Having food allergies is a never-ending lesson in self advocacy. Especially where new, unfamiliar restaurants are concerned. A popular piece of travel advice is to eat your way through a new country when getting to know the culture. Food is such a vital part of social interactions as well. “We haven’t seen each other in so long, want to get together for lunch? Maybe coffee?” How often do our conversations with friends start off this way?
Normally I accept these kinds of invitations because I like my friends, and hanging out with them, and also coffee. I really like coffee. However, for people like me who have food allergies, eating out somewhere new can be stressful and uncertain. I do not have full Celiac disease (thankfully) but eating gluten does still make me very sick. Restaurant menus are a juggling act. Which entree can I order substituting this side dish and that ingredient to make it edible for me? Then, when the unsuspecting waiter comes to take my order, I pester them repeatedly. I double check that everything I want is gluten free, and that they will remember to make a note of it for the kitchen.
I’ve had to step up my game in England. While traveling we eat out a lot more often. This means new restaurants in new cities, sometimes new countries, where there are no safe foods I rely on as with a familiar menu. My traveling friends have been great, always willing to be flexible or track down a gluten-free menu for me. I really appreciate their help, but on a more introspective level I never realized how much I rely on the same small number of restaurants at home to avoid ordering something risky. In new countries where everything is different including the restaurant chains, I make the best of what I have.
Spain in particular was a gamble because of the language barrier. I know a smattering of Spanish, but not enough to be as well informed on food names and ingredient lists as I am in my native language. We were in touristy areas, so menus often had English versions of the dishes with descriptions underneath. The four or five odd words they translated to give customers a basic idea of the dish meant the plate put in front of me was never what I expected it to be. On my first night, I ordered something that was described as “boiled white fish” and ended up with said boiled white fish floating in a vegetable broth with some white kidney beans. Luckily I never had an allergic reaction, but I was a little surprised at the sight of my supper.
In England, even American brands are very different, and my ordinary safe food groups do not apply. Dairy, for example. For gluten-free people, it is a general rule of thumb that dairy and meat products are a safe bet. I tried to order a salmon and cream cheese sandwich today, and had to modify my order because the cream cheese contained gluten. In the United States, Doritos and many flavored potato chips are gluten free because their base is corn and potatoes. In England, I have found at total of two flavors of chips that I can eat. Sometimes I even forget, buying one of my old safe brands out of habit. In these cases, I end up "donating" some chips to a friend because I double check the ingredients label just in time!
Food has been a different kind of culture shock for me here. You might think that because of my allergies I would consider what people in another country eat before I signed up to stay there for three months. I refused to dwell on foods I might not be able to have because I knew how much I wanted to see England and beyond. I wasn’t about to let my uncertainly of something like that stop me. I haven’t gone hungry, I assure you, but I have also had to adjust in more ways that I would have imagined. In a way it’s fitting that even the safe foods from home aren’t safe anymore. Traveling is about sailing away from the safe harbor.
Coping with my food allergies abroad has been a good reminder that it is okay to stand up for myself. I think, especially for women, we make the effort not to cause extra problems just to make everyone else’s life easier. There have been many anxiety-provoking moments surrounding food for me while I have been traveling. It has also been a reminder to put myself first and do what is best for my health. In unfamiliar restaurants, I will never be able to just point at an item on a menu. There will always be questions and modifications, and that isn’t the end of the world.