Sarah Ressler is currently a senior at Amherst College majoring in Economics and Asian Languages & Civilizations (with a focus on Mandarin Chinese). Sarah studied abroad on the IFSA-Butler University of Edinburgh, Scotland program.
I am one of the captains of the women’s golf team here at Amherst and so was really enthused about the opportunity to study abroad at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. I was tested for and diagnosed with Celiac disease three years ago after returning from a summer abroad in China, where I experienced many symptoms. I was apprehensive about studying abroad again, because navigating a foreign country can be hard enough on its own, even without a dietary restriction. However, I was able to turn this limitation into a fun positive, and made it my mission to experience the gluten-free scene all over Europe.
Where to Study
1) Consider language barriers
I chose to study abroad in an English speaking country because I wanted to feel confident about knowing the ingredients in the food I was eating and wanted to feel safe in communicating my dietary needs when necessary. It was nice to see the words “gluten-free” on packages and know that I could eat things with absolute certainty.
If you speak a different language and want to study abroad in that country, make sure you learn all the important words (ie. Celiac, gluten, wheat, barley, etc.) that you will need in order to ensure food safety. This also applies to traveling to different countries. Always make sure you look up the translations for “celiac” before arriving in a new country. You never know where you will get wifi! So make sure everything is translated beforehand.
If you want to study abroad in a country where you don’t speak the language, this isn’t an absolute deal breaker by any means, but just know that there are risks that come with it. As I said above, make sure you learn the keywords right away and just proceed with caution, knowing you may hit a few bumps along the road.
2) Do your research on a given country’s diet but ALSO how Celiac-aware they are
Despite being a Chinese major, I chose not to study abroad in China knowing that they were a) not very good about accommodating dietary restrictions b) had a diet almost exclusively containing gluten. Again, this is not to say you can’t study in China with celiac’s disease, just that you will inevitably face larger obstacles.
Either way, you should make sure to be as thorough in your research as possible. For example, you may assume Italy is a no-go, but they actually are one of the most celiac aware countries in Europe. Thus, they often have gluten-free substitutes. When I traveled there, I got to eat pizza, pasta, calzones, and donuts. In that sense, it was actually better for me than most other countries visited.
Of course, if a country has a naturally gluten-free diet, that makes things easiest!
How to Navigate Traveling While Abroad
3) Before every trip, make sure you know how to say certain key words.
Check out Celiac Travel to get started.
4) Try and bring some snacks!
In my experience, I found that this comes in handy regardless of where you travel. This is good advice whether you have Celiac’s disease or not, but particularly if you do. There were some times where I would travel with friends and we’d be so hungry right as we got off the plane that they would just want to get food from the first place in sight. If that first place has no options for you, you may be out of luck.
5) Research what foods in a country are naturally gluten free
6) Research places that may have gluten-free substitutes
There’s a good chance you’re going to miss out on a lot of the foods your friends are trying. You’ll have to skip out on baguettes in Paris, churros in Spain, and pizza in Italy. But, don’t let this deter you. I was able to find gluten-free crepes in Paris, gluten-free Dutch pancakes in Amsterdam, gluten-free pizza/pasta in Italy, amazing gluten free bakeries in London and Madrid, etc.
In short, Google will be your best friend.
Celiac disease will be an obstacle to navigate abroad– just as it is at home– but if you do your research and plan ahead, you will be more than fine!