How to change a town’s personality

One thing I have always loved about Loulé is that it’s a real Portuguese town, by which I mean there are no chain stores here. If you want Starbucks, try Lisboa. If you want KFC, Burger King or McDonald’s, you’ll need to go to the bigger coastal towns or the malls.

Until now.

About two months ago we noticed some construction across the street from one of our largest grocery stores. It proceeded at an incredible rate by Portuguese standards. I’ve watched buildings take more than a year to finish, but this one was thrown up in about six weeks. The landscaping took another couple of weeks.

I mentioned it to my wife when the building was first being framed, and said it looked like a fast food restaurant. The next time we both drove by, she said, “It looks like a McDonald’s.”

And then these banners popped up all over town:

McDonald s banner

Translation:

Loulé now has McDonald’s!
Oh, what a great joy
McDonald’s has arrived
to this land of poetry!

(Excuse me while I go wash my brain.)

Then the fliers appeared in our mailboxes, announcing the grand opening and offering us a free sundae if we ordered a burger. Que alegria!

I’m sure some tourists will be delighted to have a familiar “face” in town, but we’re crushed. It feels like Loulé just lost some of its soul. This isn’t a tourist town, really — it’s too far inland. But it does become very touristy on Saturday, when the daily market doubles in size and the flea market (here called the gypsy market) sets up at the edge of town. Entire buses pull in just to deliver tourists for the morning, and the town makes a lot of income in those few hours.

But that’s Saturday until one o’clock. The rest of the week, this is a town for the locals, most of whom won’t go to McDonald’s. The food is terrible compared to local cafés and restaurants, and not cheap either. The kids will probably love it, though, and the restaurant is conveniently located very near several elementary schools. Just what our kids need, easy access to the American fast food diet.

Look out, Loulé, the barbarians are at the gate.

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About Fletcher DeLancey

Socialist heathen and Mac-using author of the Chronicles of Alsea, who enjoys pondering science, politics, well-honed satire (though sarcastic humor can work, too) and all things geeky.
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4 Responses to How to change a town’s personality

  1. JR says:

    I can never complain about Starbucks spreading across the world, because that’s my “local” coffee and it’s hard for me to stay away forever. But I’ve been absolutely astounded by the number of (mostly US but some European) chains that have opened in India since I was last here. When I left in the fall of 2009, there were some chains already–Domino’s, Subway, McDonalds–but now there’s everything from Nando’s to California Pizza Kitchen to…well, you name it, it’s probably here.

    But you know, the clientele for these places–especially McDonalds–is mostly local, even in tourist towns. It will be interesting to see if that turns out to be the case in Loulé.

    Speaking of spreading brands, in 2009 it was almost impossible to buy anything Apple or get a Mac serviced. But an hour ago, I was standing in the neighborhood iPlanet store (down the street from Starbucks, as it happens). So I think that fast food is only the most visible flash of global consumer culture; underneath, other things are spreading, too.

    Of course, an iPhone 5 costs INR 53,000, which converts to USD 883.00, or 650 Euros. That’s breathtakingly expensive for India.

    • oregon expat says:

      JR, thanks for the fascinating view from India. You’re right about the global consumer culture spreading. I’m consistently amazed at how often I find familiar US brand names in the bigger malls here (like Columbia!), though of course anything from those brands is usually very expensive compared to European equivalent brands. It’s a very different situation from the US, where foreign brand names often cost the same or less than American ones. But then, Portugal is a consumer market of 10 million, while the US is closer to 315 million.

      We’ve seen the spread of Apple here as well. When I moved here, it was unusual to see anyone with a MacBook, and there was one service shop for the entire Algarve. Now several shops compete, all of the mobile providers sell iPhones, and FNAC, Staples and other big stores all sell iPads, iPods and Mac computers.

      Believe it or not, that iPhone price you listed is cheaper than we’d pay for it here — assuming you mean 5s and not 5c. The cheapest 5s is 699 euros (the 5c ranges from 540 to 699), which is also breathtakingly expensive for the vast majority of Portuguese, who have seen their annual income slashed by about one-third since the onset of austerity. Assuming they are even still employed, that is. Meanwhile, consumer prices have remained static.

      My wife really wanted an iPhone, but it was impossible for us. She just bought an Android phone, and after using it for a couple of weeks, she says it has exactly one advantage over the iPhone: the cost.

  2. JR says:

    I’m trying to picture the sign and phones in my mind, but I can’t remember now if they were 5s or 5c. The average Indian day laborer makes around Rs. 100-200 (so, max 2.5 Euros) per day. You can imagine how out of reach an iPhone would be at that income level. And yet, I see them everywhere because of the highly paid, highly privileged IT community here in Bangalore. The wage gap here is…well, breathtaking.

    I don’t know much about contemporary Portugal…are people as driven by status as they are here? Because McDonald’s in India isn’t about convenience or the taste of the food (although…the McAloo Tikki sandwich isn’t horrible), but about being able to afford it. In the US, McDonald’s is the cheapest food available, Here, it is comparatively expensive. For instance, coffee at work cost Rs 2 and lunch in the canteen cost Rs 15. An “econo” McAloo Tikki meal (smallest size) is Rs. 100. Not dramatically expensive compared to the US, but two of those would take an entire day’s wages for the average worker here.

    I wonder, in austerity Europe, will eating at McDonald’s become a status symbol, a way of saying “I still have money”? Or do the Portuguese do that kind of posturing?

    • oregon expat says:

      That is indeed a low wage. The gross minimum wage here is 485 euros per month, and taxes are high. I have no idea how anyone lives on that when a tank of gas costs 70 euros.

      For the most part, the Portuguese aren’t that status-conscious. In the past, expats who moved away for work and then came back to flaunt their money were considered gauche. (As was their taste in architecture, which can be seen in houses completely covered in what we call “bathroom tiles” — ugly, but fulfilling their purpose of advertising a fat wallet.) Thanks to austerity, income inequality is rapidly getting much worse here, so who knows how attitudes will change in the next few decades. But I have a hard time seeing the Portuguese being driven by status. For the most part, it’s not on their list of important things.

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