For a college student, a semester abroad is one of the most exciting and terrifying opportunities of an educational experience. Are you willing to leave the place you’ve finally made into your stomping grounds? Willing to go to a place where the people don’t speak English or have some rather culture shock heavy habits? (i.e. Hygiene. Hot damn.)
This spring semester, I have left chilly Lancaster, Pennsylvania and taken off to Aix-en-Provence, a small city in the Provencal region of Southern France. The cobblestones are tricky, the people are warm and the only thing I can say about the food is “mon dieux.” (So you don’t have to Google Translate: “Oh My God”)
Having only taken three semesters of French, I was already slightly nervous about how this experience would go down. But I had an even bigger worry—an anxiety that is plaguing more and more people in this day and age: being gluten free in a country revered for its mouthwatering baked goods.
As my friend sits beside me eating what may be the greatest smelling tomate et chèvre quiche known to man, I have decided to gift my fellow GF friends with some key pointers on how to make the most of eating abroad on dietary restrictions.
1. Memorize key phrases and words
From firsthand experience, this tip has already saved me about 600 times since arriving to France. My ability to say “je suis allergique à farine de blé” has quickly become the most blessed phrase in my repertoire.
Know how to say “I am allergic to…” in the language of your new country, and then memorize the words for what exactly it is you can’t eat. This will save you an average of 10 minutes per purchased food ingredient list you read and earn you major kudos from locals who won’t have to blankly stare at you when you try to explain being gluten free.
2. Be cautious, but don’t be afraid
Yes, being gluten free and oceans away from every Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods that understands what that means is terrifying. And the idea that what you’re eating may make you feel way less than peachy in a few hours is also not so wonderful.
However, this does NOT mean you should subject yourself to missing out on the abroad dining experience. You’ve ventured into a new culture filled with the spices and flavors of the region, where every meal is cherished for its taste and aroma. Be willing to venture beyond a garden salad with oil and vinegar. Every bite will be worth it, I promise.
3. Venture into the markets
Even if you are not gluten free, be sure to adventure into the open air marketplaces of your region. Here in Aix, there is a plentiful farmer’s market three times a week just a few blocks away from my school.
The food you find there is unlike any I have experienced. You won’t find food as fresh or wholesomely delicious anywhere else. The other day, a kind old woman split open a clementine for me, and I’m positive that’s what sunshine tastes like.
Apart from the bread, almost all of what is sold is naturally gluten free (emphasis on the natural). Not only will you save money, something that anyone converting from dollars to euros wants to do, but your body will love you for your purge of processed foods.
4. Pack a lunch or find “your spot”
Buy yourself a cute little lunchbox, reuse a shopping bag or borrow your host-mom’s tupperware (shout out to mine for that last one). If you don’t often have open-air markets like the one I mentioned above, adventure around the nearest supermarket and buy some of your favorite ingredients.
Packing lunches allows you to know exactly what is going into your food and saves you money since you’re not always buying lunch. If packing lunch isn’t a possibility, find a place that just calls out to you. One of mine is called Bio-langerie.
In addition to delectable salads that switch up daily, they make their own fresh-baked gluten free bread every morning and sell it by the loaf. Keep your eyes open and you’ll find a list of favorite, gluten free friendly spots as well.
5. Revel in what’s gluten free
Newsflash my pretty GF darlings: people will tell you that all delicious things must contain gluten. Do not listen. I repeat: Do. Not. Listen. There are so many delicious things out there void of ingredients that make gluten intolerant individuals ill.
Par example: so you eat only the meringue on lemon-meringue pies? Well, don’t worry, because French bakeries make homemade meringue cookies that are gooey on the inside, crisped to perfection on the outside and the size of your head. Delicious and entirely gluten free.
6. Allergies are everywhere
What many people who don’t have food allergies don’t seem to understand is the awkwardness that comes along with saying, “I’m sorry, I can’t” when offered something to eat. But when situations like that arise, don’t feel embarrassed.
Allergies exist everywhere to just about anything, and each day gluten allergies are becoming more common. So embrace who you are. Admit that no, you can’t drink from the pitcher of beer your friends are filling up their pint from; and no, you won’t have a piece of their baguette.
But that’s okay, because while you’re sipping on some divine French wine, all you need to do is smile and enjoy all the gluten free fun your semester holds.
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