Back in the U.S. – Crazy Fast Food!

We are still on home leave, I have not settled yet in our permanent quarters (note the use of the word quarters because I don’t know if it is going to be a house or an apartment and the term residence seems a bit posh for what we will actually be able to afford back in DC), but I am already re-americanizing myself at full speed.

Ah – a little context for newbies. Home leave is a period of vacation mandated by Congress for diplomats after a certain time spend abroad. Every three years maximum. You gain three weeks every year and however well it may be described in the official text [Codified in Sections 901 and 903 of the Foreign Service Act of 1980] its purpose is to make sure that even if you have “gone local” (not loco although it could apply sometimes), you have not forgotten to be an American and you keep up with American values. In summary, it is to re-americanize oneself or to have a ‘re-learning Americana holiday’.

When we are posted to a new country, since our residence is usually within U.S. standards and offices at the Embassy could also be in the U.S. look-wise, what usually strikes us most, besides weather or smells, are different foods. We are foodies. Back in the U.S., for the first time after three years overseas, everything looks the same as in my memories except the food offering at fast food restaurants. Let’s cover a few novelties.

  • On the Dunkin Donuts cup, among the many choices to tick, the weirdest ones are for sweeteners. They don’t name them by their brands or by their poisonous ingredients (saccharin, aspartame, sucralose, maltodextrin…) but by their colors: the pink sweetener, the blue sweetener, the yellow sweetener – how sweet – no pun intended.
  • Jalapeño poppers. CheddaPeño. Different names depending on the restaurants. From a healthy jalapeno the Mexicans have made it less healthy (but sooo good) by stuffing it full of cheese. Then, the Americans have covered it in batter. Calories times ten at least!
  • MacNCheetos. Take about three or four Mac&Cheese macaronis and hold them together with a giant Cheetos all around. Your kids dreamt it, they made it!
  • Crunchy wrap. Double or triple at Taco Bell. Wrap a hard tostada in a flour tortilla – hello carbs! Some tacos even have a shell that tastes like Dorito chips.
  • If you are from the East Coast, you may have not heard of the In-N-Out fast food place which is mostly implanted in the West. For a non-connoisseur it could be weird when you first walk in such a fast food restaurant to discover that they only sell a simple burger, a simple cheese burger, and fries. No fancy names, no colorful Photoshop’ed photos. In fact they have a ‘not-so-secret menu’ which tells you (online) that you can have many variations of the above. You may double the meat & cheese, triple it or even quadruple it (they call it the 4×4). For a really good sauce – they say mustard but it does not taste like mustard, more like the secret sauce of the Big Mac – ask ‘Animal Style’ with a choice of tomatoes, pickles, grilled onions, special sauce, or all of the above. Like many of their competitors now, they are also proposing a healthy* choice by replacing the bun by lettuce leaves; it is called the ‘Protein Style’. Animal & Protein Styles are compatible!
  • Recently, Burger King has invented the whopperito – whooper + burrito. Replace the bun by a tortilla, the ketchup by some melted cheese, and wrap the ingredients of a whopper in a tortilla.
  • The burrito is the new fad here. In August Taco Bell released the cheesy core burrito, either crunchy or spicy. Take a perfectly healthy burrito and add, in its center, artery-clogging orange-plastic-like-cheese. They call it three-cheese blend but it is the sort that movies theaters smother your nachos with – sorry as a French native I cannot call it cheese.
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OK – Not that crazy – this was in China!

I’d better post this before they invent any more of these weird combination foods. I am sorry that I will not be your guinea pig anymore; I have shipped my teenage boy off to college (yeah- there was a reason I was haunting the fast food joints this summer, his giant bucket list) and now I have a waist line to watch!

*healthy = messy. I love burgers in lettuce wrap but there is no bun to absorb the sauce so it is extremely slippery. Extra napkins required.

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Hotel Rant

Where to sleep in Pécs?

We love travels. We love travelling. We are not difficult. We can sleep in a hut if the type of travel mandates it – for example an eco-trekking we did in Thailand in 2012 (I’ll have to come back on this because it was fantastic).  We slept on the floor, just like our hosts. On a same trip in the same country we can go from hut to high luxury and hut again, it just depends on what is right at that time and what we intend to do: for example, meet local people in villages (Chang Mai region) or visit museums and palaces (Vienna).

Sometimes we find that the best fit for our family, when the four of us travel, is to rent an apartment. Actually sometimes we are five if we count our tiny Italian greyhound and more apartment owners accept dogs than hotels.  Since we like to cook it is also very practical to have your own kitchen. It also helps control the quality of the ingredients and the amount of fat that go in your plate.

As much as we look for practicality I always have an eye on aesthetics. I don’t like ugly, especially if the prices don’t match ugly. When we were on ‘home leave’– a specificity of the Foreign Service describing the extended ‘re-learning Americana holiday’ we take between two missions overseas – I was trying to get across the country for as cheap as possible. Every FS family will tell you that it can be costly to be in the U.S. for two months = 60 (even 61) days with no roof of your own. With a cheap hotel like $100 a night for four, this is already a whopping $6,000 – on only one salary. Not every FS employee has a house available, either because they are too young to have purchased one, or it is rented. Not every FS employee has parents with a mansion that can accommodate a long stay. Home leave can be nine weeks you know since the employee gains three weeks per year abroad. Some colleagues would argue that ‘yeah, but it’s impossible to take that long’. You can do it. We did it. Just negotiate!

Back on the notion of ‘acceptable ugly’. If I choose Motel 6 and Super 8 because I want to travel to major cities to show our kids the United States in all its grandeur, from Maine to California (Home leave 2013), and I don’t want to break the bank, I accept savorless hotels where we will barely spend a night. But when a hotel pretends to be ‘charming’ or ‘boutique’ with higher pricing associated with such adjectives, I really don’t appreciate that they look like having supplied their rooms with IKEA-like furniture (and at least this would have a clean feel to it), or worse that they are using old cheap 1950s furniture with a carpet so worn that you can’t tell which color it is, much less which color it was. The bed cover can also be repulsive and it is a much cheaper investment to make to improve a room.

So why am I all excited about this topic today? Well, I am planning for a trip to Pécs which is supposed to be the most beautiful city in Hungary after Budapest. I’ve asked my Hungarian colleagues and teacher about which cities not to miss and they all agree. Pécs comes first. Then there is a tie between Debrecen and Sopron. While I am dutifully making my research on Booking.com and Tripadvisor to cross-reference opinions I could only find abominable hotels in the loveliest city of the country!!! Some hotels might look good from the façade to the reception desk and dining hall, the rooms are still very mediocre. The one that dares call itself ‘boutique’ is among the ugliest one. At this point I looked for Bed & Breakfasts and they were all ugly as well.

My conclusion is if you are an entrepreneur: go open a real boutique hotel in Pécs because lovely city means romantic and romantic needs a proper nest!