Simon Calder: Are Big Macs that big in Sweden?

The man who pays his way
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The Independent Travel

The most-repeated fact about Guantanamo Bay, featured on the front of this section, is that the personnel of the US naval base have access to a McDonald's restaurant ­ the only one in Cuba. But the golden arches that comprise the ultimate emblem of globalisation are also part of the tourism industry. The first McDonald's to be created by the Big Mac mogul, Ray Kroc, opened in Des Plaines, Illinois, in April 1955.

It still stands, thanks to the efforts of local conservationists. The curator for the local historical society says the corporation wanted to knock down the structure in 1984, but were persuaded instead to turn it into the McDonald's No1 Store Museum.

I went there on Wednesday, only to find I was four months early; it opens only in summer, and then for just 12 hours each week. Handily, though, there is a working McDonald's directly across the road that acts as a surrogate museum for the rest of the time.

Some of the exhibits are archaic ­ they include a device for making chips from real potatoes.

If you find yourself at the world's busiest airport, Chicago O'Hare, with a pause between flights, a 20-minute ride aboard bus 220 will take you to Lee Street in Des Plaines, where the mass-produced burger began ­ promoted with slogans such as "Hey Mom, don't cook in this hot weather". You will also learn about the Hamburger University that began in 1961, with graduates earning a Bachelor of Hamburgerology with a minor in French Fries.

Sometimes the familiar logo of McDonald's provides welcome relief for a traveller. The chain offers predictable standards of hygiene in parts of the world with uncertain sanitation, and solace for those in a strange land who are desperate for hash browns and the safe, insipid liquid that goes by the name of McDonald's coffee. But most of us seek local specialities in preference to global certainties.

Guidebooks are often useful in the search for an authentic eating experience. But Alan Godfrey e-mails to express concern about the "Places to Eat" recommendations in Lonely Planet's guide to Sweden.

"I was surprised to find McDonald's given first mention in the listings for Gothenburg," he says. He was even more surprised to find the burger chain awarded pride of place in the listings for the cathedral city of Lund, the university city of Uppsala, and in the lovely half-timbered port of Ystad.

Mr Godfrey diligently found 10 other notable Swedish towns and cities where the world's largest "global foodservice retailer" heads the recommendations. Even in the gourmet heaven of Stockholm, where you can find everything from Abba-brand herring to reindeer, the Big Mac muscles in to second place. Only Malmo holds out against the tide: "Here McDonald's trails in at 15th".

Mr Godfrey believes readers may make unfortunate inferences about Swedish cuisine. He also wonders if travellers appreciate having the chain pointed out at all: "Do we need a guidebook for this; isn't its sign well enough known? Lonely Planet claims never to take sponsorship or inducements of any kind. The wretched volume on Sweden makes me wonder whether they have broken the habit of a lifetime."

Goodness, one month through 2002 already. So how, you might wonder, is the 1999 Montreal Convention getting on? This aviation treaty was drafted to replace the 1929 Warsaw version. The original agreement was formulated in a different age, yet, incredibly, it still underpins (and restricts) passengers' rights on international flights. The new one is much more customer-friendly, including the insistence that airlines pay out more cash, more quickly, in the event of an accident.

I checked the official IATA website to see how many countries had ratified the agreement. Thirty nations must endorse the new pact for it to supersede the 73-year-old treaty that currently governs air travel; the website shows, so far, a total of eight, including such aviation luminaries as Belize, Bahrain and Macedonia.

At this rate, you can expect Montreal to come into effect around 2010, by which time some of its contents will, no doubt, be in need of refreshment (and not the sort provided by McDonald's).

Back in Chicago, news of the ending of Britain's foot-and-mouth epidemic has yet to filter through to O'Hare airport. Returning residents or incoming visitors who have stayed at a UK bed-and-breakfast are ordered to report to Department of Agriculture officials, who apparently believe that B&Bs are a source of the disease.

Finally, Sue Walker reveals a touristic gem in the city that I was unable to uncover. "The views from the ladies toilets in the John Hancock Center [the world's 10th-tallest building] are amazing. Even if you can't afford a $10 cocktail in the bar, all women who visit Chicago must ride the elevator and nip to the loo."

SimonCalder@independent.co.uk

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