Even though my friend Ofra the travel agent, who lived for years in the United States, constantly reminds me that "New York is not America"; even though I know personally people who watch "The Oprah Winfrey Show"; and despite my fondness for American literature (and not only the kind that's set in New York ), Indie films and documentaries about places like Idaho and North Carolina, whenever I visit I am struck anew by the realization that America is really big, that most of its inhabitants don't live in New York and that there's a good chance I won't live long enough to see even a tenth of the country, even if I tripled the frequency of my visits.
But what is the experience of traveling and encountering new places if not the mental exercise we conduct whenever we get to those places, in which we try to imagine what it would be like to actually live in them?
Could I live in Clearwater, Florida? Not even for one minute. It's a no-place, a nowhere city with attractive low- and high-rise buildings, "rest areas" along the main road, shopping centers - all of which have Starbucks cafes that serve a hot, frothy liquid that cannot actually be proved not to be cappuccino - ethnic restaurants, fast-food joints and the obligatory diners that let you know for sure that you are in regions that were built as American towns or cities. Moreover, if Florida has a clear, well-known advantage, it's the sunny weather that prevails for most of the year, the fine beaches along the shore (of what is known locally as the Atlantic Ocean ) and the Spanish-style seaside homes that have long since become a magnet for old people who want to warm their disintegrating bones in the sun while driving big cars or small mobility scooters on broad, senior-friendly avenues.
But Clearwater is stuck inland, 10 kilometers from the coast, which is how I found myself ensconced in a well-appointed room in the local Hilton, looking through a huge window, covered by two layers of curtains, at the spectacular view of an expressway. But instead of figuring out ways to get back at my brother, who dragged me there to die, as a less loving sister would surely have done, I resolved to embark on the path of positive thinking, a frame of mind and temperament that is the diametric opposite of my true nature.
Wisely, already at the diner across the highway, I vowed to abstain as much as possible from the meat of dead animals, genetically engineered U.S. Department of Agriculture-subsidized corn, milk from cows that never saw a pasture and other evils about which I read on my flight in Jonathan Safran Foer's harrowing book "Eating Animals." (While on the plane I resolved to change my eating habits dramatically when I return to Israel, minimizing my consumption of animals raised in indecent conditions and their products ). Accordingly, I found myself devouring mini-muffins, scones, toast with jam, disgustingly sweetened yogurt, fried potatoes and all types of things I don't allow myself to eat when I'm sane.
On the other hand, I hadn't felt so thin in years. In front of me, to either side and in every direction, at least a third of the people in the diner were obese on a scale that would stun even the contestants of the Israeli version of "The Biggest Loser." "It's because they eat carbohydrates. Like you, they eat unhealthy food," my brother said, casting disapproving glances at my peanut-butter-and-jam-smeared blueberry muffin while sipping on his 24-ounce Diet Coke (free refills - they're nothing if not generous in America ) and having his way with a half-kilogram T-bone topped with three eggs and melted, orange cheese, with sides of scorched bacon and three sausages. It's all part of the Atkins Diet, which he's been following for years.
"I guess you're right," I said, my mouth full of food and my heart full of admiration for my role model, who unlike his weak-willed sister sticks to his diet so well that, as if to prove the unfairness of the world, he appears to outweigh me by around 40 kilos.
Junk food goes really well with boredom and magazines. So I stocked up on the latter, including O: The Oprah Magazine. The cover showed Oprah in green pants and a yellow shirt, reclining in a red hammock and smiling a white smile. Despite the flattering photo angle and the obstructive hammock, there's no denying that she's plump by any standard, meaning much plumper than I. How delightful, then, to read her explanation of how she learned to live in peace with food and with her body, so that these days she eats "whatever my body desires." By the way, I once heard the same thing from a beautiful and amazingly thin French actress, although luckily for her what her body desired was mainly celery sticks.
All that paled next to the number of obese giants I saw in the highway "rest areas" from New York to Maine. The peak was at a Walmart. Not only was everything there astonishingly ugly, but incredibly, for the second time in my life (the first was in Haifa's first plus-size clothing store ), I couldn't find any schmattes small enough for my children - three men, tall but skinny - or even for myself.
Only yesterday, after returning to Israel, I read in the paper that one out of three British brides today chooses fat bridesmaids, in order to appear thin by comparison, and some invite only fat people to the wedding. And I say: If you want to feel skinny without the agony of dieting, go to America. Just don't stay there too long.
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