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Finding the Foreign in the Familiar

I have a confession: I can’t stand the taste of Coke.

Fortunately, this character flaw didn’t get me booted out of the World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta when I visited a few weeks ago. (To be fair, I don’t like Pepsi either.) Despite my bias, I didn’t want to miss out on one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions, so I tagged along with a few Coke-loving pals. Part museum, part advertisement, the World of Coca-Cola offers visitors a chance to watch the bottling process, meet the company’s famous polar bear and catch clips of old Coke commercials.

Frankly, I found all the exhibits and films a little hyper-promotional — but one part of the tour I did enjoy was the “Taste It!” exhibit, where you can sample more than 60 different Coca-Cola beverages from around the world. I discovered that I may not like ordinary Coke, but I do like South Africa’s fresh, fruity Bibo Kiwi Mango, as well as Estonia’s berry-flavored Fanta Magic. Of course, there were some duds too; my travel companions and I universally panned Italy’s Beverly drink, with its yucky chemical aftertaste. All told, Coca-Cola offers a staggering 3,500 different beverages worldwide (which gives a whole new meaning to the old slogan “Always Coca-Cola” — you can’t escape the stuff!).

Coke isn’t the only brand that looks a little different when you encounter it overseas. Take McDonald’s. The first thing that springs to mind when I think of the Golden Arches is a hamburger and fries — but as we note in 7 Strange Foods from Around the World, the restaurant has tailored its menus to fit regional tastes around the globe. Its Indian franchises have replaced the traditional Big Mac with a “Maharaja Mac” made from chicken instead of beef (to accommodate Hindu diners). The “McArabia” is popular in Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, and features either chicken or kofta (spiced beef) wrapped in a pita-style bread.

I’m the type of traveler that generally tries to avoid big-name chains and products when traveling overseas; I’d rather sample local flavors and support homegrown businesses. But maybe there’s something to be said for visiting a familiar place and seeing it through a foreign lens. Maybe sometimes, even when you least expect it, it really is “the real thing.”

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