A McDonald’s restaurant, complete with McCafe, on the Old Town square in Bratislava, Slovakia.
Much of American culture is exported. Many Hollywood movies debut overseas just a couple of weeks after their première in the United States, if not sooner. People in other countries are better acquainted with U.S. politics than the average American. And, our music floods the Top Ten hit lists of most nations whether those nations have English as their official language or not.
A Burger King restaurant, complete with a wig-wearing mascot, in Nassau, The Bahamas.
I’ll never forget the pre-arranged Bahamian driver who met my husband and me at our cruise ship in the late 90’s. The driver was blasting a song by Tupac Shakur. I appreciated that Tupac wanted to know how we wanted and needed it, but we had not traveled by car, plane, and ship to hear him. “Junkanoo, please,” we politely asked, preferring to hear something we couldn’t get at home. Reluctantly, he changed the channel.
My husband and I were also surprised when we stopped by a small roadside stand on Nassau that had little on the shelves, but had a satellite hook up so the owner could watch Black Entertainment Television. It was at that moment, on my first international trip as an adult, that a light bulb went off — people really dig American stuff.
Not only is music exported, but our television shows find their way onto other nations’ screens. A friend, visiting Johannesburg in the mid-2000s, arrived back with tales of seeing billboards announcing the upcoming season of Brittany Spears’ reality show. In my experience, I had the nicest chat — on a ferry from Varenna, Italy to Como, Italy — with two Scottish women wherein we compared our favorite television shows from each other’s country.
McDonald’s restaurant menu from a rest stop on the outskirts of Prague, Czech Republic.
Knowing how pervasive American culture is, I shouldn’t have been shocked at the plethora of American fast food places throughout the world. Americans export their music and junk TV. Why not export our junk food as well?
Don’t get me wrong. I am not a foodie at all. I’m the girl who sticks to meat (if I can easily identify its source and confirm that it is actually meat cut directly from an animal) and potatoes. However, instead of feeling comforted by the sight of the Golden Arches or an insistence that I could have it my way, I was saddened. Does County Limerick in Ireland really need a Papa John’s pizza place?
I was sad until I realized that overseas, finding free wi-fi is a little like geocaching. The best places to find free wi-fi are at the fast-food places.
Budapest, Hungary street view showing both Burger King (bottom center) and McDonald’s restaurants.
Just like a DJ saved my life from a broken heart, Starbucks saved me from Internet starvation many times when I traveled in the U.K. and Ireland. I’m not entirely convinced that the mermaid logo isn’t a tad bit creepy, but she lures me into her lair time and again with promises of free wi-fi to update my Facebook posts; all for the price of a tall mocha.
Similarly, the McCafe was the free wi-fi spot in Bratislava, Slovakia and Dublin, Ireland. In Italy, many people on my tour swore by the McCafe in Como. They couldn’t have gone for the coffee, since the coffee everywhere in Italy is buonissimo! Personally, I sucked up alllll the free wi-fi available at Café Touring in Como, a quaint restaurant where I became a local for the three to four days I spent in Como. But, I digress.
I’m going to let you, dear reader, in on a little secret. The McCafe is real — complete with comfortable couches and mood lighting. People in other countries treat it like a true café. I saw student types using it in Bratislava. In Dublin, it appeared that mostly tourists were taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi. I would have used the McCafe in Dublin, except I had already been lured into the comfy depths of a Starbucks near Grafton Street.
A McCafe fronting a McDonald’s restaurant on Grafton Street in Dublin, Ireland.
Back to the food. I have to admit that I did eat fries and have a soft drink in Bratislava. Why? Because those were early days, and I was amazed at the presence of a McDonald’s on a historic town square in Eastern Europe. Plus, I was starving and we didn’t have a chance to sit down and properly lunch at one of the surrounding cafés. After my Bratislava McDonald’s experience, I swore an oath to myself that I would never, ever eat fast food abroad. I hate eating it in America, and I refuse to eat it elsewhere. I have kept my solemn vow.
The vow was super easy to keep in the U.K., after widespread reports of fast food chains and grocery stores using such exotic meat as horse to keep their customers satisfied. Nothing like unknowingly adding Horse Whopper to the list of dishes you’ve tried.
So, do fries go with that shake? Never, unless I’m feeling highly adventurous or desperately seeking free wi-fi.