McDonalds. Talk about the best of times, the worst of times, to plagarise from Dickens. The McDonalds siren call is irresistable to our kids. They could be full to bursting, but no matter what the country, see those golden arches and it's all over: they only want McDonalds.
Kind of like us grown-ups and Starbucks.
This Pavlovian response probably comes as no surprise to anyone, nor that I generally object to eating McDonalds more than once when we're abroad on vacation. I have softened my stance and concurred that once is OK, because you can learn about the place you're in by going to the McDonalds. Did you know they had Taro pies in Hawaii? (They are purple filled and yummy---duh. It's pie! Well, sort of...)
In Amsterdam they had the McKroket which was chunks of meat with, I believe cheese, breaded, deep fried and on a bun. Smack in the middle of plane travel, though...not something I wanted to eat just then, so I admired it from a safe distance.
We live here in Dubai, though, so it's a little harder to not go to the Big M. The McDonalds here in the United Arab Emirates are also noticably different from those in the USA, beyond the customers and the menu in Arabic and English, I mean.
For one thing, for fast food, the food isn't all that...fast. While I have noticed they do get it to you more quickly than when we first arrived in Dubai, it still isn't instant gratification I ordered my food 45 seconds ago where the heck is it I need my salt and cholesterol c'mon already? Especially in the drive-thru, this took some time to get used to. Pun intended. I kind of like that part, if you want to know the truth. It makes me less likely to go there, or to any fast food drive-through for that matter.
This can't be a bad thing. Except for those camels that want to hide behind me. But enough of that...
Another difference is that the food is all Halal. Halal to Muslims is what Kosher is to Jews; things permissable under Islamic law, and especially food. This means that if the meal contains meat the animal died in a certain way, that's all. (I am not going to belabor the details of animal slaughter for the sake of vegetarian and gentle readers. You can check it out or wikipedia of you're curious: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halal ) Also there must not be any sort of pork or alcohol, which are both forbidden (haraam).
All well and good. The cheeseburgers and fries taste exactly the same, which, after all, is the beauty of McDonalds. You get exactly what you expect, every single time. Thank you, chain restaurants.
What you might not expect is how darned happy the employees are. I mean, they are practically singing like munchkins. You never saw such pride and joy at being allowed to serve folks burgers and wear a uniform. I really, really love that part of it.
It's true you have to think about the flipside---that the employees are happy because working at McDonalds is a really good job. Knowing the alternatives: for the men, how hard and sometimes dangerous it can be to work outside, and for the women, seeing how poorly some maids are treated and the standard of living for even what are considered well-treated ones. For either gender, trying to find a job back in the Phillipines, I can believe it. These folks leave their homes and families behind for a reason, and at McDonalds they get a pretty good deal. Is it fair that life is like that? Nope. Unfortunately, it's also a fact. This is the best they will probably ever get. No reason why they shouldn't love and be proud of their jobs, nor that I shouldn't feel happy for them.
I suppose, when you think about it, my job is to clean up toileting accidents and to attempt to get a decent meal on the table by 6 pm for my hard-working man. I'm better at that first one, more's the pity. Anyone feel bad for me?
I didn't think so.
And yes, not a day goes by when, in some small way, I don't feel thankful for the choices I have been allowed by fate, far more than the ones I have earned.
Speaking of not having dinner ready on time and having to punt, let's get back to McDonalds.
The McDonalds we go to is staffed by Fillipinos. I should say here that it is pretty consistant everywhere in Dubai that the various and nationalities work with those from their same nationality and are often selected for the job dependant on their native country. No Equal Opportunity Employer rules here; the newspaper lists jobs like "attractive single Fillipina between ages 20-25 needed for secretarial position". I suppose in some ways it cuts down on applicants who wouldn't get the job anyway.
As I understand it, most employers hire from the same ethnic group to reduce conflict within the workplace. Also as I understand it, the few places which have moved past this idea are doing just fine with a variety of backgrounds among their employees. Good for them.
People are very open about being what amounts to racist here: even the most educated folk make generalisations based on nationality when they hire or interact with someone, ourselves included. Few question that. We try. Sometimes we do OK.
Anyway, back to my happy McDonalds story. Whenever we go we are waited upon by the most courteous, thoughful, and genuinely helpful McDonalds employees you have ever seen. It's like being served by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, minus Grumpy. Seriously. Radiant smiles, especially if I do my one-trick pony deal and use a little Tagalog to greet and thank them.
I really should learn how to say more. Hold on, the order for the kids would be, according to Google language tools: Chicken tipak masaya pagkain na may matamis at maasim sarsa at kahel dyus at isang lalaki at isang babae laruan at dalawang yelo creams mangyaring.
Oh dear. I suppose I could remember the "yelo cream" bit for ice cream, that fabulous deal at 1 dirham for a cone. Fabulous except that it melts really, really fast. My kids are going to learn to be the fastest soft serve ice cream cone eaters in history by the time we come back to the states. The orange juice (kahel dyus, apparently) is fresh squeezed and absolutely delicious, and the apple juice tastes like real apple, and is pulpy.
The Arab States have the best juices. No question. I'll drool about them to you another day.
During Ramadan the McDonalds are decorated with what we would call Christmas lights. I suppose here they would be Ramadan, or maybe celebration lights. (The houses are lavishly decorated with them for weddings as well.) Always with white bulbs. Last year during Ramadan seeing the McDonalds, all a -glow with the lights, Bethy said, much to our amusement, "Look! The McDonalds is happy because it's after sundown and we can eat there now!"
Another difference would be that there are no outdoor playspaces that I've seen at the McDonalds. Sometimes there are indoor ones, and there is a special room in many of the restaurant for the kids to go sit and eat their Happy Meals with TVs that play Tom and Jerry cartoons relentlessly. Tom and Jerry is very big here.
I hate Tom and Jerry.
Happily for me, our kids have somehow not discovered the TV room yet. Probably because we rarely dine in, doing more guerilla drive-by kind of feedings. But if we did, that is the cleanest McDonalds you could ever hope to be in. One day I managed to bus my own tray and the cleaning man was mortified. At the very least he will take the tray from you and put it in the garbage, and if he feels brave he will ask if you enjoyed your meal. The manager always asks if you are there more than 10 minutes or walk past him even as he juggles the orders with a smile.
I read a great article on Lonely Planet.com about how in some places in the Middle East there really are no other Western restaurants, how people save up money and dress in their best to go dine there for a special occasion, perhaps once or twice a year. I remember feeling that McDonalds was a special treat when I was little, and a birthday party there for some lucky kid, ooh and whoo-hoo! Now when we eat there I feel that nutritionally, we're slumming. I suppose if we ate there much less it could become a special treat, instead of snarling that assertion at the kids when they're acting up in line.
Hard for an expat. Often we are craving home, and craving salt, and craving comfort food. If that doesn't add up to McDonalds french fries, I don't know what does.
The special menu item here is the McArabia, which cracks me up. With more calories than a Big Mac, it's kind of fattening for even a McDonalds run. I tried it exactly once. Pretty good. Two grilled patties of chicken or kofta (spiced beef, very similar to a gyro) served with onions, lettuce, tomatoes, and some oh-dear-that-is-tasty garlic mayonnaise, all wrapped in arabic flatbread. About the same, calorie and fat-wise, as two cheeseburgers. Sheesh, skip the fries. And who wants to do that?
Or better yet, do like I do and steal some of the kids' fries to go with your Diet Coke -a new and bad habit I picked up during Ramadan -the drink, not the snitching from kids bit, I've done that forever.
I had to laugh the other day when a well-travelled British friend of mine was giving recommendations for hotels in Singapore. One hotel's particular appeal was "it's close to McDonalds!"
A comment we undoubtedly deserve.
I'll make sure to put a little x on the map...just in case.
(footnote from on the road...we found the Chiang Mai Thailand McDonalds---shocker, I know, and the pie flavors were broccoli or corn. Well, that's different!)