Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Some Things Strangely Familiar Here

For some reason, it never ceases to amuse when I see something abroad that is reminiscent of something from America, but just slightly different.  Nowhere is this more prevalent, it seems, than here in Albania.

Take, for example, the “AFC.”  It looks suspiciously like KFC—and the “original recipe” chicken indeed tastes a lot like the Colonel Sanders—but it is, in fact, AFC or “Albanian Fried Chicken.”  I wonder if the Albanians know what the K stands for.

Then there is the Kolonat chain of restaurants in Tirana with the mangled-up Golden Arches.  Let me just say, if they’re trying to mimic McDonald’s, they need to put some beef and American cheese between them buns.  The mixed-meat patty and pungent white cheese on the cheeseburger don’t really do the trick.  The fries, however, come close.   But only close.  The fact is, a true American palate can never be fooled on the McDonald’s-french-fry front.  (Tip to the owner of Kolonat:  the fries need more salt, and should be greasier.)

I passed but didn’t go into the “Pizza King” or the “Subway One.”  But just seeing them made me wonder what was real, and what was not, in Albania.  The UPS?  The Century 21?  They must be.  Can you imagine taking your documents to a fake FedEx when they have to be somewhere positively overnight?

Sometimes things are so familiar—and so American—I practically forget I’m in a foreign country.  I can’t tell you how many times over here I’ve been on a bus or sitting in a café listening to Rhianna, or Jesse J, or JLo.  Literally, as I’m writing this, I am sitting in a local café, surrounded by Albanians, listening to Puff Daddy sing I’ll Be Missing You.  In truth, I didn't know the artist, so I asked my waiter, who barely speaks English.  He told me and said, "It's for Notorious B.I.G."  I am not making this up. 

Even in the supposed America-hating Serbian enclave in north Mitrovica, Kosovo, the Incognito Cafe where I had a cappuccino had Route 66 and other American iconography hanging on the walls.  The video playing while I sipped:  Will Smith's Gettin' Jiggy Wit' It.  I lingered for a bit, writing in my journal while hoping not to get my American-ass kicked, all the while singing under my breath, Na, na, na, na, na, na; gettin' jiggy wit' it.  It was kind of surreal.

The plain fact is, all over the world, people want to:  wear what Americans wear, eat what Americans eat, watch what Americans watch, shop where Americans shop, listen to what Americans listen to, and so on.  Of course I don’t mean to suggest that, globally, people don’t drive German cars, or use Japanese gadgets, or watch British television, or eat Indian food.  I’m just saying American stuff seems to dominate from continent to continent.  I don’t really know why.  It just does.

In most cases, the real American companies go abroad, as in the Subway in St. Petersburg, the Chili’s coming soon to Moscow, the Dominos Pizza in Kiev, the Starbucks throughout Poland, the Dunkin’ Donuts and KFC in Sofia, and the McDonald’s practically everywhere. 

And that’s just food. 

But sometimes, the locals bring the companies to them, as in the Home Depot in Zambia, the Barnes and Noble in Nepal, the Payless Shoe Source in St. Petersburg, and the Flamingo Casino in Budva.  I’m assuming these aren’t the real McCoys.

Being a lawyer, I think about trademark issues when I run across such things.  Intellectual property law is not my specialty, so I don’t really know what kind of case these companies would have, assuming there even is trademark protection abroad.  But I do feel it would be a real shame if some corporation hired a fat-cat lawyer to bring the hammer down on people trying to eke out a living on a little over $1 a day in Zambia.  To put that in perspective, the average person in Zambia makes—in an entire year—less than many lawyers in America bill their clients for one hour of legal work. 

That being said, it occurs to me that I’m getting a little thin in the wallet after all this travel and no work.  I’d probably have to change my tune if one of these corporations wanted to hire me.  In that case--sorry, Ndugu, but the law’s the law.

Meanwhile, I’m thinking of turning the tables on this whole thing and stealing a few business ideas for myself from eastern Europe and the Balkans; namely: fresh corn-in-a-cup, nuts-sold-on-the-street, and weigh-yourself-for-a-quarter. 

I first encountered the corn-in-a-cup in Ukraine, but found it elsewhere in Poland, Bulgaria, and Kosovo.  I’m telling you—it sells itself.  You smell it way before you see it, and by the time you reach it, you’ve already got your money out.  It’s pretty cheap—on average less than a dollar per cup with salt and butter—with sprinkled cheese being extra.  I feel like there is nothing as satisfying as an unexpected fresh cup of hot corn on a cold Bulgarian afternoon.  I can see this working really well in say, Cleveland, for example.

In every country I visited on this latest trip, I encountered people selling nuts on the street.  Seeds are very popular as well—especially in Russia and Kosovo, but elsewhere too.  The great thing is, they’re good for you, and you get them portion-controlled.  Many times they’re sold in rolled up newspaper or magazine pages, but sometimes, as in Macedonia, you get little paper bags.  It’s always a nice snack when you’re walking around town feeling peckish between meals.

Lake Ohrid, Macedonia

Tirana. Albania

Ternopil, Ukraine

Finally, if I can’t find a job right away when I come home, I’ve got the best idea from the Balkans for a weight-obsessed America.  I’m going to buy a scale, sit on a sidewalk, and charge people walking by a quarter to weigh in.  It’s pretty popular over here, and I can’t see why it wouldn’t be in America.  I suppose I need to check into getting a business license.  One thing I don't like about America -- it's so overregulated.  

Prizren, Kosovo

And finally, there is at least one person in Krakow, Poland who does not like McDonald's: