We never had water bottles growing up in Cyprus. We had lots and lots of bottles of water, but never water bottles. Drinking water came in six-packs of 1.5 L plastic bottles, and we would probably go through fifty such bottles every week, in high summer. In the 1990s, 'recycling' wasn't even in our vocabulary, let alone a household habit.
Cyprus doesn't do tap water. In fact, I remember a time when Cyprus didn't do water at all: imagine California's drought, but actually. Cyprus' droughts would creep into every household and touch every single one of us through water cuts that would last for the entire summer. We'd then have a set volume of water allocated to us twice a day. After washing the dirty laundry of all six people in our family - not to mention their sweaty bodies - there wasn't much of it left for our recreational or thirst-related needs. There was also another reason why we were never encouraged to drink what came out of the tap: most houses were equipped with water tanks that made the task of storing and managing the scanty amounts of water we would get easier. Water that came from a direct supply system or so-called 'flowing' water (to trechoumeno) was like a Cypriot mouflon or agrino, a subspecies of wild sheep unique to the island: you hear a lot about it, you're worried about its preservation but then you never see it anyway, which eventually convinces you it doesn't exist.
I was introduced to water bottles as an item on the 'What To Bring' list for the summer camp my brothers and I used to go to every year, starting age six. Together with 'Wash Bag', they were the two most elusive words on that coveted piece of paper, which signaled the beginning of the summer and a much-anticipated shopping excursion amidst aisles of novelties such as flashlights, first aid kits and Swiss knives. You have never seen a more excited 10-year-old than myself trying to pick a wash bag from what I considered to be an entire field of them at a local department store, which I now realize carried at most three different wash bag styles. I have no similar memory about water bottles.
Fast forward to my life as a university student in the U.K, where tap water is always potable and flows into your glass at exactly the right temperature with no doomsday warnings of sickness. That is where my tap water education began. Two weeks into my freshman year, it became untenable for me, my back and my wallet to buy bottled water for my daily needs, so I began the habit of purchasing a single medium-sized bottle of water per week and refilling it multiple times a day from various taps and fountains around Cambridge. I took this to the library, to the gym, to play rehearsals. I even kept it on my bedside table. I would avoid - and still do - restroom faucets, since I am convinced that on some molecular level that water mingles with all the other liquids and solids flowing around in the restroom's vicinity. I have always imagined an invisible, aerial kind of osmosis whereby particles of faeces and urine are emitted from their designated pipes behind restroom walls and find a way into the clean, tap water pipe which eventually lands on my hands when I wash them obsessively with antibacterial hand soap. I do not want to drink that water. (Disclaimer: I understand that osmosis is all about describing movements of particles in liquids but please indulge me in visualizing this schema for a minute, which I think is an integral step to becoming convinced of its logic.)
The U.K. is also where I learnt that 'tap, please' is a perfectly respectable answer to a server's predictable 'What kind of water?' question. I admit that faced with the 'tap, still or sparkling?' conundrum in those early days, I often fell into the server's well-set trap: tap water is also still water after all. But a couple of months in, armed with my newly discovered tolerance, even preference, for all tap water minus restroom tap water, I gained enough confidence to fend off any unsolicited 'still or sparkling?' water suggestions. Let it be noted that I, like everyone else, have dined and wined with friends and family that still go for the still or sparkling options. I have a hard time understanding some of their justifications. Some say they are 'grossed out' by the idea of tap water and pull faces of disgust even at the sound of its suggestion. Others think that paying for your water is a status thing; or rather, that not paying for your water is a basse-classe thing, or that it is shameful. There are also those who do not know that tap is an option (see aforementioned Cypriots) and are actually in seventh heaven once they realize that there is a free, perfectly safe and abundant option for quenching their thirst. I really love being the one to break the news to them, which I understand makes me a staunch tap water advocate, or tap water lunatic. But I never quite made the leap into water bottle land.
Before I analyze this paradox further, I had better define what I mean by water bottles. A water bottle is a non-disposable, re-usable container for water, which makes water readily available to the owner in large enough quantities, at minimum cost. The water bottles I am referring to are usually marketed as BPA-free, which means - as their promotional material never fails to mention - that they are made of plastics or polyesters or glass that do not contain the kind of harmful chemical often found in bottles of water. According to these water bottle makers, bottles of water are EVIL and they have probably already made me infertile, since I have drank water from hundreds of them and have been known to keep many of them for longer than three days. Even if I escaped infertility, they will probably give me asthma or cancer or a range of neurological impairments and metabolic problems in the near future.
In hindsight, the seeds of my relationship with water bottles were sown when I first arrived in the US. When I got to the States four years ago, water bottles did not make it onto my list of 'Things About This Place That I Do Not Get', as I was much more preoccupied with larger phenomena that dominated the new macrocosm I had found myself in, such as: houses with no fences, houses with siding, electricity cables being overground, nail salons for dogs. Water bottles hadn't caught my attention until the summer waned and September ushered the beginning of my first semester, when campus turned into my (forced) second home. Glossy see-through Camel Baks were everywhere: on desks; dangling from backpacks; placed under specially-designed water fountains that quenched your thirst while giving you a pat on the back for saving 67980 plastic bottles of water.
I first associated the water bottle to the kind of person that cycles (by which I mean a person that owns a bike, uses it more than once a month and actually takes it for a tune up once in a while); the kind of person that owns a backpack with at least one of those clippy things that come in different colors; that friend that gets super excited when the conversation turns to an obscure band they read about on Pitchfork that's playing at a local venue (see The Sinclair); a sporty person (who actually owns hiking boots); people who rock climb (yes, Brooklyn Boulders counts); and persons who are parents, because in the absence of water-filled tits they have to give water to their babies somehow. It felt geeky, this water bottle contraption, as did many things in Cambridge, MA. It felt like what kids who were bullied in high school for their brains and glasses who then go on to Ivy League schools and are on the way to becoming internationally recognized brainiacs or millionaires carried around. It was efficient, affordable and practical. All qualities that have never been high up on my priority list, which was formulated when I was 15 and has changed worryingly little since: (1) effortless (2) cool (3) à la mode. It took me a while to realize that I was the one out of mode, as it were, with the striking absence of a water bottle from my hand and the BPA toxins practically radiating from my skin as I insisted on carrying misshapen bottles of water around for weeks.
The watershed moment came when I came face to face with another list - this time titled 'What To Pack for Your Upcoming Machu Picchu Hike' - whose fifth item was: '2 1L water bottles / Camel Bak'. At first I scoffed, and thought I could do without it. M said I was crazy and that I would need a lot of water up there and should definitely not count on him sharing his H2O and I should get my act together because 'there are no kiosks selling water in bottles of plastic along the Inca trail, I assure you!' I wasn't entirely convinced by his unabashed scaremongering: a brief search of #MachuPicchu on Instagram is proof that even the least fit, most thirst-prone looking people look happy and quenched up there. Am I to believe that everyone up there is responsible enough to BYOW? Aren't there locals capitalizing on tourist stupidity?
In any case - I bit the bullet and ordered FOUR sage-colored Camel Baks for $8 each on Amazon. When they arrived, I took one out of the box and plastic wrapping and placed it near the sink. I stared at it and went to bed. The next morning, I had an early doctor's appointment. The Camel Bak was still there, near the kitchen sink, its clear sage body perfectly matching its grey screw-on cap and orange lining. It all happened so fast, I don't remember how but next thing I know I'm sitting across from my doctor discussing one of my hypochondriac fears, taking a swig of the crisp, fresh-tasting water from my brand new water bottle and it feels really good, swinging this water bottle around as if it's some precious piece of jewelry I want to show off. Needless to say, I've used it every day since.