How to Study Abroad as a Coeliac: The Ultimate Guide
As every coeliac or gluten intolerant person knows, eating abroad can be stressful at the best of times. So when I was accepted into the YMCA Global Study’s summer program, ‘Health: A Common Good?’ I experienced excitement, euphoria and an undeniable sense of impending accomplishment. But then, as I danced around my room, imagining myself drinking wine while being wooed by as many French romantics as possible, the nerves fluttered up like butterflies in my stomach. I paused, thinking ‘but what will I eat?’
I began running through a list of all the French foods I knew in my head, then jumped on google to begin preparing for a potentially difficult situation. France is famous for its pastries and baguettes, so where did that leave me?
Needless to say, being coeliac didn’t stop me from travelling (and it shouldn’t hold you back either). Through my research, I discovered so many amazing resources designed to assist travelling coeliacs like myself. I joined the Facebook group Coeliacs Eat Abroad to learn from other’s experiences. I left Melbourne feeling prepared, spirits soaring high, with my Gluten-Free Restaurant Card, explaining my dietary needs in French by my side. I also learnt the French words for wheat (blé), rye (seigle) and barley (orge).
I arrived in Lille, France at the beginning of July, ready to rumble. And I’ll be honest, I had some difficulties throughout the trip. Ultimately, however, I received a whole ton of support from friends, YMCA Global Study and the European Summer Program, waiters and chefs.
So, to make things easier for you, fellow gluten warrior, I have summarised my experiences below, along with my top tips for beating the gluten grumble whilst studying abroad!
If you are studying abroad, and especially if you are on a short-term program, you will likely be provided accommodation. Whilst some schools offer a meal plan, others provide a self-contained unit where you can store and cook your own food.
In Lille, visiting the popular supermarket chain ‘Carrefour’ was a godsend, as they provide a wide range of gluten-free breads, pastas and more. It had more than any of the supermarkets I’d been to at home, and this made life pretty easy for most of the trip. And let’s also not forget about the cheese section- I’d never seen anything like it! Sign us up for a wheel a day, please. And if you’re lactose intolerant as well, have no fear- They had a wide range of lactose-free cheeses too.
I found that most restaurants had little knowledge of the coeliac diet, but all I visited made the effort of finding something safe for me to eat. So, while it took a bit of explaining (my Restaurant Card certainly came in handy here), ultimately most places helped me out. Sometimes I opted out of eating out because often the only option would be a rather overpriced salad, but that’s just coeliac life sometimes.
My biggest piece of advice when eating out in France is to do your research. Living in central Melbourne, the hipster hub of the world, gluten-free options are boundless, and research is rarely needed. But when going overseas, plan where you’ll eat. Call ahead and ask them about the menu. There are plenty of options, you just need to know where to look.
Not everyone who studies abroad has food provided for them, however, I was lucky enough to have all my lunches provided by the European Summer Program. At first, I found it difficult due to language barriers and cultural norms surrounding food, but by the end of it the staff and I had a great relationship and they even made me a couple of special gluten-free meals. They were always available to find something I could eat. All it took was a couple of conversations here and there, and we were golden.
So there you have it. All in all, it was a fantastic experience, where I made memories, lifelong friends and even learned a little French!
Words by Esther Shackleton – Esther is studying a Bachelor of Arts (Sociology) at Swinburne University and completed our Health a Common Good program
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