I’ve been conditioned to hate McDonald’s.
As a kid, our bright red Subaru only lurched into their parking lot on never-ending road trips, and car sickness became a Pavlovian-like response to seeing those oversized, yellow M arches. Later, in high school, we learned that this burger goliath was destroying local markets and fattening up the country, one soggy french fry at a time.
Little did I know that this beacon of American consumerism and personal nausea would become my haven years later, 3,625 miles away in Rabat, Morocco.
Before leaving the country for my junior semester abroad in Rabat, I conjured up images of camels and deserts, enveloped by a soundtrack of mysterious Middle Eastern music lifted straight from the Prince of Egypt animated film. I thought I would ride said camels by day, and whisper secrets to my host sisters at night, all while wearing a very exotic and interestingly-looking scarf. I can now readily admit that 90 percent of my motivation for studying in Morocco stemmed from my desire to be able to say I did, and to take a selfie with a camel. (Both were accomplished.)
Shockingly enough, DreamWorks Productions did not insert an exotic background soundtrack into my life, nobody could understand my subpar attempts at conversing in Arabic, and I lived with four older women and only one host sister, who had little to no interest in speaking to me, let alone in swapping our most intimate feelings. Huh.
I hit my first holy-shit-why-did-I-ever-leave-America moment a couple weeks into the semester, when I embarked on the simple task of washing my clothes. My friend Maris and I met up on the dirt-caked road in between our host families’ homes, both clutching bags filled with two weeks worth of sweaty laundry.
We immediately spotted a hanut, a small storefront, with rows of freshly laundered Moroccan dresses and shirts hanging in back.
“Hi, laundry cost? How much? Very good?” I asked in broken French, depositing my 5th grade summer camp laundry bag onto the counter. The proprietor’s eyebrows jumped vertically as if taking a mental step backwards.
“All of that?” she waved a hand in disbelief over my forest green bag. Maris cradled hers like an oversized toddler against her stomach. “We wash per item,” the woman explained. “This is too much.” My turn to shake my head. My last shower was several days ago, and my underwear ran out well before that. It was time for laundry whether she liked it or not.
We went back in forth, as I asserted nonsensical statements in French like “Please, please, dirty girls, need wash,” and she became more and more exasperated.
“Fine!” she said. “500 dirhams each!” she named her price—the equivalent of over $50 USD. We didn’t have jobs that semester. Our only potential source of income would be the camels that men kept offering us in return for our hands in marriage, but we doubted this shopkeeper would accept a camel as payment, so we had to shuffled away in defeat to the next laundry shop.
We repeated the same conversation at several storefronts, our bags of soiled clothes seeming heavier with each step.
I decided to try a different approach and stopped a man walking near me, informing him that I was searching for a store where I could do a lot of laundry. I pointed to our stuffed drawstring bags and he squinted his eyes. “You need—wash—clothes?” he asked, in subpar French. Ah, yes, my language! We nodded, and he beckoned us to follow him. He wore distressed, faded, hip-clinging blue jeans—something Britney Spears’ backup dancers would have worn in her late ‘90s music videos—with a matching jean jacket. A Canadian Tuxedo at its finest.
“American?” he asked in Arabic as we scuttled down the street and he lead us into the winding back alleys of the old city. He glanced back, giving Maris a none-too-subtle once-over, soaking in her 5-foot-10 frame, head of wavy blonde locks, and large blue eyes. American, indeed.
We nodded, and continued to follow him deeper through the winding streets of the medina. “Do you think this is a good idea?” Maris whispered, even though our guide clearly didn’t speak English and was forging ahead in long strides, checking back only every few minutes to see if we were still following him. We eventually stopped in front of another riad—someone’s house—and he produced a key from his pocket.
“Wait—what? We’re looking for a laundromat,” I reminded him when he attempted to usher us inside, but he gave me an unresponsive stare. Perhaps my expert communication skills were not as accurate as I had hoped.
“My mother,” he said in Arabic, and repeated in French. “She can wash clothes.” He mimed hand washing with motions and tapped his foot impatiently, trying to rush us into his home. Perhaps this man had a lovely mother who wanted to wash our excessively large bags of dirty clothes, but perhaps he also wanted to shove us into his basement and lock the door.
“You think he’s trying to kill us?” Maris hissed.
“I don’t know, probably.”
“Can we just find a laundromat?”
“Yeah, because we’ve been super successful for the past two hours.”
The man looked back and forth between us. We politely thanked him and his supposed mother, and dragged our laundry in the other direction.
“Fuck,” Maris said simply. We still needed clean underwear.
We continued wandering, unsuccessfully searching for a laundromat, and as the blue sky faded into the orangey hues of twilight, I started to cry, in the middle of the crowded medina street.
“I…just…want…to…do…laundry!” I somehow managed to choke out between the onslaught of toddler-esque tears, half aware of the ridiculous nature of my despair, and the other half too dismayed by the prospect of going several more days without clean underwear to recognize any semblance of rational thought. I vaguely noticed the other shop owners and Moroccans milling around and staring at me.
Maris gingerly patted my back. “I know this sucks. We’re both a little smelly, and that’s okay,” she whispered, clearly unsure of how to halt the barrage of tears. We had only known each other for 13 days. “But this is a low point, and things will only go up from here.” She paused.
Instead of washing our clothes that night, we ended up at McDonalds, a beacon of clean plastic chairs and Western toilets.
We ordered Big Macs and McFlurrys and fries and McNuggets. I needed more than one McFlurry to ease my laundry-induced fatigue, which had morphed from hysteria to pure exhaustion and a visceral need to smell something other than my own sweat.
We surveyed the restaurant. Whereas the medina streets were always bustling with people, jostling every which way, McDonalds was eerily silent. Peaceful.
It didn’t taste like carsickness or childhood diabetes or unnaturally greasy batches of fries. As shocked as I am and as little sense as it makes—it tasted like home.
It took us another 48 hours to wash our clothes, but we started a tradition of eating trans fat throughout our semester of tears, confusion and miscommunication.
And when we finally found our beautiful laundromat, in the next town over, we also found another McDonald’s. Finally, a good omen.
Two hamburgers, please.