What is Authentic?

I went to Tim Horton’s in Madrid. Being from Buffalo, New York, and having spent a lot of time in Canada before this fast food chain opened in my home town, I have a soft spot for Tim Horton’s. So, seeing one right outside my hotel window a few weeks ago, I had breakfast there one morning. The horror.

Here’s something else you might find horrifying – wherever in the world I am, I like stepping into McDonald’s and 7-11 to see what they sell. I generally don’t buy anything, but I’m curious. Personal feelings about McDonald’s aside, it is undeniably successful and popular. And it has become so, in part, by conducting careful research and tailoring its menu to each country it operates in. Therefore, going into McDonald’s is part of experiencing the culture of another place. 

That’s right, I just said that McDonald’s is part of Spanish culture. And Indian. And Chinese. And French. And Panamanian. And certainly Russian. My first year in Moscow, there was a McDonald’s right down the street from my office. At lunch time, they would have six cashiers ringing up orders, and yet the line would spill out of the building onto the street and it could take up to 30 minutes to get from the back of the line to having food in hand. Later when I was self-employed, there was a massive, two-story McDonald’s near one of my student’s houses, a bit outside the city center. The entire second floor was a sleek McCafé. I passed the time there when I had a break between students but didn’t have enough time to go home. And I wasn’t alone. The café was always over half full.

Travelers complain about the Americanization of the rest of the world, and I too cringe walking down the streets of Madrid and seeing Carl’s Junior, Five Guys, Burger King, and, of course, McDonald’s. We get upset because those places get in the way of the “authentic” experience we crave. But what does authentic mean? When we go to Spain, does that mean we want to see bullfights and flamenco dancing and eat nothing but tapas? Do we want the streets of India to be filled with people riding elephants and lined with snake charmers? Should every Frenchwoman be walking down the street with a grocery bag with a large baguette sticking out the top? Do we want all men we see in Mexico to be wearing serapes and sombreros? Maybe Chinese women should start binding their feet again and Russians should be standing in long bread lines!

The truth is, the authentic experience is whatever we see in a place at the time we are there. We live in a world in which McDonald’s and Tim Horton’s are part of the authentic life of a Madrileño. Those eateries exist because there is a demand for them, and they have become part of the culture of the city. Again, whatever your personal feelings about McDonald’s, the undeniable fact is millions and millions of people eat at one every day. Yes, “we” as collective Americans love it, and so do people all around the world.

I wonder, if an Italian comes to Denver and sees the Italian restaurant Osteria Marco, does he roll his eyes? Or if an Ethiopian sees Mesob Ethiopian Restaurant? Or if a Japanese person sees AoBa Sushi? Would they feel their experience wasn’t authentic after they saw that not every restaurant was a pizzeria or a burger joint? Would they think Denver is not the “real” America? I doubt it.

Perhaps the despair at seeing a McDonald’s on a drive into Reykjavik from the airport comes from a good place, a desire not to spread unhealthy eating habits. But to me, that’s a terribly paternalistic attitude. It’s not up to US citizens to decide what everyone else should be buying and consuming, especially when it’s what we ourselves have readily adopted en masse. And most countries have their own versions of disgusting fast food anyway (our brands really aren’t unique) and even plenty of non-nutritious traditional foods. The world outside the US was not some mecca of health and good nutrition that American brands somehow swept in and demolished over the last few decades.

Mostly, though, I think people who say they want the “authentic” experience of a place want a version of the country frozen in time 100 years ago. They want the world at large to forgo progress, innovation, development, and everything the collective American “we” enjoys, so we can feel as if we are experiencing something different and truly special when we travel. These are probably the same people who criticize expats who hang out with other expats. I had plenty of American friends when I lived in Moscow. Of course I had Russian friends too, but the idea that it’s lame to hang out with your fellow countrymen while living overseas is nonsense. Friendship is based on commonalities and you know you already have something big in common with other expats, a desire to immerse yourself in another world, in the country where you meet in particular. Wanting to make friends with locals simply because they aren’t American (or whatever nationality you are) doesn’t make much sense. That’s not really a foundation to build from.

Globalization isn’t all bad. It gives us endless options and opportunities. On this latest trip, I loved spending some time in the Spanish countryside where there was absolutely nothing for breakfast outside of a hard roll with jam and an espresso, and I loved being in Madrid where I could eat Spanish food, Americanized Spanish food, or American food. In Moscow, I loved spending time with Russians, Brits, Swiss, Germans, and Americans. As much as I love travel and new experiences, it’s only natural to miss what you are used to, even if you are only gone six days. When I travel, I like being able to speak to someone I have a common cultural heritage with from time to time, and I like that I can have a serving of Tim Bits with hash browns and an American-style 16 ounce to-go cup full of java when I want it.

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