. Smiling broadly & gesturing toward the sink with one eyebrow raised, she rattles off something in her native tongue. I can't understand the words, but I know what she's asked anyway: "How do I turn this damn thing on?" I turn the faucet on for her, shrug in a sort of apology, & in my clunky Hebrew say, "Ani lo medaber ivrit," I don't speak Hebrew.

Her face lights up & she switches languages with an ease I can only dream of: "English?" she asks me, & I tell her yes, so she continues. Am I here with Birthright? (Yes) Am I from the US? (Yes) Where am I from? I live near Boston, I tell her, because Boston is a city foreigners have heard of, whereas Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is most certainly not. "Were you born there?" she wants to know, & I tell her no, I was born in Ohio. Questions like this aren't uncommon from Israelis. 

"Ohio!" she practically shouts, her grin taking over her face. "It's like the movies!"

I'm confused. Say what?! She puts a hand on my arm. "Ohio!" she repeats. "It's like... so America." When I ask her whether she's ever been to the US, she laughs: "Yes! To Los Angeles & New York City & Disney World. But never to the middle. That's like... Ohio is like a place you only see in movies!"

She's so happy about Ohio & meeting a native Ohioan that I don't dream of telling her how most of the country feels about "the flyover states," a term I truly loathe. I find myself silently thanking Sarah Palin & wondering whether her 2007 message of "real America" hasn't proven moderately useful abroad. My smile matches hers as I think fondly of my hometown, thousands of miles away across the ocean.

Ohio! It's like... so America.

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