MCDONALD’S, MORE THAN JUST FAST FOOD
If you ask an American what their symbol of Freedom is, most of them will probably answer that it is the American flag. Some people would name other things, maybe a dove, Bald Eagle or simply just wings.
For me, the symbol of Freedom is McDonald’s. Yes, I am talking about the American fast food chain restaurant. And here is why:
I grew up in Czechoslovakia, one of the countries that belonged to the Eastern Europe communist block. There is no simple way to describe communism. Try to imagine a regime that has total power. A communist government dictates to their citizens how to live and how to think from A to Z. When you live it, it becomes your norm. You forget what Freedom is, if you even knew what it was in the first place.
I see that people who grew up in the West are still confused about communism. They have a picture in their head, but the picture is usually wrong and very different from reality. To start it is necessary to know that communist systems vary from country to country. Nowadays we have the communism in China, North Korea, and Cuba, but the “translation” of governing in each country is different. For a better understanding, picture a democracy; USA, Germany, and India, for example, are all democratic countries, but the rules, laws, lifestyle, and way of living vary. It is because every country has its own mentality, culture, and history, and therefore even different ways of understanding how the systems should or could work.
Communism in Eastern European countries also varied. First, and worst of all, was the Soviet Union, the birth place of communism. Their people were definitely living in the harshest conditions. Materialistically their people were lacking pretty much everything. From basic everyday needs to travels and spiritual growth as well. Nobody got out, nobody got in. Their citizens even needed permission to travel from town to town in the country. The process of traveling across the Soviet border, either way, was painful. You needed some sort of sponsor, usually an organization. From the Czechoslovakian side, luckily, even individual sponsors were OK. We had relatives in Moldavia (part of the former Soviet Union) and every few years we would sponsor their trip to Czechoslovakia so they could fill up on supplies and share it with their whole village.
On the other hand, there was Yugoslavia. If you lived in Yugoslavia you were free to travel anywhere, work in the West, and watch Western TV, including all of the American shows like Tom and Jerry and Flintstones J. You could even own a private business. They also had camps for immigrants to take care of escapees from the Eastern block and transfer them to the free world. Therefore it was almost impossible for us to travel to Yugoslavia. You needed very special permission for that. For a very long time I did not even know that Yugoslavia was a communist country. I believed they had democracy.
And then, there were the rest of us: Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Romania, and Bulgaria. More or less we all had similar conditions. We could not travel to the West but we were free to travel between each other, to visit, to shop, to vacation, and to enjoy whatever each country had to offer. We had our own Little World with a special secret solidarity.
Czechoslovakia always had plenty of food, and especially plenty of good beer, so others would come to us for that. East Germany had always beautiful textiles and good shoes, so we would go for those things to East Germany. Bulgaria and Romania had the Black Sea and plenty of fish, exotic vegetables and fruits like watermelon, sunflower oil, and others. It was the perfect place for vacationing and getting our dose of vitamins. Poland had a lot strikes and therefore they did not have much except cosmetics for most of my childhood. But they had their religion which got them through it all in the end.
The cool kid on the Eastern Block was definitely Hungary! Not only did they have a very distinct language from the rest of us, they also had very handsome and brave people, a lot of good food and many great locations for vacation. And they also had fashion! Fashion? Yes, they had the best and latest fashions available that you could imagine. They also had all the latest music, magazines, and videos. I am sure they had some legal ways to get it as well as smuggling items from next door Austria and Germany, since all the magazines and tapes were in German. In my time and place people did not smuggle drugs, they smuggled fashion items! Hungarians just knew how to connect with the world. So, if you wanted to be IN, it was a must to go to Hungary.
When I was teenager, my parents decided that it was time to go to Hungary and get me some fashionable eyeglass frames. At that time we had just one style of children’s glasses in Czechoslovakia. And even though my eyesight was declining every year I refused to wear them.
So we hopped in our car and headed for the Czechoslovakia – Hungary border. Although we were free to travel to Hungary we still had to cross a border with very strict rules and border patrols – one on the Czechoslovakian side and one on the Hungarian side. There were many restrictions and rules on traveling over the border. The list of prohibited items went on and on and was very absurd. One of the things on the list was a strict daily allowance. It was a very limited amount of money. It was so small that you could barely live on it. I think the idea behind it was to get the citizens back to their own country as soon as possible. A lack of money on vacation means less “freedom,” no shopping, and a quick return home.
Most people will not obey absurd laws. Desperate people do desperate things… or they improvise. And that is why my dad invented a tube for smuggling money. He cut a perfect piece out of old, black garden hose and stuffed all of our extra money in it. Then he placed it into our car’s engine so it looked like a part of it. If you did not know it was there you would never notice it. The trick was to get the hose into the engine as late as possible; otherwise the hose would get too hot and melt or burn. As we approached the border checkpoint we stopped the car on the side of the road. My dad was pretending to be fixing the car while he was actually placing the hose in the engine. He told us to pretend to be relaxed and maybe even look a bit bored, just in case they were watching us through binoculars from the checkpoint, as they would do so often. They were watching how people behaved. If you looked suspicious you were in trouble. My mom and I pretended that we were relaxed and maybe even a bit bored, while we could not have been more nervous. My mom got sick to her stomach. I was so stressed that my body literally shut down physical functions. My mind was working, but my body was paralyzed. I know that my ears were working, because I heard my mom saying: “just keep breathing, honey.”
We made it to the checkpoint on the Czechoslovakian side of the border. The emigration officers were doing their job. They checked us, our documents, our luggage, our car, our trunk, and even our engine. They were polite but definitely not friendly. Behind them were standing soldiers with machine guns. Machine guns? What for? For people like us, I assume. The whole routine was repeated a half kilometer away at the Hungarian checkpoint.
After the Hungarian checkpoint we drove a few kilometers to safety. Again my dad pretended to be fixing the engine, took the black hose full of money out and breathed a sigh of relief. We were all relieved, and if Hollywood had been there we might get an Oscar for our performance of “bored” people.
We finally made it to Budapest, the capital city of Hungary. We were shopping for about two to three days when we decided to take a little break and go to see the Danube River and some of the tourist sites. We walked around the downtown until we came to this big street, or rather a small square, near the river’s bank. And there it was, right in front of me, a beautiful, shiny building with many glass windows and huge golden arches. The best location in the town – so typical for McDonald’s. The style and cleanliness of the building almost blinded me as I was only used to plain grey streets and building. My dad paused in the front of the arches and announced, “This is McDonald’s, the American fast food restaurant.” “An American restaurant?” I replied, and had many, many questions. How is it possible to have an American restaurant in a communist country? A restaurant from America, a restaurant from the Free World, the biggest enemy of communists? I was pretty sure that the Hungarians could not just smuggle it in, but that McDonald’s had to legally apply for permission to start the business there. I was fascinated. If this is possible and McDonald’s made it to a place like this, then Freedom might be attainable for all of us!
I walked around the restaurant and pressed my face to the window to get the best view of the inside. I knew Coca Cola and I knew French Fries but I had never eaten a hamburger the American way. But it was Sunday and the restaurant was closed. I begged my parents to go back on Monday and eat in this wonderfully clean place from America. My parents said that we could not afford to buy my new glasses and eat in McDonald’s, but my dad assured me that one day I would be able to eat there.
After that I had hope. I had hope for all of the people living in the communist block that one day, we too, will be free. If McDonald’s made it, then we would too. And the big golden arches became my symbol of Freedom.
A year or two later the communist regime fell and guess who open the first fast food restaurant in my hometown of Prague? Yes, you guessed it, McDonald’s. They opened their beautiful restaurant in the best location, and kept opening many more all around town. Now they were even open on Sunday. It became my routine for many years to visit McDonald’s every Sunday and enjoy the food and the atmosphere.
It has been 23 years since I saw my first McDonald’s. Since then I have visited many McDonald’s in many countries on four different continents. Sometimes I am not sure what the exact status is of the government in a particular country, but as long as I find McDonald’s there, I know that they cannot be far from Freedom J.
McDonald’s, particularly outside of the USA, is a sanctuary for travelers. You can always find the same food – a menu that includes something for everyone, the same clean bathrooms, and a non-smoking area. It is the place where you go to find a fellow countryman if you get lost or need information, it is a place you can simply count on.
From time to time I hear about a lawsuit against McDonald’s by some unhappy customer who discovers that McDonald’s food is actually not very healthy. In the most ridiculous cases some people even blame McDonald’s for their own obesity. What a shame. These people do not get it at all. They do not understand that McDonald’s is Freedom. And in Freedom we have a choice!
Today, I live in America and the closest McDonald’s is just few minutes from my house. No matter how many times I go there I always take a personal moment to reflect on my past and appreciate all that I have experienced and everything that I have today.
What is your symbol of Freedom?
…and look what I found.