By College Tourist -- Author -- Jaclyn Schwartz -- University of Illinois.
When people think of Belgium, the first things that usually come to mind are beer and waffles. Unfortunately, my gluten allergy prevents me from enjoying these Belgian specialties. I am currently studying abroad in Leuven, Belgium and I love it but don't get me wrong, being allergic to most Belgian foods is not easy. Although having a food allergy is a struggle, do not be discouraged to study abroad! There are ways to make the most of your study abroad experience while avoiding gluten.
Do research ahead of time.
Before I came to Belgium, I researched what grocery stores sold gluten-free products which was very helpful. I discovered a grocery store, Delhaize, has gluten free bread and other products. At Delhaize, I found a gluten-free section, but products were mislabeled, so I ended up buying products with gluten. Always double check labels! I later realized that Belgium doesn't always use the word "gluten" but sometimes uses the Dutch word "tarwe," meaning flour. Learn all the foods with gluten in the native language of your country to make grocery shopping easier. If you are traveling to other countries, research the country's famous dishes to find something you can eat. (Ireland, London and Spain are great for gluten free options.)
Food markets are a great and delicious options for gluten free. Some of my best meals abroad were from food markets.
Always come prepared.
Since Belgium is centrally located in Europe, I travelled to other European countries on the weekends. Before every trip, I would load up my backpacks with gluten-free bread, peanut butter, trail mix, fruits, etc. so I would always have food in case there were no gluten free options. If you don't have room in your luggage, go to a grocery store after you arrive to stock up on food. This also saves money from eating out. In Paris, the majority of my meals were peanut butter sandwiches and microwaved scrambled eggs since I couldn't enjoy the croissants, bread, crepes, etc. If you're going out with friends for dinner, look up the restaurant menu beforehand. If they do not have any options, bring a sandwich or fruit with you. There have been multiple times where I can't order anything and eat my own food at restaurants. It beats getting ill. Instead of restaurants, try food markets. I always finding the most gluten-free options at food markets plus the food is so fresh. Some of my best meals abroad were from food markets.
My first few weeks in Leuven, I always saw students eating Belgian waffles, speculoos, and drinking beer which made me feel left out. I felt like I was missing a huge part of cultural experience by not trying all the local foods. I occasionally tried cakes, croissants, waffles, beer, etc. My taste buds were in heaven, but my stomach was in hell. I would take gluten digestive pills to help, but I still suffered with painful symptoms. My fear of missing out caused me to be bloated every day and even lose some of my hair. I had to cut my hair a few inches because it looked so thin. The fear of missing out is not worth jeopardizing your health. There are plenty of activities and things to do to feel like a local that do not involve gluten.
Have an open mind.
Yes, having a gluten allergy abroad is challenging but studying abroad has still been one of the best experiences of my life. I can't drink beer with my friends, but I can have wine or gin or cider instead. There are always alternatives. In Amsterdam, my friends wanted to go to the Heineken Brewery and I was hesitant at first, but it ended up being one of my favorite experiences in Amsterdam because of all the things and activities Heineken had to offer. (I learned how to properly pour beer!) I try not to focus on the things I can't have, but focus on all the experiences I have had and how I've grown from this experience. That is more memorable to me than a Stella.
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