But as I walk away from the front doors of the station, there is a familiar beacon of light
beckoning: Bright . . . yellow . . . arches .
I travel. A lot. And as a rule, I avoid McDonald's. Why in the world would I choose an
American cheeseburger or “Happy Meal” over local cuisine, which, whether tasty or not,
is worth sampling if you want to understand a new place. But in the middle of the night
in Yaroslavl, I offer myself excuses for making an exception. It is the only business that
appears open for a mile in either direction, I am cold and hungry, and the waiting area in
the train station was doing nothing for me. What's more, McDonald's experiences are a
window into life in this country (or I'm telling myself that to rationalize my yearning for a
McDonald's “Big Breaksfast”).
In Russia there's nothing casual about restaurants. Dining out was so rare in Soviet
times that when it happened, families took the experience very seriously. That seriousness
remains part of the culture. Russian families will peruse a menu for minutes upon
minutes—even if the server is just standing there waiting—as if menu reading is truly a
rare treat. I recall my first experience with this. Sergei and I went out to report a story in
Moscow shortly after I arrived on the new job, and I suggested we grab tea in a café near
our bureau before heading off to the subway—like a quick Starbucks or Dunkin' Donuts
stop on the way to work in the United States. We walked into the coffeehouse, and Sergei
immediately told the hostess, “Table for two.” Before I knew what was happening we were
seated, and Sergei was looking over the menu, about to order a pot of tea and some food to
go with it. Grabbing a quick tea—or quick anything—is just not the drill.
The rigidity of the typical restaurant experience can be mind-boggling. Once, Rose,
Sergei, and I were out for lunch and Rose wanted some butter for her bread. Sergei kindly
asked the server if they had butter. The answer: yes. So, Sergei asked, could she bring Rose
a pat or two of butter?
Butter, the server explained, is for cooking. There is no established price on the menu
for butter “to serve.” So Rose was out of luck.
As astonished as I was by the server's response, Sergei translated it to us without crack-
ing a smile or noticing anything odd—at the end of the day this was just part of his culture.
Some Russians crave a more relaxed experience—which explains why McDonald's has
become a stunningly popular dining option for Russians of all ages and socioeconomic
classes. My Russian tutor, an educated language professor at Moscow State University, told
me how she and her family would take monthly trips into the center of Moscow to attend
the ballet or opera—and one of her favorite parts of the experience was stopping at McCafe,
the coffee shop attached to McDonald's. It's the best coffee she's ever tasted, and she very
much looks forward to her monthly taste. I was at first flabbergasted—an educated college
professor sounding as excited about McDonald's coffee as she was about the ballet? But