Burgers and beyond; My favorite place
All you really have to know about me is that I'm a travel snob. I've always looked down on tourists who, at first glimpse of a foreign country, run for cover to the nearest Mickey D's. Therefore it is with some shame that I admit the number of visits I tallied up to the Golden Arches on our two-year tour in the capital city of Turkey, visits which, I might add, I risked my life to make. I am not kidding about this: McDonald's, up until a year or two ago, was a favorite site for terrorists to leave their bombs in Turkey. I often asked my husband facetiously (or not so facetiously), "Well, Honey, which is worse? To live in a country with no McDonald's, or to know that you're taking your life in your hands every time you buy a Quarter Pounder with Cheese?"
We were not just going to McDonald's for big, greasy burgers and fries, however. Turkish McDonald's also serve a beverage that could be called the national drink of Turkey, an indescribably delicious, whipped-yogurt concoction called ayran. And McDonald's ayran (packaged in an orange, half-pint carton, emblazoned with the big golden M) was indeed the best in town. Then at the end of our tour I began to see something new: a burger called the McExtra.
The McExtra billed itself as being a burger for Turkish tastes. The patty itself was formed from kofte, a mixture of lamb and spices, usually grilled as meatballs. On top of the kofte burger was a slice of yellow cheese, a slice of tomato, some onion and two different sauces. One sauce was advertised as yogurt-and-mint, the other a spicy hot tomato deal: both very Turkish (and delicious) in theory. I decided to order the McExtra and one bite was enough to tell me that I was having the weirdest sensory experience ever at a McDonald's. Not bad exactly: but very, very weird.
To my surprise, though, the McExtra took off. Within a month or two McDonald's had 10-pack McExtra cartons so that your average Turkish wage slave could take a box or two back to the office at lunch. I found it hilarious that Turks would go into an American restaurant and demand Turkish food, but I also found it a perfect reflection of the problems I had had for two years in banging my head vainly against what seemed an impenetrable wall of provincialism and national chauvinism.
Last week, before taking off for two years in the Russian Far East (also known as the Big Land That Will Never See American Fast Food), my husband, son and I stopped for one last fix at the McDonald's on Tverskaya Street in Moscow, a few blocks up from Red Square. It did not have the long lines snaking around the block like the days of old when Mickey D's first opened on Pushkin Square, but it was rather tight. I went in search of a table while my husband and son stood in line for the food.
The table that I found was close to the stairs leading to the restrooms on the lower level. As soon as I sat down, a very pretty teen-age Muscovite came up the steps and went to her boyfriend. "Can you come downstairs with me? I'm scared," she said. And as soon as my husband and son arrived with our dinner, my son decided that he needed a restroom run, too. My husband led him downstairs but returned rather quickly. Apparently whatever was going on in the men's room had so wigged out my 4-year-old boy that he could not fulfill his purpose there. All my husband said was, "If I fail my next drug test, it's because of what I breathed in down there."
We opened our bags to make sure the order was correct, and I found a cherry pie, something we never order. "What's this doing in here?" I asked. My husband's face assumed a familiar smirk. "They don't give drinks with Happy Meals here, they give pies instead," he replied, and with the same smirk in his voice quoted the counter help. "Cold drinks are not healthy for young children, it will give them a sore throat."
I had heard this particular mythology countless times in the former Soviet Union, but never expected to hear it in a McDonald's, surely the ultimate symbol of modern American life. I almost fell off my chair, so convulsed was I with hilar-ity over this.
Then it occurred to me that once again in a Mickey D's I was seeing the perfect metaphor for the society around me. On one level of the restaurant were prostitution, drug deals and God knows what other evils the collapse of communism has brought to Russia, while behind the counter the bureaucracy was still dispensing Slavic old wives' tales.
But the real point of this story is, if you are going to be flying anywhere near Vladivostok, could you bring us a few Big Macs and a Happy Meal?
Tamar Donovan lives in Vladivostok, Russia.
Becky Terjung, Owings Mills
"Mom and I took a day trip to Disney MGM studios. I know it's Orlando, but really, it takes no more time - or money - than spending a day in Atlantic City or New York. The key is leaving early and coming back late. In between, act silly, meet a princess, ride the scary ride twice and tell everyone that you are just visiting for the day!"