The Lure of the Golden Arches

“The Russian rain was falling on the golden arch… All the way from Moscow to New York”

All The Way From Moscow – Jesse Malin

ONE of the great delights about travelling is the constant chance to push yourself out of your comfort zone and savour new experiences, be that meeting people from a different background, staying in alien surroundings or sampling the local cuisine.

But, seemingly wherever you go in the world, as soon as you hit any built-up area there is an option to feast on the familiar.

No longer does grabbing a quick bite to eat in Beijing have to mean nipping down one of the hutongs and wolfing down a delicious, stupidly cheap and ridiculously fast snack from a vendor who has never heard of health and safety (although it is to be heartily recommended).

Now there’s the option of tucking into something familiar. You can actually give directions around Tiananmen Square using McDonald’s and KFC as landmarks.

To eat in one of these homogenised outlets is sniffed at by the travel snob and responsibletravel.com listed it as one of the 15 bad habits travellers should give up for Lent.

Is turning your back on the native food and retreating to the familiar flavours on offer in your favourite fast food joint really travelling? Is it merely a long-distance version of the stereotypical Brit abroad demanding a breakfast fry-up, chips with everything and HP sauce as he soaks up lager and sun for two weeks in the Med?

Or is it perfectly acceptable, at least in small doses? After all, if the idea is to eat where the locals do, who do you think that is queuing up for a Big Mac? This is, when they can’t be bothered to cook, where the locals eat, just as we do back home. Otherwise the global chains would not be here.

And sometimes it is good to take a break from travelling when it is all you are doing 24 hours a day for weeks or months on end.

After an initial reluctance to retreat so completely into the familiar, my view is pretty much relaxed – as long as it is not overdone, but merely an occasional break from more complex meals.

Not that my attitude was always so relaxed and fair-minded.

The first time the ‘To Maccy D or Not Maccy D?’ dilemma came up was on a brief backpacking trip around France.

A week of sleeping on trains, in hostels and on platforms, cycling around the beautiful Lake Annecy, finding out my travelling companion could not swim at the precise moment a ferry looked set to plough into our pedalo and dealing with his sunstroke was highlighted by one of the worst fouls seen on a football field (which broke the post, squashed my duty-free cigarettes and left the young German on the receiving end being helped away, sobbing).

We ended up in the northern coastal town of Caen (having swapped our initial, wrongly-purchased train tickets to the southern coastal resort of Cannes) with little money left and time to kill before our ferry.

My desire to eat native (and save dwindling resources) produced the idea of some cheese, maybe a bit of ham, and a baguette before a stroll around the old town. My friend opted for the stroll, but only until he found a McDonald’s and piled all his remaining cash into the biggest collection of meat and special sauce in buns he could afford.

The difference of gastronomic opinion ended in conflict when his request to share my remaining bread and cheese on the ferry was refused – a division which grew on a long, cold, hungry night on a Portsmouth platform after we missed the last train home.

Good intentions have meant most trips have started with a desire to steer clear of the Golden Arches of the American Embassy, but they have never lasted too long, particularly after a few beers.

On the road from London to New York, that meant post beer Big Macs in Warsaw (where the staff spoke better English than the ones you find back home), just off Red Square in Moscow (strangely satisfying after visiting Lenin’s Mausoleum and with four days of dried food lying in wait on the Trans-Siberian) and on the final day in China. There’s only so many Chinese feasts you can take before craving normality.

And I’ve been kicked out of two McDonald’s.

Neither were entirely my fault. After all, if they were closed, why were the doors still open?

The one in Nashville was an attempt to quash a post-drink hunger (something the Americans don’t really cater for, Dunkin Donuts just doesn’t cut it). For some reason, the staff lined up behind the counter and actually took my order three times before a security guard appeared and escorted me out, leaving me to the vagaries of a motel vending machine for that evening’s meal.

Times Square, New York was a bit different, mainly as it wasn’t part of a search for food. The lights were on, doors were open and staff were inside. It looked open. Even at 5am.

The search for an open toilet ended in the back room of a neighbourhood deli still open and housing a meeting of figures from central casting who watched (and probably listened through the narrow door) my progress in silence. Thought it best to buy a pizza slice on the way out.

Maybe there are times when the familiar fast-food joints are a welcome destination…

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Guitars, Pontiacs, Hillbilly Music etc etc

Original posted in London to New York blog, Cardiff, September 23, 2010

IT is, with some regret, that this entry begins with some sad news. Not quite a death, more the very serious, soon to be upgraded to terminal, state of health of some constant companions throughout the journey.

Yes, it is with great sadness that this article has to reveal the rapidly deteriorating health of the pair of shoes which have carried me around the world.

Until they finally fall apart completely, they will still be worn – unless it is raining, when the water pours through the increasing leaks through the worn-through soles and disintegrating sides. They are, quite literally, on their last legs.

My feet became a bone (or collection of bones) of contention on the trip, but their perilous state through the mosquito-nibbled, infected in-growing toenail, blister-ridden days of North America cannot be blamed on the shoes.

Not even the less than pleasant smell can… oh hang on, maybe that one was down to the shoes. Or my socks. Or me.

Whatever, we went through a lot together since that joyous day we met in the Go Outdoors shoe department in early March.

Sad to report, the relationship was not totally monogamous. There were other shoes.

There were occasional flirtations with a brand new pair of ‘smart’ shoes bought simply for wearing on the boat and spent most of the journey rammed into the bottom of my rucksack.

A pair of sandals captured more of my attention, but we had a messy, painful break-up in a welter of cheese, recriminations and blisters after an unscheduled walk back to camp in New Ulm.

There was even, oh the shame, brief liaisons with Phil’s ‘jangles’. But that was purely because his were always easy to find at the front of the bus and were the only other ones that fitted me.

But, despite those dalliances,those size 12 grey and black Regatta Isotex shoes stayed loyal and carried me through the town squares of Europe, the less than salubrious back streets of St Petersburg, the wilderness of Mongolia, Beijing’s Forbidden City, the sun-drenched city walls of Xi’an, the ice and snow of Hengshau Hanging Temple, the decks and basketball court of the Diamond Princess, the sodden streets of Vladivostock, the trails of North America’s National Parks and the streets of its big cities. And into a few bars.

For the final five weeks of my trip, the right shoe spent endless hours on the accelerator pedal of a little white Pontiac, clocking up 6,000 miles in a five-week trip which rattled through some of the big cities, musical hotspots, small towns and scenic drives of the eastern half of the United States.

Not going to bore you with the full inside tale of every stop, but after two weeks of goodbyes in New York, Boston and back again my route took me, sweltering the entire way, to (deep breath):

Washington DC, where the temperature gauge hit 106 and at least six bottles of water were consumed walking up and down the National Mall; Front Royal, Virginia. which is merely the front door to The Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway, between them more than 550 miles of twisting, sloping tarmac draped along the ridge of the Appalachian Mountains and providing the most fun you can have in a car with a top speed limit of 45mph; Greenville, South Carolina, scene of a quite spectacular thunderstorm; the extremely big Clemson University Stadium (known as Death Valley); the extremely cool college town of Athens, Georgia, and the extremely hot Pensacola Beach, Florida, thankfully with an extremely welcome, and welcoming, beach bar just yards from both the water and my room.

From there it was back through Alabama, flying through Mobile, Birmingham and Montgomery, while stopping at the US Space and Rocket Center (sic) at Huntsville (Rocket City, USA – home to Space Camp) and over the Tennessee border to the town of Shelbyville. They were in the middle of celebrating their 200th anniversary and while there were plenty of vintage cars and a chilli cook-off to savour, there was no sign of a lemon tree. Or any bars within walking distance of the motel.

That carried me to a 10-day reunion with Nick which saw us play football for England against Ireland in a hostel match alongside the Parthenon in Nashville (where we did OK for the oldest players on view) before savouring the music, Sun Studios, Rock n Soul Museum, a Barry John lookalike and Minor League baseball in Memphis and racing through Mississippi to New Orleans.

And let’s stop the whirlwind tour just to catch our breath, mainly because New Orleans deserves more than being dismissed that quickly and you really can’t sum up this  city in just one paragraph.

Admittedly, our three-night stay was not packed full of sightseeing. Partly because the thought of paying more than $40 to be bussed out to see the areas left desolate by Hurricane Katrina just seemed a bit wrong and partly due to the weather which kept me in the very friendly, very comfortable hostel for most of Sunday.

Venturing out once before dark that day, to make the less than 10-minute walk to the local Wal-Mart for supplies and to solve an emergency underwear situation, nobody has been so glad to get inside an air-conditioned building.

It was not just unbelievably hot, but it was remarkably heavy and steamy – the muggy air a hangover of Hurricane Bonnie, which was downgraded first to Tropical Storm Bonnie and then, kid you not, to Tropical Disorganised Collection of Showers and Thunderstorms Bonnie, which had dumped what seemed a pretty organised collection of showers on me in quite violent fashion on the run (yes, it was that bad) from the Charles Street Streetcar back to the hostel the night before.

But, of course, we did get out and about around the French Quarter.

Both of us were surprised at quite how tawdry Bourbon Street was with strip clubs promising live sex shows (we didn’t go in) intermingled with the countless collection of bars (we did go in) offering live music and a bewildering array of drinks offers with which to enjoy it all, most of which a waitress in The Famous Door poured down my neck from a series of test tubes.

Hangover notwithstanding, going back in the daylight was equally as eye-opening. Wandering off Bourbon Street and around the side streets of the French Quarter gives an insight into a fascinating, vibrant, unique piece of Americana at odds with much of the rest of the city, let alone the rest of the country. Definitely one to go back to.

While Nick headed back east on a Greyhound, the Pontiac was pointed across Lake Pontchartrain, through Louisiana and into Texas, stopping for a couple of nights in Austin – another extremely cool college town boasting a university stadium which dwarves anything in this country, a bewildering selection of bars with live music and friendly locals with which to enjoy it all – and onto baking Dallas, where they really should clean up that white cross on the road next to a grassy knoll. It is clearly visible from the sixth floor window of the neighbouring (ex-)book depository.

From there it was time to start heading back east, through Arkansas, which saw the start the ever-changing collection of bracelets and bangles hanging from my right wrist in the cute, biker-ridden town of Hot Springs and wandering in Clinton’s steps in Little Rock before haring back through Tennessee, into Kentucky.

Finding Elizabethtown virtually shut on a Sunday – and sadly bereft of Kirsten Dunst – it was north through Louisville, via a visit to the Louisville Slugger baseball bat factory, and shot up to Cleveland and the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame Museum, which while still a fascinating few hours of anyone’s time, hasn’t really been freshened up from my last visit four years ago.

The final few days took me across Upstate New York, via the excellent Baseball Hall of Fame in leafy Cooperstown, roads shared with horse-drawn Amish carriages and down the Hudson Valley to New York and one final weekend with Phoebe, which ended – almost inevitably – sometime around 4am in Greenwich Village.

And that, a host of small town stops apart, is the abridged tale of the five-week trip – bar a few key points and tips which will be addressed in the next couple of entries.

Well, actually no – that’s not quite it.

It appears my right shoe is refusing to go quietly after spending so long wedged down on the accelerator pedal. It opted to end the trip in style, judging by the post which arrived this morning (via two redirections) with a Tulsa postmark, addressed to Cardiff, England.

It was with a mixture of confusion (never been to Tulsa and have never met anyone from Tulsa) and annoyance (the rent cheque from my tenants redirected with it a week ago has still not turned up) that opening it the Alamo car hire logo popped up at the top of the letter.

It was almost binned as the standard ‘thank you for your custom’ letter it appeared to be, until the dollar signs lower down caught my eye.

For the last 50 or so miles, after the only major missed turn of the entire trip, was some sort of felony.

Instead of merging from the New York State Thruway onto the New Jersey Turnpike and enjoying a simple run down the Interstate to the Lincoln Tunnel and into Lower Manhattan, I ended up paying $10 to cross the River Hudson on the Tappan Zee Bridge, got lost in Yonkers and sat in a nose-to-trail traffic jam through the Bronx for more than an hour with a horizontal petrol gauge.

That was not news, but it also appears missing that turn meant not going through the right toll and a fine (with Alamo’s $10 admin fee) of $24.16. That’s about £16.

It all raises one simple question: How do you miss an entire toll booth the width of an Interstate?

 

 
 
 
 
 
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