I may love weird foods now, but that wasn’t always the case. I had been studying abroad in Venice for about a week at nineteen when I began to feel sick to my stomach. Most likely, it was because I was cooking for myself in a foreign country for the first time, and I was unused to some of the foods and the new tastes and ingredients. I felt mostly sick after consuming meat, so I decided to switch to vegetarianism so I could feel good during my time abroad.
What followed was three years of vegetarianism/pescatarianism, in which I limited what I ate—even after I had returned home. Part of it was an animal rights statement, some of it was it was because I had grown used to that diet while abroad, but most of it was for the wrong reason. I was scared of gaining weight while abroad and I was dealing with body issues as my thighs, stomach, and overall view of myself morphed and changed.
I was tired, irritable, and changing my diet didn’t do much for either my weight or how I felt about how I looked. Even when I moved back to Italy, I still only consumed vegetables and I ate more like a vegan so when I returned home I could look the way I wanted to. And there was so much I was missing out on living in Italy and eating like a vegan! Although the fruits and vegetables there were amazing, I jealously watched my friends consume delicious Bolognese sauce or prosciutto. I knew I was missing out but I was too stubborn and too anxious about eating foods abroad that would make me hate myself when I returned back to the States.
I was also missing out on a cultural aspect of the place I was at and how important the food was to the people in Italy.
“You don’t eat meat?” my Italian friends would say in shock. “You are missing out on so much life!”
I didn’t want to admit it, but there were certain aspects of the Italian culture and attitudes that I was deliberately refusing to participate in. In a strange way, this made me feel even more like an outsider than I was already because I wasn’t willing to meet the culture and the cuisine half way. I was more upset with my own agenda than how I was interacting with others and this unique experience I was given.
It wasn’t until after I returned to Italy for the third time to live that I threw my hands up in the air and abandoned my idea of trying to be a vegetarian for the wrong reasons. I soon realized many of the joys I was missing. My body also desperately craved protein, and I felt happier, healthier, and less exhausted after I added a little meat to my diet. Which isn’t to say I wouldn’t go back to eating more like a vegetarian again—I love animals and it’s difficult for me to think about consuming them. Yet, I feel as though I would be missing something essential about each culture I visited if I refused some of the types of food. My experience living in Spain would be so different if I didn’t have jamon iberico—and I can’t imagine not having sushi in Japan.
Everyone needs to choose their own ideas of travel and what they want to accomplish while they do it. For me, I wanted so badly to feel as though I was part of a culture without consuming all of the traditional dishes, but I couldn’t. I still try and choose veggies when I can, but I don’t deny myself a cultural and healthy experience when it is important to my mental and physical well-being.
How has your diet changed when you travel or live abroad?