I lived my whole life before now in the United States of America – Iowa, to be specific. Nearly two months ago, I graduated university, packed up my belongings and moved to Ireland. I have one year to explore and experience Europe, and I don’t intend to waste any time.
For exactly that reason, I took my first trip to the UK a couple weeks back, flying to London for three days. There were plenty of differences to observe on my foremost solo trip: architecture, history, accents, dress and phrases, for example.
It was comforting, then, to see familiar sights. The golden arches of McDonald’s and the green flowing hair of the Starbucks mermaid decorate as many street corners abroad as they do back home in the US.
My first day in the UK, I was looking for inexpensive food – I’d spent all my money just to get there! I knew Subways, Burger Kings and the like were affordable options in the US, so I hoped the same would be true in the UK.
I opted for Subway for lunch and found the UK menu almost identical to ones I had seen before. I chose my bread, veggies and seasoning and my meal was ready. I wanted to bask in the London sights, though, so I ate on the steps of the National Gallery, taking a break before resuming my explorations.
Surrounded by tourists and natives alike, nearly everyone munching on something, I noticed how many people were eating food from American franchises. Buckets of red KFC chicken, yellow McDonald’s wrappers, and white-sleeved coffee cups caught my eye, despite the gorgeous fountain view.
My own sandwich was as it would have been in the US, but I started paying attention to differences, oftentimes advertised in the windows as I passed.
A Burger King selling donuts? That was new.
A Papa John’s pizza place offering chicken sandwiches? I’d never seen that before.
The chips offered at most places? First, they weren’t chips, they were “crisps” and they came in primarily two flavours: salt and vinegar or cheese and onion.
Salt and vinegar were popular enough, but cheese and onion weren’t a typical option before I arrived in the UK. I passed on those, more used to sour cream and onion, cheddar or just plain.
Looking at the window advertisements as I passed American franchise restaurants became like a fun little game. There would be the staple items I recognized – the Whopper, the Big Mac, cheese pizza – but there were also things unexpected.
I tried equating the new shops I passed to ones that hadn’t made the trip across the pond yet. My beloved Target was nowhere to be found, but wandering through Primarks, I instantly dubbed it the Target of the UK. There were no Kum&Gos or Casey’s convenience stores on street corners, but the Tescos and Spars served just as well. The Costcutters threw me for a loop, though; in the U.S., a Costcutters would trim my hair, not sell me snacks!
The mix of old and new, common and unfamiliar, was ideal for my trip. It was a bit of comfort from home, but also a reminder that I was somewhere else, a place I’d been dreaming of visiting.
I hadn’t travelled all that way to feel as though I’d never left, but with such globalization taking place in past years, it wasn’t unsurprising or unwelcome to see familiar logos and menus.
If I stopped to try something at one of the restaurants, I typically found it tasted even better than what I had expected, given my US experiences. It was nice to have what I was used to, but a step up in taste.
Though branching out to try new things is pivotal when traveling abroad – and I absolutely wanted different things in the UK – occasionally, after exhausting yourself walking for hours and spending all your freshly-exchanged currency on souvenirs and gifts, it can be smart to take the known option rather than risk it somewhere else.
Posted by Anne Rowan