LATE LAST YEAR, A MCDONALD’S opened up just on the edge of Vatican City. You can now see the Golden Arches from St. Peter’s Square. One cardinal at the Vatican called it a “disgrace,” lamenting that the area was already becoming overrun with peddlers of cheap tourist trinkets, that the food was not in the Roman tradition, and that the Vatican-owned building that the McDonald’s is housed in could be better used.
And hey: fair enough. McDonald’s is a disgusting restaurant, and it’s really unfortunate that for so many decades, the primary face of America abroad has been a clown who likes to give kids toys they can get lead poisoning from.
But I have to admit — I’ve eaten at McDonald’s while abroad. I have been, perhaps justifiably, severely chastised by my friends when I’ve done it, but I stand by my actions. Sure: no one should ever eat McDonald’s period. But there are five instances during travel when it is, in my view, acceptable.
1. The drunk visit.
When I was living in London, there were five late-night food options within short walking distance. There was a place that served English fry-ups 24/7. There was a KFC. There was a falafel shop. There was a magical hole in the wall that only showed itself to the profoundly drunk (you think I’m kidding, but I saw it only twice while stumbling home wasted, and I returned the next day to find no trace. Harry Potter is real, guys, and the potion that will take you into their world is 17 pints of Fuller’s ESB.), and there was a McDonald’s.
Now — past a certain time, the only two remaining open would be the McD’s and the fry-up place. And seeing as 3 a.m. is not usually a time I’m interested in runny eggs and Yorkshire pudding, I tended to go to McD’s.
American fast food is uniquely suited to dealing with drunkenness and hangovers, and this is not because American food provides nourishment that drinking saps — it is because food that high in grease and salt makes you feel more terrible than a hangover ever could, thus overshadowing it. As a result, I dub foreign drunk McDonald’s acceptable.
2. Long term homesickness.
You know when you’re living in a Beijing with no access to a kitchen for two months, so every meal must be eaten out? You know how you go into restaurants with no picture menus and can never quite tell what you’re eating? You remember that one time when you were served what appeared to be a very gamey, sinewy spine of indeterminate origin? You know how you don’t speak a word of the language and want nothing more than to interact with something familiar, no matter how disgusting that thing may be?
Yeah — it’s cool. You can go to McDonald’s. We won’t tell anyone.
Your other options are Sbarro’s or a bag of trail mix from Hudson News. Also, you’re in an airport — everything is already terrible. Lean in.
4. For the “cultural experience.”
The only time I’ve ever eaten at a Pizza Hut outside the US was when I was in Hong Kong. We’d been traveling for months, and we passed it in the mall. The walls appeared to be made of obsidian. There were chandeliers. The tables had actual, honest-to-god tablecloths. And — I’m not 100% sure on this, my memory might be exaggerating on me — I’m pretty sure the waiters were wearing white gloves.
This wasn’t just a place for a casual post 4:20 pizza buffet — it was a “I’m going to propose tonight,” hifalutin’, put-on-your-Sunday-clothes, one-percenter date ristorante. Naturally, we had to go in. We ordered pizza, and it tasted like Pizza Hut.
I don’t regret a thing, even though I undoubtedly could’ve eaten some world-class dim sum for next to nothing instead. No one wants to hear your story about how the great fish ball on a stick you had while traveling. People are interested in cultural differences, whether it’s Swanky Pizza Hut, the McAloo Tikki in an Indian McDonald’s, or a Royale with Cheese.
5. If you’re sick.
We’ve all been there — you drink the water or eat tainted fruit in a foreign land, and now you’re spending wayyyy more time around squatter toilets than you want to. Guess what? There’s a solution for that. It’s called McDonald’s and it’s closer to glue than it is to beef. The bad news is it’ll shave 5 years off your life. The good news is it’ll cork up your insides long enough for you to get some water down.