Friday, October 24, 2014

Eating McDonald’s in a foreign country

There’s a fried herring cart in Stockholm called (aptlyNystekt Strömming.

It’s apparently a favorite among locals for a quick snack, and with good reason: it was easily the most delicious 60 SEK I spent in the city. Continuing my strategy of making gastronomical decisions based in part on what I could pronounce, I had the “Special,” which was fried herring with potatoes and a bit of salad. It was amazing fast food, in the literal sense of “fast food”—no line, my food was served just a minute or so after I ordered it, and was devoured just a few more minutes after that.

Across the street, literally less than a minute’s walk away, is this McDonald’s.



You can’t tell from the picture, but (1) the line to the register stretched to nearly the door in what was a fairly large McDonald’s; and (2) this was after the lunch rush had died down.1 In my (admittedly limited) experience, this isn’t uncommon in big, European cities: tourists love McDonald’s, and around lunch or dinner time, it’ll probably be among the busiest places to eat.

You know what else isn’t uncommon? People—usually other tourists—looking down on tourists eating at McDonald’s. And I kind of hate that.

In fact, I kind of hate that because I used to say and think that. There’d be a line out the door at a McDonald’s in Rome, and I’d scoff to anyone who’d listen, “Ugh, don’t they know they’re in Italy? Why would you want a greasy Big Mac when you can get authentic Italian food?”

I, of course, wasn’t asking the question sincerely, so I didn’t take the minute or so to consider the multitude of completely legitimate scenarios in which travelers can simultaneously be aware of what country they are in and still want to eat at McDonald’s:

  • Maybe they’re on a budget, and they can’t really afford most of the local cuisine
  • Maybe they tried the local cuisine, and they didn’t like it
  • Maybe they tried the local cuisine, and the portions were smaller than they expected, so they’re still hungry
  • Maybe traveling is completely new to them and having to adjust to an unfamiliar city, language, culture, transit system, and monetary system is a little overwhelming, so having something uncomplicated to eat that they don’t have to think about is comforting
  • Maybe they’re feeling a little homesick, and they just want something that reminds them of home at the moment
  • Or maybe they just really like Big Macs, and I need to get off their dick about it, geez

What’s gross about McDonald’s condescension is that it presupposes that there’s a right and wrong way to travel, and it takes a lot of gall to tell someone that they’re doing something as personal and individual as travel incorrectly.

People, after all, travel for all manner of different reasons—to meet new people; to get away from people; to relax; to challenge themselves; and so on. And some travel without even having a reason, or travel in search of one.

And yes, it may be worth remembering that if you’re in a foreign country and all you want to do is lounge poolside at the hotel and order Pizza Hut that you may consider trying something that you couldn’t do at home (airfare’s kind of expensive, after all, and there are plenty of pools and Stuffed Crust Pizzas waiting for you once you get back). But I wouldn’t dare tell anyone that they’re traveling wrong or wasting their travel, especially when I don’t know anything about them besides what I’ve deemed as incorrect travel choices.

The reality is, no matter what you do, someone will think you’re doing it wrong: You’re taking too few pictures (“When are you ever going to be here again?!”) or too many pictures (“Put down the camera and just be in the moment!”). You’re missing all the big sites, or you’re going to too many touristy things. You’re not meeting enough people, or you’re not connecting with yourself. You’re trying to do too much, or you’re not doing enough.

The best decision any traveler can make is to just let all of that go. Ultimately, you can either stress over the idea that nothing you do is right, or you can take comfort in knowing that nothing you do is wrong. And as long as you’re kind and polite and respectful, you’re free to just do you—or, if that isn’t working out, do something else and try that.

People have their reasons for why they do things, including why they do what they do when they travel. And for the most part, we don’t know what those reasons are. That means our default posture shouldn’t be one of disdain or judgment but of encouragement and understanding—or, at least, cheerful indifference.

Or, more simply: no matter how delicious that herring is, maybe they just really like Big Macs. And that’s okay.


1In case you were wondering, I was in that McDonald’s to use the restroom. I try to be a good traveler and respect the mores of the places I visit, but there’s one place my Ugly Americanism rears its ugly American head—I really don’t like paying to use a public restroom2. The idea here was to use the restroom at McDonald’s by waiting by the restroom for someone to exit, then pretending to fall in line for a few moments, and finally leaving with an annoyed look as if I was planning on buying something but the line was just too long. In a karmatic twist, by the time I put my plan into action, I legitimately did want a 10 SEK McDonald’s ice cream cone, so after I used the restroom, I really did fall in line in earnest and really did leave annoyed once it became clear that getting an ice cream cone would take ten to fifteen minutes.
2Some of the small kindnesses I encountered in Europe that are most resonant to me involve people helping me not have to pay for using the restroom: a guy holding open the pay toilet gate for me so I can sneak in, a barista being all, “Oh no, go right in” when I asked if I had to make a purchase to use the restroom, and so on. People are pretty great sometimes.

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