Prologue: Shanghai & Sydney
It's not that we don't like Chinese food. Actually, food in China is excellent. Way different than Chinese food in America, which is to be expected, and awesome in a different way. It's just that it's making everyone sick these first few weeks. Has bacteria we're not used to, or something. So there seems to be some logic in indulging in Western food, like, well, McDonald's, even though we just got here, and should be exploring everything. Who wants to keep getting sick when it's 95 degrees and oppressively humid in Shanghai? Like, unreal humid, the sort of humidity that feels like you could reach out and pluck chunks of it away as if it were sodden cotton candy. Anyway, this is all just a lie we tell ourselves, because the food from McDonald's makes us sick, too.
The months pass. McDonald's becomes an occasional dalliance in daylight hours, or a perennial drunk food stop. The sort of place an American finds himself standing outside of at 7 AM, just now getting back from the district with all the Western clubs still drunk and very much in need of ending his day as all the Chinese people around him are starting theirs, holding a cup of black coffee he doesn't want and trying in vain to offer it to the passing Chinese wordlessly, since he doesn't know the right phrases anyway.
We learn that McDonald's is a big deal here. As in Dubai or Mumbai, it's relatively new, and blowing up. It's cheap for us, way more expensive than a Chinese meal but about the same if not less than if you went to McDonald's back home. But it's expensive for a typical Chinese family, and it's a sign of wealth for them to be able to go. A speaker visits us at NYU, tells us that in three decades China has gone from widespread famine to being on the cusp of having an obesity problem. This is unprecedented in any other place in history. Welcome to the 21st century, China!
It's nice to walk into McDonald's and they see you're white and just push this little paper menu towards you so you can point at what you want. It's a clean system. On any given visit, we'll sit down and there will be some Chinese people our age eating taro pie, which is what they have instead of apple pie. There's usually an old Chinese grandparent, some survivor of the Cultural Revolution, bringing their little grandkid here. The kid will have a happy meal and the grandparent will have a little styrofoam container from the street with fried rice or something. The employees never cause any trouble about this.
At the end of my time in Shanghai, I stop by Sydney, which is on the way back to America if you consider “on the way” being a ten hour flight in a wrong direction that at least isn't the direction leading totally away from America. After a few days wandering around Sydney and occasionally lingering outside a McDonald's (which they call “Macca's”) in order to jump on Wifi, I'm sitting in the airport trying to do the same and failing as I eat the first bit of McDonald's I've actually bought in Australia. I realize I've eaten more McDonald's in four months than in the previous four years, and I'm looking forward to returning to a life where I never think about the place. Right.
Here are two things America is good at: fast food, and taking over the world with it. In the last two years, I have lived in Shanghai for four months and visited Sydney, Dublin, Paris, Madrid, Sevilla, Barcelona, Marseille, Brussels, and Berlin. What these places have in common: people love McDonald's. This is true even in places where people are stereotypically derisive regarding American culture and “cuisine” (because in some of these places—like Shanghai—people actually do think McDonald's is all we eat). These places also all have their own totally great local food cultures. I didn't want to keep going to McDonald's. But, after a while, I didn't have a choice.
Dublin, Days 1-4
Actually, I don't go to McDonald's while in Dublin. I resist the pull to indulge in some Americana escapism during my first week in Europe, but I don't think that's so much of an accomplishment in an English-speaking city with all sorts of familiar and comfortable cuisine options from local restaurants, anyway. Something to note, though: the preponderance of signs alerting you to the short distance to the nearest McDonald's, like the one on College Green, right near Trinity College, cluing you in on not one, but two nearby McDonald's, 1 min. away and 3 min. away. What diminishing empire?
I did go to a Burger King in the Dublin airport. The man next to me was drinking a beer with his breakfast sandwich. It was 6 AM.
Paris, Days 4-12
McDonald's is extremely popular here, but the demographic of its patrons is what makes it stand out. In Paris, McDonald's is the cool kids' table, frequented by improbably thin and beautiful and street-style-adept twenty-somethings. McDonald's is trendy. I actually only wind up there once during my initial stay in Paris, moved by a crippling necessity for WiFi access. If a French McDonald's actually has their free WiFi turned on, you get a window of rules to agree to, the monolith of the golden arches re-contextualized in white against a green backdrop looking down over the notes & conditions. You click “J'accepte” to gain access.
Quarter-pounders are called “Le cheese royal” here. So, Pulp Fiction was about half right.
Madrid, Days 13-17
My first day in Madrid. This is when I recall McDonald's beginning to become a problem for me. See, they weaseled their way into becoming my international best friend with this whole free WiFi business, but generally it's a lot more difficult to get online from outside the restaurant than I've experienced in other countries. Diabolical. In Spain, you click “Acceptar” to get on the WiFi.
There is a McDonald's on Gran Via, one of Madrid's main avenues, that became a home base of sorts. It's the kind of McDonald's that puts all sorts of McDonald's locations back home to shame—old, character-laden wooden doors; marble floors, pillars, and staircases; scenic windows lining the first floor allowing people-watching on the Gran Via as well as the adjacent pedestrian street Calle de la Montera. I mean, we're not talking a sweeping atrium here but I found myself wondering why I'd never found a McDonald's in a beautiful old bank in Manhattan. (To be fair, that might exist somewhere. I never go to McDonald's in America.) At any rate, it's a good spot to sit, and I see the same pair of old, clearly-not-homeless and actually-pretty-well-dressed Spanish men squatting there on three separate occasions. Once, the McDonald's security guard (not a typo) hassled them a bit and one old man defended himself by saying he bought a coffee three hours ago.
The Gran Via McDonald's is where I see the early gathering stages of Madrid's pride parade on my first night. It's the place I'm sitting when a massive parade comes by after Spain has won some major sporting event on my third night. The old men are there, as are dozens of other people in a much-too-small space, awaiting the team. Something weird happens when the team finally does pass by: all of the workers flee the cash registers and kitchen and run to the window to wave flags and take photos alongside the customers. An abandoned ship. A pretty strange sight—you get the sense that it's more of a big deal to be able to work at a McDonald's abroad, and it would take something with the magnitude of a victorious football team to lure the employees away.
Sevilla, Days 17-20
I manage to kick the McDonald's dependency and only eat at tapas bars, though I do half-capitulate and go to a Tex-Mex bar/restaurant in hopes of finding American expats on the night of the Fourth of July. No luck.
In some foreign countries, it's considered acceptable, even special, to go to McDonald's on dates. Let that sink in. In foreign countries it's special to go to McDonald's for dates.
Barcelona, Days 20-23
Edward Hopper painted Nighthawks in 1942. This is what it would look like a little over seven decades later: a bunch of lonely tourists in a foreign McDonald's, glued to their iPhones. This routine's become familiar now. I'm on the second floor of an Avinguda Diagonal McDonald's, one of four tourists seated alone. There is also a pair of men speaking what sounds like Arabic. Whenever someone new walks in, everyone shoots a brief stare at them. It's a weird look, one that has equal facets of condemnation and camaraderie. Collective guilt at succumbing to escapism through the familiarity of your home country's most recognizable super-capitalist international empire (second, maybe, to Coca-Cola). People staring out the window of a McDonald's existentially the way people are supposed to into nothingness at a bar.
Occasionally, I look up and catch someone's eye for a minute and there's a glimmer of recognition between us, that we both know we're someplace out of our element and just sort of drifting around and eventually clinging onto these familiar buoys like McDonald's for internet access, or whatever. But I never say anything to them in that moment. You don't talk to anyone. That seems to be an unspoken agreement.
One woman to my left has her camera out and is reviewing her photos. I know this trick. I've pulled this trick. The attempt to appear that you are Very Busy in some capacity. These McDonald's situations produce a sort of anxiety for the lone tourist—the need to look like you're not alone. That you're not aimlessly killing time in a McDonald's; that you actually have reason to be there frantically checking e-mail or that you're just looking through your photos for a few minutes before your significant other shows up and you both head out on the town. This is the paradox of going to a place like McDonald's abroad: you go there to flee that of-course-only-momentary sense of homesickness during your Euro Trip you're going to talk about for the rest of your life, to indulge in something familiar, easy, and un-intimidating. But, instead, you are met with a crushing reminder of your loneliness as a single tourist and its twin affliction, the subsequent need to appear outwardly as if none of this is the case. So you review your photos.
The McDonald's in Barcelona had the best food. The menus are written in Catalan, and like in other countries, they take on elements of local cuisine. There's something called Beef Passion that seems to want to reconcile the difference between American burgers and Iberian sandwiches. Later that day I realize that if I a) come across a McDonald's whose WiFi isn't working or b) see one of those signs pointing to a nearby McDonald's that then fails to materialize in an immediate and logical fashion, I have come to view it as a personal betrayal.
Train from Barcelona to Marseille
There isn't a McDonald's on our train. I'm sure this will be different in the future. Someday we'll get there.
Marseille, Days 23-24
There is a McDonald's below my hotel where the WiFi never works. Like a spurned lover, I vow to enact vengeance by avoiding McDonald's for the duration of my time in Marseille. I make it one afternoon before I go full on Howard Hughes. I begin going downstairs and clumsily ordering because my limited French skills totally fail here in the South, and hurriedly retreating with my paper takeout bag, embarrassed. Each time I enter the hotel I hope it's going to be a different concierge but the entrance is like the entrance to a small apartment building, not a hotel, and I always have to pass her with my head down and McDonald's in my hand. I try to look busy, like I'm a young businessman just passing through Marseille and I only have time to eat alone in my hotel room, darkened all day by heavy blinds. Maybe I'll watch a show while I eat.
On the feeling of isolation this produces compared to that of the Pop Art Barcelona Nighthawks experience: 25% more isolated. This is a low.
One other thing happens in Marseille. I'm walking down a side street when two middle-aged women sitting outside what at first seems to be a cafe stop me.
“Bonsoir” she says to me, and I say “bonsoir” back. She says something else in French, and I tell her I don't speak French. She tries Spanish and then Portuguese before arriving at English.
“Why don't you come in and talk to the girls for a while?” she asks, which is when I realize I'm standing outside a brothel.
“Oh, no, I have to go.”
“You have to go?” she asks doubtfully.
“Yes, I have a meeting,” I lie. I'm about to go to a movie theatre by myself.
She is undeterred, and keeps talking to me.
“What do you do? What do you make?” She asks.
“I'm a writer,” I strain, before abruptly excusing myself and walking away. At the time, that's sort of a lie as well, but it felt like a better-sounding synonym to the truth: nothing.
Brussels, Day 25
I'm in Brussels for less than 20 hours and no, I don't go to a goddamn McDonald's.
Berlin, July 13-16, or, “The Relapse”
Berlin is not built for human use. Big boulevards are overshadowed by faceless, slick, steel-and-glass corporate centers and hotels. It's emblematic of the 20th and 21st century city of functionality and utilitarianism, of cities built for efficiency. But unlike a city like, say, New York, those big, shiny, character-less buildings don't have life breathed back into them from the street level up. There's no frenetic energy, nobody walking around. Just cars drifting eerily, silently through one long street to another, moving from one diffuse city center to another. You feel like you're walking in a video game metropolis, not real life. This is the city I feel most at home in during my travels in Europe.
Berlin doesn't ask anything of you. It doesn't have the old world buildings and narrow cobblestone streets that demand the human interaction, the human acknowledgement of the artistry and poeticism of such places basically existing. You can't write all that romanticism into it like you can with the other mythologized Euro capitals. It feels clean and sterile, sprawling and inaccessible. Alienating. And yet, not in the way sitting amongst a bunch of lonely tourists in Barcelona feels alienating. Alienating like the small (height-wise, certainly not in expanse) American cities of which Berlin reminded me. Again, the place I felt most at home during my travels. So here we are. Finding comfort in feeling alienated.
What does this have to do with McDonald's? I will tell you what this has to do with McDonald's.
Comfort from alienation is the realm in which blatant, (near?)-imperial capitalism makes you feel at home. It's the sort of situation where you can feel like you are more in tune with the rhythms of a place if you eat at a McDonald's rather than a local restaurant. You don't even care that they don't have free WiFi, just a T-Mobile hot spot you need to pay for. You don't consider that they speak English like, everywhere in Berlin and you'd have just as easy a time ordering and eating local food. You pass through one city, you pass through another. You go to McDonald's, because that's just what you do.
So you find yourself in a McDonald's under a bridge, part of a train station. Could look dingy or poetic from the outside depending on your angle. You notice they have some weird burger called the California something, you notice the very attractive German couple on a date adjacent to the table of loud tourist teenagers, you notice a couple of people to your right staring at you as you sit down and flip through your photos. At first, you might expect that this is a low more depressing than the shame and guilt shared with your fellow customers on Barcelona's Avinguda Diagonal. But you realize that isn't the case at all. You realize going to McDonald's is exactly what Berlin wants of you, exactly what the world wants of you, and that's great. Because you're American and you're abroad and this is what Americans eat, but look: the rest of our world eats your food, too. And now, for the moment, everything feels balanced and in its right place. You sitting in this foreign McDonald's thousands of miles from home means everything's functioning as cleanly and succinctly as you'd hope and expect in Berlin. You're one with the Borg now. You've learned to stop fearing and love the Golden Arches.
J'accepte, j'accepte, j'accepte.
Ryan Leas is a contributing writer for Stereogum, where he works on profiles and features. His work has also appeared on Salon, GQ.com, and the Village Voice's Sound of the City blog. He splits his time between Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania and New York City.