It’s your first day in Tokyo. You’ve staggered awestruck around the Imperial Palace and been blinded by neon lights in Shinjuku. You crave familiarity, comfort, and a menu you can understand. In the distance, you see the glint of a Starbucks logo...
You didn’t travel all this way for the same coffee you sip on the morning commute. You might even be a bean elitist, best mates with their barista, and wrinkling your nose at hastily poured microfoam. So why the allure of chains abroad?
I’ve gulped frappuccinos in Japan and crammed my face with Burger King fries in Norway. It’s not a habit, but I’ve had my fair share of furtive franchise moments. I used to justify it by the practical perks: global chains often have free wifi and toilets cleaner than the ones at train stations, which is mighty tempting when I’m in transit.
But the more times I succumb, the more I realise it’s also the lure of the familiar, even if it’s a familiarity I find bland back home. After all, anyone with jet lag, feeling bedazzled by a new culture, deserves a bit of slack when they ease into a new place. Yet no one wants to admit their first meal in Hong Kong was at McDonald’s. ‘I’m intrepid, I really am,’ you sob in between fistfuls of chicken nuggets.
‘Eating like a local’ is the brag of every self-professed foodie abroad. But local recipes aren’t always what local people eat. If eating like a Londoner meant jellied eels washed down with gin, I’d have fled long ago. In reality, London dining is a mix of British classics like fish and chips alongside a hotchpotch of global cuisines. And that includes the occasional sloppy burger or bucket of sugary coffee.
To experience a destination as it truly is, we might have to accept that our friends in different climes are as crazy about global brands as folks back home. Imagining that the French constantly lunch on escargots, or that Russians are only seen nibbling caviar-topped blini, is naive at best. At worst, you’re a string of onions and a Cossack hat away from cartoonish stereotyping.
So where does your guilty Starbucks habit fit in? It means you don’t have to be shy about mixing it up. Try the local specialties you’ve read about, but see where the locals are going too – whether it’s sushi in Poland, gelato in Germany, or a familiar chain.
And like it or not, chains afford flashes of insight you might not expect. Cultural differences are most keenly revealed in the details: in Japan, a bucket of KFC is Christmas dinner, while Starbucks customers in China might be ordering a red bean frappuccino.
So hold your head high if you find yourself in a foreign country, hunkering down over a Starbucks mug. But maybe don’t Instagram the damn thing.