Coke versus Pepsi

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[This Commentary originally appeared in the May 11, 1989 issue of The Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel.]

CarosaCommentaryNewLogo_259Dateline: ROME, August, 1988

The third day had been the worst. The muggy Mediterranean weather combined with the smoggy sky to produce a parched throat. This searing summer air in the land of my ancestors’ roots evoked memories of hot hazy August days and my grandfather’s pizza stand at the Erie County Fair. Perspiring and exhausted, my mind drifted back to those 16 hour days when, as I stood selling saucy slices, the sizzling sun seared one side of me as the fiery oven cooked the other. Only the frequent Pepsi breaks could quench my body’s sweaty thirst (despite my grandfather’s complaint, “You’re drinking all our profits!”).

Walking among the dusty ruins under the torrid Roman sun created an unnatural thirst. The Aqua Minerale (senza gas), offered only temporary reprieve. I knew my ultimate rescue lay exclusively in a glass of ice cold Pepsi. The city allowed none of this, though, and even teased me as I toured. At one point, I thought I located heaven in a street-side gelato stand. Among its 28 flavors rested the holy drink itself. I noticed, though, the cans had a subtle difference to them. When I tasted the syrupy goo, I vowed only fountain Pepsi would do.

Aching for the sugared liquid, I searched the Eternal City in vain. Every corner rebuffed me. My travel mates, (of less discriminating tastes), grew irritated as I continued to veto restaurant options for lack of Pepsi. (The night before I had to settle for wine, of all things!) As revenge, they led me on incessant forced marches to every distant obscure cathedral the Michelin Guide recommended.

By the second day I broke down and consumed Coca-Cola. It was not a proud moment, but everyone has his limits. Still, it accorded a sweet counterpoint to the native wine. I continued to rationalize my heresy as I asked the waiter to refill my glass.

The third day brought good fortune. Moments before meeting several vacationing Swedish women, as if to presage that lucky event, we discovered fountain Pepsi. Upon returning from the Coliseum, my friend motioned me to his shaded seat in the Piazza Del Sol Di Panteon. (He had opted for an afternoon of wine and people-watching.) During a casual walk, he told me, fate found him located at an unadorned hole-in-the-wall not more than a block away from our pensione. He recommended, without further explanation, I visit the place at once.

As he spoke I eyed a sweaty cold bottle of Coke with illicit lust. “It’s New Coke – just a version of Pepsi,” I told myself clawing for any excuse I could find. My friend’s command to immediately inspect his mysterious find – Andiamo! Subito! – broke my concentration and my feet, by now conditioned to walk when called to explore, started down the street.

We turned into a narrow ally just off the east side of the Pantheon. Had I been led there by anyone else, I might have suspected foul play. We eventually came upon a small dive literally dug out of the side of a deteriorating apartment building.

I ventured in with care. A disinterested young man eyed me warily, as though I were an uninvited guest. “Prego?” he threatened. I guardedly studied the watering hole. Beside the cigarettes, mixed drinks, and the obligatory gelato, a mirror proclaiming “The Winchester Arms Company of New Haven” agnostically reflected the dingy decor. Certainly, this artifact could not represent the sole reason for my visitation.

Then I saw it. Its natural placement caused me to overlook it at first. There, near the bothered bartender, stood a Pepsi fountain. For a moment, words left me. Inside, I smiled a deep satisfied smile. Salvation.

I ordered to my heart’s content. The Pepsi was good. The taste took me back to those cozy August nights when the fireworks had just finished and the final rush of a pizza hungry crowd had waned. Funny how the same feelings can come about as though the many years and miles which separate them melt to seem like nothing more than minutes and inches.

I got to know the bartender as well as any tourist could expect to. Despite his dour demeanor, I’m sure my zealousness amused him (“Il pazzo Americano!”). I looked forward to ending a day of sightseeing by venturing into the empty bar and ordering two glasses of fountain Pepsi. It seemed the perfect companion to the temperate climate and my grandparents’ homeland. Of all the pictures I took of the Roman relics, none will have as much meaning to me as the one of an unassuming tavern – the singular distributor of fountain Pepsi in the entire city of Rome.

Last Week #6: Lemonade, Minimum Wage and Daddy’s Tough Decision (originally published May 4, 1989)

Next Week #9: The Difference Between Wright and Rose (originally published on May 18, 1989 as Rose vs. Wright)

[What is this and why is here? See Interested in Discovering My Time Machine? for more details.]


  1. Chris Carosa says

    Author’s Comment: If this column hints in the very least (and, trust me, it will be in the very least) to a scene from a Hemingway novel, then I achieved what I set out to. Mind you, it reads with more of a Fitzgerald flourish than with the macho staccato of Hemingway. Nonetheless, it’s a true story – as my friends will attest. They really did get mad at me for rejecting restaurants in a vain search for one that offered Pepsi.

    And yes, I did take a picture of the “Winchester Fire Arms” mirror. One wonders how such a piece of Americana found itself in that particular corner of Italy. Still, its familiarity comforted the four Yale classmates traveling that summer.

    Oh, and about the Swedish girls. Well, that was more bluster than anything else. We think they were Swedish. Seems like this little thing called a language barrier got in the way of anything beyond the universal “Ciao!”

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