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Life

In My Darkest Hour, I Turned to McDonald’s

Moving from New York City to Budapest, I missed a side of America that I never expected I would.

stages of a hamburger being eaten orange background with American flag softserve ice cream and a person's profile...
Illustration by Christine Juon

I finished the hefty burger, its tangy, relish-spiked sauce still coating my tongue, then I dunked the french fries, two, three at a time, into the puddle of rapidly dwindling ketchup. All that remained were a few salty, pale yellow stubs hiding at the bottom of the shiny red box, but I was greedy, shoveling these crispy stragglers into my mouth with resolve. The vanilla soft-serve began to wilt on the far corner of my tray. With sticky hands I reached for it, too. I knew shame should have coursed through me as I swallowed each mouthful, but my state was purely blissful. For the first time in twenty-five years, I loved McDonald’s.

In my native New York City, where I spent nearly fifteen years after college, eating at McDonald’s would have been unfathomable. Sure, I gladly partook in In-N-Out Burger expeditions when in LA, slurped down Wendy’s Frosties on road trips, and was always elated when long flight connections allowed for a Bojangles’ Cajun Filet Biscuit. But I primarily wrote about food and drink for a living, and my mornings, afternoons, and evenings revolved around sophisticated new restaurants and bars with leather banquettes and walls of subway tiles. I sampled strawberry-strewn market greens, arctic char with pickled onions, and chocolate-hazelnut tarts, washing them down with bourbon–egg white cocktails. Relaxing nights in were also glorious: takeout feasts of spicy, basil-laced noodles and sloppy gyros slicked with tzatziki. There was so much delicious, affordable, readily available food in New York, stepping into the artificial, mass-produced world of McDonald’s always seemed crass and unnecessary, a sinister mockery of the chefs who so lovingly toiled away in the hot, urban kitchens I revered.

I thought about this as I unwrapped that Big Mac with sheer delight, how this act would likely elicit scorn among many of the food-obsessed folks I knew back home. But I was in Budapest. I was still anonymous here, the very reason I moved to this stunning city three years ago.

I lived in New York five years too long, leading to a steady buildup of misery and resentment. During my days in Astoria, where I lived, I wrote curled up on the sofa and stopped only to snag a spinach pie from my favorite Greek bakery, or to sign for fancy bottles of hand-delivered whisky. At night, I’d slip into some overpriced dress bought at a Brooklyn boutique, flick on mascara, and take the subway to an hours-long dinner or a party with never-ending flutes of bubbly and myriad hugs from strangers who pretended to be friends. I came home from these soirees each night, and the insincere small talk would leave me feeling more suffocated than the evening before.

When I finally got the courage to leave New York — a city that no longer resembled the bohemian fantasies I conjured as a restless child — I fled to Europe, the only other place I dreamed of calling home since my early fascination with globes. Budapest has graceful courtyards, gritty streets, and no-nonsense denizens who aren’t remotely interested in exchanging faux how-are-yous. I didn’t have friends there and I didn’t understand the language. Invisibility was a scenario far more alluring than any of those over-the-top shindigs I attended — and I embraced it.

Growing up on Long Island, home-cooked meals were the norm. But I was a suburban kid, one who looked forward to the rare visit to McDonald’s or Pizza Hut for Happy Meal toys and personal-pan pizzas accompanied by Debbie Gibson blaring from the jukebox. Those simple meals symbolized an unfussy, promising era (back when it seemed that Santa Claus and Sweet Valley High might just be real), well before I began to care about farmers-market rhubarb pies and getting in on conversations where acquaintances name-dropped Danny Meyer and David Chang.

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Most of the people I know in Budapest also turn their noses up at McDonald’s in favor of the stuffed cabbage and catfish paprikash that pervade menus here.

Restaurants are still part of my life in Budapest, but not like they were in New York, where they practically defined me. Real Hungarian food is savored in homes. Sitting alone at the bar, eating dinner while chatting with the bartender is an uncommon ritual. Running to a 24-hour bodega across the street in search of peanut butter or egg sandwiches is an impossibility.

At first, living in Budapest was exactly as I envisioned it, exactly what I had hoped for. Strolling along the Danube and seeing palaces glimmer in the background, watching ballets unfold in a gilded theater, meeting a man in love-at-first-sight fashion only a few months after arriving — it all felt like I was in a fairy tale. Until the splendid faded into the ordinary. No matter which country I woke up in, I was still me. Before long I felt oppressed, perhaps even regretful; I reminisced about those New York nights. I wasn’t having mid-party panic attacks in bathroom stalls this time around, but I was foolishly crying over the city’s dearth of empanadas and chicken mole. The reality that Budapest was now my life, not a mere international reprieve, filled me with anxiety. What if I never found friends, dinners an infinite blur of tables for one when my boyfriend wasn’t around? Would anyone ever visit me? Why did I still care what was happening at those damn parties in New York? Yet I didn’t go back.

Instead, separation yielded gratitude for the States, an emotion I didn’t think I would have time for once ensconced in Europe, with its old-world cafés and cheap, two-hour flights to museums in neighboring cities. I bought Vans, shoes I never would have worn in New York. I grew envious when I saw Facebook friends checking into bars I once rolled my eyes at. I also went to McDonald’s, and with one toothsome bite of its signature double-decker burger, my topsy-turvy life was rewarded with a rush of the familiar. It was the America I never thought I would miss.

These days, it’s the States where I feel like a foreigner. But on short trips, that feeling is the perfect balm. There is no time to get agitated by the schmucks who don’t give up their subway seats to pregnant women, money wasted on hyped but mediocre mezcal cocktails, or people’s constant chatter about Hamptons summer plans. I visit those who have remained good friends despite the distance and it is as if no time has passed. They let me gorge on tacos and order tater tots an hour later. I go to Target and load up my suitcase with Thomas’ English Muffins and the Maybelline makeup remover I can’t find at the drugstores back in Budapest. I look through the window of my favorite Queens bodega and watch the same gruff guy who made innumerable iced coffees for me scoop ice for someone else. It’s enough. I’m able to walk away without ordering one because that tradition was my part of my past, an era I finally accepted when I slurped up that last spoonful of impulsive McFreeze back in Budapest.

I don’t go to McDonald’s often, but when I do, I am surrounded by people — the post-cinema families, the couples who can’t be bothered to whip up a nourishing dinner that night — and, at least for a moment, I don’t mind that I am eating gluttonous food pumped out of a corporate chain. I think maybe if I had let go of those anxieties sooner, I would have enjoyed my time in New York more. Because sometimes, in our darkest hours, a box of fast-food fries is the only salve.

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Alia Akkam is a freelance food, drink, travel, and design writer now living in Budapest.