5 Things I Learned Studying Abroad as a Vegetarian

A couple days before leaving for my study abroad program, I was going through a list of things to do to make sure I was completely ready for my month in Europe. I double checked to make sure I had my passport, bought all my materials for class, and packed (and repacked) my suitcase. But there was still a lingering sense of anxiety, more than just the mixture of the excitement and nervousness that I anticipated. I was worried that as a vegetarian, I would be restricted in what I could eat, that my classmates would judge me, and that without the proper language skills, I wouldn’t be able to communicate with locals or ask questions at restaurants.

I had been a vegetarian for three years and knew that though this is hardly a problem in the United States, it would be much more of a limitation while traveling. “Maybe you’ll be one of the first people ever to lose weight while on a trip to Europe,” my mom joked and though I didn’t — no thanks to ridiculous amounts of bread and cheese — I did learn a lot. Here are few things I experienced as a vegetarian abroad, and some suggestions for how to approach dietary restrictions when traveling:

  1. Vegetarianism can be defined various ways in different cultures, so do your research.

A couple days before I went abroad I was on my computer, trying to do some last-minute research. Though I wouldn’t have to worry about the language barrier in Ireland, I wasn’t sure what to expect in both Spain and France so I was looking up common phrases I might need. Considering most of my interaction with locals would probably be at restaurants, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to check out food vocabulary. While looking at a page of French words, I noticed a side note under the term “végétarien” that warned readers to be careful when using the word, because it was open to different interpretations. Though in America a vegetarian is almost always defined as someone who doesn’t eat any meat, in France it can be someone who eats fish or even chicken.

While I was definitely surprised to read this, I’m glad I saw it before leaving so that I knew I couldn’t solely rely on the definition. In retrospect, I definitely placed more importance than necessary on my ability to tell servers of my dietary restrictions, but I’m glad that I at least had something to fall back on. Especially since the words “végétarien” and “vegetariano” are easy to memorize, unlike most food vocabulary I had to look up again and again. Either way, doing a little background research on the countries you will be visiting never hurts, especially if it can help you avoid ordering a “vegetarian” chicken dish.

2. Use it as an opportunity to work on your language and communication skills.

Though a lot of my classmates often ordered meals based on a couple words they recognized (or even completely randomly at times), I had to read menus much more carefully. Picking apart a description word by word was often tedious at best, but it gave me an opportunity to better learn the languages of the countries I was visiting. Not only did I have to be able to understand words for foods I did like, but I also had to memorize those I wanted to avoid. Thankfully, when you eat out twice or more a day, you pick up certain phrases and words pretty quickly. Google translate is also a huge help for individual words too if need be, though it probably isn’t the best resource for formulating complete sentences.

However, picking apart the menu was only one part of the process of eating out. The more complicated (and often embarrassing) task was communicating with waiters. While a lot more spoke English that I expected, I encountered more than a few blank stares when attempting to ask if certain meals were vegetarian. As someone who sometimes has a hard enough time ordering in restaurants at home, this was a little discouraging at first. But I tried not to let my anxiety of sounding stupid or being unable to pronounce certain words keep me from at least trying to communicate. I wanted to be both respectful and learn from my interactions, so I tried to avoid the typical “point to the item on the menu and mumble out a pronunciation” tactic that was often easier. Though attempting to speak the language is harder, I found it to be ultimately more rewarding.

3. Check out Lonely Planet or other travel guide books for vegetarian restaurants.

Though vegetarian or vegan restaurants are pretty common in the U.S., they may be much harder to track down while abroad. Thankfully, Lonely Planet and other guide books often recommend specialty restaurants in their food sections, or will at least note if a place they review has vegetarian options. This is a useful resource when you feel that your options are limited, or even if you just want something new after eating at traditional restaurants.

I, unfortunately, was never able to convince my classmates to try out the vegetarian places I found, but I still went to a couple restaurants for lunch or to grab a quick bite. Trying out the country’s typical cuisine is an important part of studying abroad, but sometimes that’s not a possibility when you’re a vegetarian, so it’s helpful to know of other options. I found this especially true when I was a few days into my time in Ireland and realized most of my meals had consisted of baked potatoes and Guinness. While I probably could have subsisted on carbs and beer for the rest of the time I was there, I was thankful for my guide book’s suggestion of a vegetarian café a couple blocks from where I was staying.

4. Try to be as adventurous with trying local food as you can.

When I was in Spain, there was a restaurant close to our hotel that specialized in serving “pulpo,” a unique dish that is essentially seasoned octopus. Most of my classmates tried it during the week we were there and some of them even came to enjoy it, along with a lot of dishes that I found pretty repulsive, like Foie Gras. Though I obviously wasn’t willing to eat octopus or duck liver, I strangely felt a little left out. After all, so much of the study abroad experience is trying new things, including weird food, and I didn’t want to be limited when it came to the culinary aspect of culture.

Though I certainly wasn’t able to keep up with my friends in terms of their adventurousness with food, I wanted to at least try a few new things. Inspired by their carefree attitudes, I tried when I could to avoid ordering the most simple and obviously meat-free items on the menu. I traded in boring salads and french fries for rose-flavored ice cream, goat cheese crepes, and whiskey chocolate. Sometimes it took a little more work translating or ended up being a little too strange, but it was worth it to feel fully immersed in the culture.

5. There will be times when you want nothing more than familiar food, and that’s okay.

As amazing as it is to be immersed in a completely new culture, with unfamiliar sights and unique food, it’s also normal to be homesick. Even my classmates, who had considerably more options than me, griped about wanting food from home. One of my friends told me the best meal she had on her study abroad trip the summer before was McDonald’s french fries after clubbing all night in London. At one point, we were all so desperate for junk food that we went into an American-themed food store, where a snack-size bag of goldfish crackers went for four euro and a box of Lucky Charm’s was about ten. Though very obviously overpriced, they were the best goldfish I’ve ever had, maybe just because they gave me a little piece of home.

After one too many meals of free bread and Sangria because I couldn’t eat anything on the menu, I definitely dreamed about how good some Pad Thai would be, or even just a regular grilled cheese sandwich. It’s easy to take for granted all the options we have here in America, and as a vegetarian it’s that much harder to find filling and healthy meals when traveling. But it’s all part of the process, and though there were difficult times, I feel grateful that I was able to work on my language skills, expand my culinary horizons, and enjoy baked tofu even that much more once I came home.