During college, a friend and I spent a summer learning to teach English as a foreign language in Prague. We hadn’t been to the Czech Republic before, nor did we speak the language. When we got off the plane, we met up with a student with limited English vocabulary to find our rental apartment.
The three of us got on the metro in a whirlwind of people and emerged on the far outskirts of Prague, surrounded by nondescript concrete apartment buildings with bars on the windows. Our student guide pointed to a bench by a busy road. “Wait, please,” she said, and left us with all our things in bags at our feet.
Half an hour went by before she reappeared. “Yes,” she said. “Come.” We followed her to one of the gray block buildings where she handed us the keys, told us the superintendent didn’t speak any English and left. It was Sunday evening, and we quickly found that all the restaurants and supermarkets nearby were closed. Hungry and desperate, we found a 24-hour gas station that sold frozen pizza. Our gas oven didn’t work, and instead of trying to mime the problem to the super, we decided to cook the pizza on the stove. (I don’t recommend this method.)
We woke up to no breakfast, showered sitting down in a bathtub and verbally stumbled our way through the metro-ticket-buying business to get to the city center. Less than a day in country and we were frustrated, hungry, and starting to regret our summer plans. But when we hopped off the metro, in front of us was McDonald’s—a restaurant neither of us visited much, if ever, in the States. At that moment, drowning in culture shock, finding that bright yellow M was like recognizing a friend in a sea of strangers. Sitting in a sunny booth with caffeine from our cokes hitting our bloodstream and a pile of warm salty fries in front of us, we were able to laugh at the experience and feel grounded enough to get excited about our adventure again. (For those who are worried, we only went to the McDonald’s in Prague the one time. We truly enjoyed the traditional guláš and svíčková.)
My secret shame of expat life is American fast food. To me, the Golden Arches represent what I think of as the worst of American culture: mass-produced, unhealthy food, obnoxiously loud signage, disposable everything. When I’m in the US, McDonald’s is barely on my radar. I can drive by three locations without really seeing them. Overseas, though, I know exactly where the closest McDonald’s is and how to get there. I know what’s on the menu—I can read the menu—and it’s comforting in its familiarity.
To be fair, visiting McDonald’s overseas is usually quite a different experience. There are upscale McCafes with real espresso drinks and well-made pastries, plus better quality ingredients in the Big Macs. (You have to pay extra for ketchup packets, though.) In many countries, it’s seen as an experience, a treat. People take dates to McDonald’s and meet up there for business lunches.
Plus, there’s the kid factor. We have a child with a peanut allergy, and it’s nice to have a place we can rely on to be allergy-friendly. When you’re driving through countries you’ve never visited before, it’s such a relief to have a guaranteed quick stop that the kids won’t object to, with a menu you know, and bonus: often there’s a play place for burning off energy. I have sweet memories of drinking coffee while my kids climb and run around during road trips through Germany and Sweden.
Despite the impression you might have, our family does prioritize local restaurants. We save the American icons for cases of dire need. I still cringe a little whenever I walk up to the counter in any country. But it’s a rare expat with access to McD’s who doesn’t indulge at some time or another, because though it isn’t a physically nutritious option, it can be spirit-nourishing. Living overseas, where I rarely feel truly competent, I am confident ordering at McDonald’s.
Now, if only Chipotle would really catch on internationally.
What things do you allow overseas that you never would in your passport country? Is there something you always buy when you see it in your host country just because it’s a reminder of home?
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