By Chelsea Lachman
Traveling as a young adult is difficult in a few aspects: you have to contend with parents, money, affordability, plus going to a country that speaks a different language adds a whole level of complication to exploring. But no matter how difficult the normal travel scenario may seem, planning and adventuring forth with food sensitivities makes it much more problematic; but don’t be alarmed! It is possible, and will take some extra prep work.
Before I continue, let me give some background. I am from an immigrant Italian family and speak the wonderful language, so when I first told my nonna almost three years ago that I can no longer eat her spaghetti with ragu Bolognese because I cannot eat gluten anymore, she thought I was speaking a different language (and I said it all in Italian). To add insult to injury, not only am I gluten sensitive but I am lactose intolerant, which also developed around the same time as the gluten issue. Now this became quite the issue. Nonna was convinced I was doing it to lose weight, because no Italian in their right mind would pass up homemade raviolis and a piece of la torta di bietola (swiss chard pie), but alas, I was disrupting the norm.
Fast forward to Spring 2013, I stayed at my aunt’s house for two weeks in Italy with my boyfriend, and the first thing she did when we came walking into the apartment with our luggage was plop down two heaping bowls of pasta. How do you tell your aunt that you can no longer eat this without being rude? Slowly within those two weeks my gluten sensitivity ate away at my well-being and I left the country feeling sick.
Winter 2012-2013, my boyfriend, his sister, and I visited their family in Ireland, and I had a bit more success being gluten-free. Now mind you, the flours in Europe are prepared differently than those in the United States, so depending on how sensitive you are, a little bit will not completely ruin you, but after a while it will: it took me a week in Europe to feel the same way I do after one day of having gluten in the States. In Ireland, I fared better; choosing potatoes over bread, and steaks over pastas was much easier than in Italy.
As I struggled to get my gluten sensitivity under control, I found myself in New Orleans with a smart phone in October 2013. Siri did a lot of work for me: Siri, find me gluten free alligator. Although Café du Mond destroyed me for the lactose intolerance after an iced café au lait, I still made it through New Orleans without any gluten, and the success came from the prep work, asking the wait staff, and ordering smart.
When going anywhere outside your normal living area, check for restaurants before-hand to get a good idea of their menu; some places will even post online an allergen menu, which is very helpful. If you do not see an allergen menu, or notes on the regular indicating whether or not it is safe based on food allergy, don’t be afraid to call the place (if you aren’t going to be charged for it, as with foreign calls). If you cannot easily call, because you find yourself going to, say, Denmark and you don’t speak Danish, trust the power of the internet. Google “Gluten Free in Denmark” or similar catchphrases, because chances are someone else was wondering the same thing.
Despite the success of Googling catchphrases, the expense of choosing an accommodating restaurant for food allergies/sensitivities can be quite costly. To offset the costs, you may choose to go to a more local/cheaper alternative to eat. If that is the case, check out: http://www.celiactravel.com/cards/
They have cards written in many different languages to help you overcome the language barrier to communicate the gluten sensitivity. Also be sure to look up phrases to say: Non posso mangiare glutine/ sono senza glutine/Ich bin glutenfrei, etc. You don’t have to say it perfectly, but get the key words in and the wait staff will get your point.
Additionally, look for easy alternatives on the go. Breakfast foods in most European countries include a lot of gluten options, so grab some fruit that would keep you full, or go for a slightly non-traditional breakfast and add a little vegetables and meat if you’re worried about making it to lunch. Luckily, coffee and wine are gluten free, so feel free to drink up, but be careful with some beers because they typically include barley or some other form of gluten during the brewing process.
As I said, it isn’t impossible, but just difficult and requires some extra footwork. As I plan my next trip across Europe for late May, I am putting in quite a bit of effort to find accommodating and cost-effective places that offer gluten free. But I found the research even for domestic travel has made this whole process easier: check with the locals, eat some great local food, but don’t be afraid to ask for assistance, after all gluten sensitivity and other food allergies are becoming much more common and can be accommodated for.
Chelsea Lachman grew up in an immigrant Italian family and caught the travel bug at a young age. As a trained historian who specializes in the Middle Ages and food history, she loves to learn about cultures and languages, leading to her ability to speak fluently in Italian and be proficient in German, and can read both Latin and Spanish. When she isn’t looking at plane tickets and daydreaming of her next gluten-free adventure, she works as an expediter and translator for an Italian cosmetic company, is the martial arts and self-defense instructor of the YMCA’s in her area, and likes to lift obnoxiously heavy weights for fun.