Pico Iyer on McDonald’s

Unlike my Yahoo News! stories about road romance and souvenirs, my recent column about travelers’ love-hate relationship with McDonald’s didn’t generate many comments or emails from readers. I’m not sure why this was the case, but a notable exception came from Pico Iyer, with whom I shared the article by email. He wrote back:

I’ve been singing the same tune for years, only to be greeted with those derisive sneers and silent mutterings you mention. A part of me has always suspected that a part of my attraction for McDonald’s does come from being unAmerican, and therefore much more grateful for what American culture can provide. I still remember when the first hamburger chain came to my hometown of Oxford, in 1978 — the first clean, safe, tasty such place in the land of greasy chips and Wimpy bars that we had ever seen, neither cheap food nor expensive, but a real piece of democracy and functional compassion. We loved it the way we loved American sit coms, Hollywood movies, all the stuff that America somehow produces better than anywhere else in the world (precisely because, one might suspect, of the innocence of snootiness and certain forms of sophistication). The arrival of the Golden Arches in the town of dreaming spires was at least as exciting as the arrival of a Thai restaurant was in Santa Barbara some years ago.

Pico tackles similar subject matter in his recent review of Lawrence Osborne’s The Naked Tourist : In Search of Adventure and Beauty in the Age of the Airport Mall in the Los Angeles Times:

Margaret Mead “is a great travel writer precisely because she is not a travel writer,” asserts Lawrence Osborne as he draws toward the end of “The Naked Tourist,” his account of an inspired experiment in meta-travel, and you half-imagine that he is hoping we will say the same of him. Stumbling from New York to Papua New Guinea, from shopping mall to gated spa, lurching between a grand Kolkata hotel and hellish streets a few yards away, Osborne embarks on a trip to explore, perhaps to prove, the idea that the travel book is dead, if only because travel itself — in the sense of voyaging to otherness — is on the brink of expiration; everywhere you go today, you blunder out of the look-alike airport to face the very Holiday Inn, golden arches and Starbucks you’ve traveled 8,000 miles to escape. Like figures from some ancient myth, we circle the world to flee from ourselves and our familiar lives only to look up and see that we (and our familiar lives) are looking down on us from the screens of the Ginza or Times Square.

I happen to disagree with this contention — a McDonald’s in Thailand is to me as Thai as one in Santa Barbara is Santa Barbaran — and the world to me is as inexhaustible as it ever was, even if the nature of exoticism has changed (to take in Jackson Heights — or the Mall of America — as much as Timbuktu). But if anyone could convince me otherwise, through wryness and panache alone, it would be Osborne, who undertakes a grand tour of the 21st century that gains abundantly from the fact that he is not terribly grand and certainly not much of a tourist. The man who is tired of London, as Samuel Johnson might have said (were he in a six-star Bangkok hospital today), should just try the global emporium in Dubai International Airport’s “transit consumer” hub.

Full review online here.

Posted by | Comments (5)  | June 12, 2006
Category: General

5 Responses to “Pico Iyer on McDonald’s”

  1. Anya Says:

    I emailed you about your McDonalds article — I thought it was great. 🙂

  2. Rolf Says:

    Cheers, Anya. On a side-note, it’s interesting how the Internet works sometimes. When I published the above post this morning, my Yahoo McDonald’s story had just one comment.

    At some point in the past 12 hours the story must have been linked from a major feed or blog source, because now the story has 174 comments and counting, and is one of the most-emailed items today at Yahoo! News. I guess this is what they mean when they talk about how the web works in a viral manner…

  3. brian Says:

    I second that. I loved the article because I had the very exhaustion you mentioned while in Berlin. I’m half German, and can speak it in a pinch. Still, I was overwhelmed and needed a break. Enter the fries and Big Mac in the Berlin train station. One thing did break the spell a little: they charged me 5 German pennies for ketchup. Silly German chrges adside, it was a welcome respite.

  4. Joshua Berman Says:

    Here’s a short (and very funny) video about finding comfort in a Target during one’s travels.

  5. Newley Purnell Says:

    Great stuff, Rolf (and Pico). I couldn’t agree more — there’s nothing wrong with a Big Mac every once in a while. In Thailand, where I’ve spent a lot of time lately, I’m not afraid to admit that I eat there occasionally — Thai food is quite obviously wonderful, but it’s unrealistic to think it can be eaten three times a day, every day (unless you’re Thai). After all, when I’m in the US I don’t eat one particular cuisine endlessly. And as you say, McDonalds outlets abroad are different and can appreciated for their differences — in Thailand, of course, the Ronald McDonald statues are cast in a wai-ing posture, and in Indonesia the restaurants have prayer rooms set off to the side. Interesting stuff.