The first time I ate McDonald’s abroad was in Rome during my semester there in the spring of 2014.
My “burner” Italian phone that I occasionally loaded with money was dead. My iPhone didn’t work in Europe. I had been sitting on the Spanish Steps for over an hour with an Eagle Eye out for my two girlfriends, who I was supposed to link up with to try a famous apple pasta.
They never came. There was a transportation strike I didn’t know about since I’d been in town all morning on foot.
I was hungry. I was irritated. I was lonely.
Then I saw them: the Golden Arches.
In that moment, I swear I saw a spotlight shine down from the heavens, or maybe it was just the glare from a passing Vespa, but I knew I was saved.
Since then, McDonald’s (and Burger King, Starbucks, etc.) has been an oasis for me on my travels. Especially as someone who experiences travel-induced anxiety, the ability to follow a routine, no matter where I am, is a lifesaver.
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McDonald’s Isn’t Lonely.
You’re supposed to eat fast food alone. People do it all the time, even when they’re not traveling. At McDonald’s, I can walk in, order, sit down in a booth by myself, and no one gives it a second thought.
I’m not pitied and I’m not bothered. I’m just allowed to eat. While I sometimes challenge myself while traveling and eat at a local sit down restaurant alone, indulging in regional foods, I typically don’t feel like working through the social stigma attached to eating alone.
Grabbing a quick bite from a fast food place or grocery store is just easier. And that’s okay.
It Offers a Familiar Routine.
I know what’s expected of me at McDonald’s. I know how to order and how to find a table. I know to clear my place when I’m finished eating and place the tray above the trashcan to return it, because the routine is the same in each restaurant, no matter the country.
One of my pet peeves is restaurants whose structure and concept isn’t immediately clear; one’s that you walk into for the first time and are like, “Wait, how does this work? Do I wait to be seated or just sit down? Do I order at the counter or from the waiter? Where do I pay?”
So in foreign countries, where literally everything else is brand new and in need of decoding, I take solace in putting my brain on autopilot for a little while.
When my friend Smoky and I were in Budapest, we booked an 8PM dinner cruise, but at 6:30, as the sun dipped below the skyline, the temperature plummeted. Our teeth chattering, our bladders full, and our fingers growing stiff, we sought refuge in a nearby Starbucks — walking in immediately felt safe and familiar, so the time flew past.
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It Has a Familiar Menu.
The basis of fast food menus is the same in most countries. It’s also always combined with pictures of the food and numbers, so if I get stuck behind a language barrier, I can locate the picture of the food I’d like and hold up the corresponding number of fingers.
This method came through for me in France, Turkey, and Costa Rica. And I didn’t even have to mime my drink choice in the latter because the beverage station was on my side of the counter.
There Is Guaranteed Wifi.
I typically just put my phone on airplane mode when I travel and look for free wifi along the way. This is because I only recently got an iPhone that has a SIM, so the idea of purchasing a temporary SIM is a new concept for me, and I have Verizon, whose international coverage would cost me more than my soul. Because of this, I’ve gotten pretty good at winging it, but knowing that anytime I see the golden arches I can reload a map or call my mom is very reassuring.
It’s also nice to be able to catch up on social media or research destinations while I’m eating alone, instead of just staring out the window…which I do sometimes, or people watch, but I don’t always want to.
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I Can Always Charge My Phone.
I carry a portable charger in my purse, but I also carry a charging cord and adapter because my phone is my camera and my safety lifeline.
If it dies, I know I could finesse the situation, but I just prefer not to. At McDonald’s, I can sit down at a table and plug my phone in, no questions asked. You don’t even have to buy anything; it’s just a familiar place to sit for a moment and catch my breath.
Locals Eat There (Sometimes)
That’s the wildest thing about fast food. For locals, every single day of your once in a lifetime vacation is just another day. So why not eat at McDonald’s?
When I was in Costa Rica, I had been eating at mom and pop places, but everything there is so tourist-oriented that locals never seemed to be eating with us. On our last day, my friend Smoky and I ate at a McDonald’s in San Jose because we had to drop off our rental car at 1:00PM, but our Airbnb wasn’t available until 4:00PM. We needed to kill time, so to McDonald’s we went…along with every other young professional in the city.
So this is where they’d been hiding.
Men in suits. Women with fancy purses who looked like they just ran a board meeting. Moms with kids. Couples who probably had been married for 50 years. All together. At McDonald’s.
So go ahead. Judge me while you eat your artisan cheese in “the cutest little place that you just stumbled upon where nobody speaks English.” I’ll just be over here enjoying my french fries and memes. Everyone needs a break sometimes.