I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge the real MVP of my travels: McDonald’s. No, not because I like fast food or get excited about nuggets and a red-footed, red-haired clown. Let me take a second to explain.
When I arrived in Berlin on a chilly, windy, wet April morning, I was running on less than three hours of sleep, a few granola bars and 8 oz. of water. I was not the best version of myself. I was parched, exhausted, jet-lagged, irritable, and not ready to face the day, let alone take on a new country with a language I don’t speak a lick of. Of course, I was excited to have touched down in Europe, the land I love more than my own, but that excitement was diluted by my physical stupor.
After stumbling through the airport and finding my way to the train stop, then navigating to the station closest to my hostel, I took my first steps in East Berlin. First impression: not great. It was dreary and grey; the people who shuffled up and down the sidewalks were dressed in varying shades of black, grey and navy. Heavy boots clapped on the ground and chains clinked on pedestrians’ jeans. Graffiti stretched as far as the eye could see on buildings, walls, fences, sidewalks, construction zones…everywhere.
I was dressed in a preppy tan coat and riding boots, with red lipstick on and my hair in a tight bun on the top of my head. I didn’t quite fit in. I got a few sideways glances and I lugged my suitcase off the platform and made my way to the street corner to look for signs. Since I didn’t have WiFi, I had screenshotted the directions from the station to the hostel before I had let the airport and I figured that would suffice to get me there. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
I first walked about 10 minutes in the wrong direction. I realized it and walked back to the station, and then went 10 minutes in the other direction. Then, realized the first direction was the correct way and I had just read a sign incorrectly. So 30 minutes later, I was on my way. I was so delirious and growing more frustrated by the minute that even when a man saw me frantically scrutinizing my map and asked if I needed help, I said no thank you because I didn’t feel like talking to humans. Yeah, that bad.
Finally, I made my way to the hostel. Of course I arrived before I could check in and could only drop off my bags. I wanted nothing more than a meal and a coffee and gallon of water to drink and a shower and a nap and a comfy bed – was that really too much to ask for? Apparently yes, it was. So I used the hostel bathroom, freshened up with some tap water from the sink, stored my luggage in the safe room, and took off on a quest for food.
Usually, when I travel, I have no issue eating alone. I’ll find a cute café with outdoor seating and will order a glass of wine to ease my nerves, and then dig into my meal. But on that morning, I was not so optimistic. I was simply hungry and tired. I passed by a few hole-in-the-wall kebob places but to me they looked questionable and definitely didn’t have warm-fuzzy vibes to them (though of course I saw everything though my lens of irritability and probably didn’t give them the chance I should have). So I didn’t stop.
I continued to walk, passing a few more uninviting-looking eateries and eventually ended up in an industrial area that was even more intimidating than the goth/punk rock area wherein I had begun my journey. Every sign and poster was in German and I didn’t know what I was looking at. I passed by more questionable characters on the streets and got more glances and I was just so uncomfortable I wanted to cry. I was so done.
But then off in the distance, I saw the golden arches. I can’t remember the last time I have eaten McDonald’s in the U.S. Like every other person born in the early 90s, I definitely had my share growing up, but eventually stopped eating there post “Super-size Me” movie, as the world grew more aware of the health effects of eating fast food.
But when traveling, it’s a different story. It’s not about the food at that point. It’s about taking a break from risk-taking and going somewhere where you know what to expect and you can read everything on the menu. It’s a little home away from home, a refuge when you’re feeling how I was in that moment.
So I made my way to McDonald’s, ordered my food, and for the first time in 24 hours, felt at ease. I plugged my phone in to charge in the outlet by my table. I logged into the free WiFi and looked up where I was. I stayed there for nearly an hour, browsing the web and planning my next few days in Berlin.
I thought about how many times I have resorted to McDonald’s when traveling alone. I did it in Sydney, Australia, when I was fed up from getting lost in the city all day and just needed a place to go and recharge. I did it in Casablanca, Morocco, when I felt so uncomfortable trying to eat anywhere else because women typically don’t go out by themselves, let alone eat at a restaurant, and I had gotten lots of uncomfortable looks from hopeful men at every other restaurant I tried to enter. I did it in Buenos Aires, Argentina, when the power went out at my yucky hostel and I just needed to go somewhere with light and power to charge my phone and get a coffee.
It’s interesting how a place that doesn’t enter my brain space at home becomes my sanctuary while abroad. But then again, I don’t need a sanctuary when I’m at home because everything is already familiar. It’s like going to a party by yourself, finding the only person you know (a kid you knew briefly from high school), and clinging to that person the rest of the night just to survive the party. It’s really all just survival, isn’t it?
McDonald’s Corporation has undeniable flaws, but it has done a great job keeping its interiors and its in-store experiences consistent while assimilating to the demands of international consumers. And while I sat there in Berlin, drinking my signature diet coke and dipping over-fried French fries into sugar-infused ketchup, I couldn’t have been more appreciative for the fast food chain. I left feeling content and ready to take on the rest of the day.
This is my Ode to McDonald’s.