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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The Carnival Is Over

Original posted on London to New York blog, June 22, 2010

New York, New York

WHO would have believed that arriving in Manhattan would provide something approaching a return to normality? The city that never sleeps as the place to kick back, relax and draw breath?

But after 94 days, 21 border crossings, six birthdays, two May 10ths, one rampaging bug and temperatures ranging from about minus 10 degrees C below to up in the 90s, we have arrived in New York.

And after 13 weeks living in each other’s pockets, we are having to adjust to life on our own again.

New York
End of the line – Toasting arriving in New York (well, Jersey City over the Hudson) with Phebes

Well, almost. There are still seven of us staying in the same hostel and there’ll be a select gathering in Boston at the end of the week, but numbers are gradually dwindling.

The first overland trip from London to New York is over. We are out on our own again, left to plan our own travels, our own destinations, our own futures – which, in my case, means working out just what to do next.

Don’t worry, there’s going to be no musing at length about my options (although if any travel editors or anyone looking for freelance writers stumbles across this…).

But having given non-committal answers (or long, rambling ones that don’t really address the question, depending on how many drinks have been downed) to any questions about my future over the past few months, the time is drawing near when some sort of plan emerges from the vague outline in the back of my mind.

Not yet though. For a little while longer at least, the USA is my backyard to explore.

And having gone through the rigmarole of getting an American visa, it would be churlish not to use it.

The Bean
The Chicago skyline (and me in there somewhere) reflected in The Bean

It lasts until mid-November, although the chances are the Atlantic will be crossed well before that.

But between now and then, there’s a lengthy stop in Boston to join in the July 4 celebrations, toss some tea about and cheer on the Red Sox.

After that it’s a bit sketchy, although a road trip down to Memphis, Nashville, New Orleans and, possibly, Austin, Texas, is on the cards before the coast starts calling – just haven’t worked out yet whether it is back to the east coast or head on west to spend some more time in the cities we flew through on this trip – San Francisco, Seattle and, maybe, back over the border to Vancouver.

But that’s all in the future, this blog is supposed to be reporting on what has already happened – starting with the fight to remove the smell of cheese from our laundry in the small town of New Ulm, Minnesota.

The good news is the smell appears to have gone (not that you want to unzip my laundry bag to find out), but the bad news is the impact the whole drama had.

The second wash and several cycles in the dryer to dispel any lingering cheese odour stranded Phil and myself in town long after the bus had gone back to the park.

It all meant a very pleasant, if hot, walk back through the suburbs wearing sandals which don’t really fit me properly and are more often used for short journeys to the shower or around the bus.

Buckingham Fountain
Buckingham Fountain, Chicago

The end result was that while Phil was racing the children of New Ulm to be first into the open-air pool when the lifeguard returned to duty, the huge blisters which had appeared on the soles of both feet were attracting my attention.

Just what you want when the next day’s task is to cover as much ground as possible around Chicago in little more than 12 hours and more of the sweltering temperatures which have accompanied us over the last week or so (tomorrow’s forecast, up to 96 degrees C).

Patched up and joined by Phoebe, Pam and Nick, we headed into the centre of Chicago from the suburb of Lincoln Park – via the lovely Nookies diner where Phebes and I were left debating whether that was Oscar-winning actor Adrian Brody on the adjacent table.

The rest were not much use as they had no idea who he was, but Phoebe claimed the sighting as genuine and as we split up to do our own thing, there was an extra little spring in her step.

My step was not quite so bouncy but, with the help of the open-top tour bus to eat up some of the miles, managed to cover a fair amount of ground.

Four years ago, on my first visit Chicago didn’t really rate that highly on my road trip – it was all a bit too concrete, stifling and vertical.

But its charms began to seep in a bit more this time.

John Hancock Tower
Cocktails on the 95th floor of the John Hancock Tower

Millennium Park has undergone a bit of a facelift (and provides a perfect setting for a break from sightseeing, even getting me to experience a bit of open-air opera) and the whole lake front area buzzed with activity.

A little too much activity by the Shedd Aquarium where free entry had drawn two-hour long queues which ended plans to visit what memory tells us is a must-see, but at least getting off the bus saved me from the breakdown which stranded Julie and Gerda on the top deck.

The initial four Chicago raiders reconvened on the 96th floor of the John Hancock Tower for a quick cocktail before coming down to earth or, more accurately, under it for a few rounds at the Billy Goat Tavern.

Made famous by John Belushi in a Saturday Night Live sketch and a curse on the Cubs baseball team, the bar has few frills, even fewer niceties and was once the fabled hangout of the Chicago Tribune’s sportswriters. My kind of place.

Enlivened by the tavern, we headed back uptown and, via a brewery pub and dingy blues bar we stumbled back onto the bus for another night on the road.

Canada
World’s second biggest country. Just in case you missed it.

We awoke somewhere in Austenburg Ohio for a quick breakfast in a Waffle House ahead of a complete contrast to the previous day, a lazy afternoon on the beach and swimming in Lake Erie before heading to the banks of the Allegheny River in Pennyslvania to set up camp.

It provided the base the next morning for our final bus clearance and kitchen clean before the final sprint to the finish, accompanied by a flurry of card signing and form filling as we rolled into Niagara Falls.

Having been to the Falls before and instantly impressed, the underwhelming reaction from several travelling companions a little strange, even when we’d walked over the Rainbow Bridge into Canada to get the more spectacular view of the Horseshoe Falls.

Maybe we’ve been spoiled over the past three months and have come to expect a little bit too much from places.

Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls

Don’t expect too much from the town on the Canadian side which is a neon explosion of casinos, tacky tourist traps and attractions – like Blackpool if it was modelled by Americans. Phoebe loved it.

But we did find one dive bar to belatedly toast Freddie’s 19th birthday freed from the drinking laws across the border, although what the American immigration staff thought of us as we crawled through our final border in dribs and drabs is anyone’s guess.

Somehow they let us all through and we settled down for our final night drive, waking in Jersey City on the banks of the Hudson River, complete with the classic vista of the Manhattan skyline for the obligatory end of tour pictures.

And that, pretty much, was that as the group began to fragment – some taking the ferry across to Manhattan, others riding the bus to the hostel with the bags and then heading to wherever they were staying.

Those of us who opted for the ferry, meandered our way to the hostel via a Times Square brunch and waved goodbye to Freddie – the first of the gang to leave as he jetted back home in the evening.

Times Square
Times Square marks the end of the trip

The rest of us reconvened in a Times Square bar for one last supper as more goodbyes were said.

And one by one they peeled off until, just after midnight, left alone playing darts in an Upper West Side bar with drivers Lukas and Charlie and life outside the group became a reality once more…

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