Friday, April 19, 2013

More McDonalds

This is kind of embarrassing to write about. It's one of those cliches that Americans are known for- starting wars, wearing tacky shorts in cathedrals, and spreading fast food around the world like a venereal disease :p But I stumbled across the picture below in my Russian textbook last night and now I've got McDonalds on the brain.
This is an old textbook, rescued from a professor's giveaway pile several years ago. It was published in 1991, the year the USSR dissolved into the CIS, so everything had been written a year or two prior with the assumption that the USSR would still be around upon publication. It's full of model conversations about cooperative apartments and the exciting return of commercialism. The authors were very enthusiastic about the introduction of new words like маркетинг (marketing), words "so new that the stress has not yet been fixed" and мини-ЭВМ (electronic mini-computer).

Anyways, part of the textbook's overall storyline involves Bob McDonald, an exchange student from Columbia University who has (as of chapter 3) spent most of his time hanging around the office and looking scruffy. In the picture above, fur-hatted Boris asks: "Bob, if it's not a secret, are you related to the famous McDonald guy?" "No," replies Bob, "my father is a businessman". Hmmm... product placement, anyone?
In this second picture we see the first McDonalds cafe to open in Moscow in January 1990. You might think to yourself "Wow! It was like Black Friday for french fries back then!" but wrong! It still is! Here's a McDonalds news release from January 22, 2013: Kyiv McDonalds again becomes the 2nd most popular in the world. AGAINST 34,000 OTHER MCDONALDS, people!! Imagine!* And just a few weeks later, on Feb 4th, 2013, a new press release: 8 Ukrainian McDonalds entered in the world's top 100.

(*D and I actually went there once in 2007 and were lucky to escape with all our limbs intact.)

Here's my completely-unscientific-yet-carefully-researched presentation of the local McDonalds as a microcosm of Ukraine.

I suppose that product continuity is one of McDonald's greatest selling points: you can expect the same thing worldwide with perhaps a tiny nod to local culture. For example, my brother just ate something called a McArabia Chicken in the Dubai airport. Sadly, Ukrainian McDonalds doesn't offer a McBorsch or Salo Nuggets... yet. Instead, the food is pretty much the standard fare.
Chicken nuggets, Big Mac, Big N' Tasty.
Perhaps playing on Ukraine's fascination with exotic places, the current limited-time offers are a caprese salad, mozzarella sticks, and a basil chiabatta sandwich. Another recent offer was the "Make Your Sandwich Ukrainian" tagline. How can you make your sandwich Ukrainian? By adding bacon, of course!
Big N' Tasty with bacon
If you can read Cyrillic, you'll notice that many of the English words have been translated by sound into Russian, so that the pronunciation is basically the same, only with a heavy Russian accent. This means the responsibility for ordering at McDonalds always falls upon my shoulders. D used to do it, but he'd get all flustered at the counter. Why? Because...

D: (in perfectly accented Russian) Please give me a (switching to English) Big Mac.
Young Cashier: {scratches head}: Huh?

So now I do it.
Me: (in heavily accented Russian) Please give me Beeg Mak.
Young Cashier: Ok.

Here are my tips, so that you can sound as embarrassingly bad as I do:
Don't say Big Mac. Say Beeg Mak.
Don't say Big N' Tasty. Say Beeg Tasty.
Don't say Hamburger. Say Gamburger (and roll those rs!)

Oh, and before I forget-  a meal is called a menu. So a hamburger meal becomes gamburger menyou. Confused enough yet? :p

And speaking of language....
If you've lived here, you know what this action means.
The awkward dance of Ukrainian and Russian is especially visible at McDonalds.

After hearing this particular phrase a thousand and two times, I asked D: What is this милная касса thing that the cashiers always say? Soapy register?? Hahaha, he laughs (and is STILL laughing). They're saying вільна каса, the register is available. It's Ukrainian, not Russian.

(Here are some famous Ukrainian politicians doing the вільна каса move, what the cashiers always do with their hands when they call you forward.)

Let's see... the menu and nutritional info are all in Ukrainian. The cashiers address you in Ukrainian. Wouldn't you assume that you'd order in Ukrainian too? You assume wrong. After вільна каса, everything smoothly switches over to Russian as if Ukrainian had never been present in the first place. As long as I live here, I don't think I'll ever be able to figure out which language should be used when. One time I listened in while D was on the phone with an internet company in Kiev. The customer service rep greeted him in Ukrainian, he replied in Russian, and the rest of the conversation was in Russian. So is Ukrainian just a token display of patriotism then? No, he told me, it's just a courtesy to let you know that you can speak either language with them. Choose Russian, they'll continue in Russian. Reply in Ukrainian and Ukrainian it will be.

It's still a little confusing to me, just like the whole ты/вы issue (informal vs formal 'you'), but since I can't speak Ukrainian I guess all my future conversations are already predestined to be in Russian, so the point is moot.
Heinz ketchup without high fructose corn syrup
Honestly, McDonalds seems like a different restaurant in Ukraine.

In the US, it's got this gross reputation. When you eat there you're usually thinking "Oh, I don't have time to make something" and you're cringing just a bit. When you eat there you're never on a date, dressed up to the nines. There aren't trendy music videos playing in the background, no interior decorator has been through and chosen a sophisticated palette of colors (not yellow and red).

In Ukraine, though, McDonalds is hip. McDonalds is full of teenagers and 20somethings. It's still the popular spot for birthday parties. Women snack on french fries in their stilettos and fur vests. Young men hang around with ice cream cones. In fact, I notice that people don't always order a full meal. It's often some small thing- a coffee, perhaps, or just a single hamburger. I also notice that there are no overweight people at McDonalds! Not even in the drive thru!! How can that be?

One more thing. See anything unusual about this job application? Uh, except for those stray sesame seeds?

The місце для фото (space for photo) always throws me for a loop. Students periodically ask me to check over their resumes. In Ukraine and when applying internationally it's common to have not only your picture on your resume, but also your marital status and number of children.

Nothing says Ukraine like a statue of Nikolai Gogol, a shopping mall, and a McDonalds ad
PS: Contrary to what you probably think after reading all this, we don't eat fast food that often, honest! :p Blame it on being brainwashed by that old Russian textbook.

The original McDonalds entry


  1. Can I get McBorsh menyou with Salo nuggets please.
    Thank you, I'll get Gorilka instead of Coke as well.

    1. Sure thing! Would you like a side of mayo with those salo nuggets? :p Also, we're having a special today on the pelmeni wrap.

  2. In reading about the popularity of McDonald's in the Ukraine, I was reminded of a similar popularity in KFC here in Madrid! It's not that the Spanish are so enamored of the chain, but rather that international visitors flock there. I've overheard entire conversations in other languages to suddenly catch a recognizable English word--"mini bucket." Ha!

    It must be hard to wrap your head around the Ukrainian/Russian "dance"--I didn't realize this was the case. Interesting how Mickey D's highlights this linguistic zone!

    What other gems must be in these old textbooks...? ;)

    1. Hola Cassandra! Haha, mini bucket, funny! Sometimes I hear foreigners at McDonalds here, usually foreign students from the middle east. Will have to eavesdrop a bit on them next time :p

      I know, it's a pretty wild textbook... probably more strange stuff to come!

      As always, thanks for dropping by and commenting : )

  3. I LOVE that you "make it Ukrainian" by adding bacon! A riot! It is a strange thing. In all of Europe, people see McDonalds as "American food". They are surprised when I tell them that in the States it's mainly marketed at children and poor people. Pre-kids, I would eat there occasionally if I weren't in the States. Now I can't after a nutrition degree and with two kids who still have never stepped foot in the golden arches.

    1. Wow, I'm impressed by your restraint! :p I can only hold out so many months and then it's impossible to resist my cheeseburger cravings.