Eating Vegan in Europe: Vegan on Vacation

When it takes 38 years to book a trip to Italy and France, you want to make sure the experience is worth the wait. I spent months researching how to travel, where to go, what to see and how to eat. I listened to words of wisdom, caution and advice from everyone who offered. The most notable recommendation came from my 14 year old son Zac, who traveled last summer: “Take your time and enjoy. It will change your life….Oh, and pick me up some Nutella”.

Now that I am home, a newly ‘seasoned’ traveler, I have much to share. But the most pressing issue I’ll address first is the challenge that everyone recommended I dismiss: eating vegan in Europe. Staying vegan on vacation was not complicated. I didn’t starve. some meals were better than others.

Isn’t that a common theme with everyone on the road?

So was I able to enjoy the Italian cuisine and French fare without caving to the temptation of the fragrant meats, pungent cheeses, and creamy sauces? Did I stay true to my beliefs even though I was “on a break” from my normal life?

The answer is simple.

Yes.

It wasn’t nearly as difficult as I imagined, as I had some great tools. Just like in America, when you dine in a nice restaurant, with a real chef in the kitchen, they are happy to make accommodations for special diets. I learned to say, “Hello, I am a strict vegetarian. I eat no meat, cheese or milk. Please can you recommend a dish, or can the chef make something with vegetables and pasta?” in both Italian and French. I also had an app on my iPhone called iTranslate, which allowed me to type in further questions on specific dishes that the server could just read, and even answer back as necessary. Surprisingly, though, most people speak a little English. If you are respectful and begin the conversation in their language, they will quickly invite you to speak English.

The Happy Cow is an app that pinpoints your location and then shows surrounding options of vegan and vegan-friendly restaurants, cafes and markets. I spent a LOT of time before we left identifying vegan restaurants in each city we planned to visit. But when we got there, it wasn’t as easy as I thought to find them. We had so much that we wanted to do, and after 4 hours in the Uffizi museum in Florence, or a longer-than-expected bus ride back from Tuscany, staying vegan on vacation in a foreign country is daunting. As my husband will confirm, I get kinda bitchy when I’m hungry, and my ambitious plans turn to tears rather quickly.

Hands down, my best food experiences were the vegan or vegan-friendly restaurants that we sought out on Happy Cow and coordinated with our excursions. I could order anything on the menu, and I had the pleasure of tasting authentic regional flavors. I was so thankful for the food and ordered so much that I was asked several times, “Is this all for you?”

Yep! Bring it, per favore.

But eating out 2-3 meals a day, (next time I’m booking a place with kitchen facilities so I can buy the fresh produce in the corner markets and cook for myself!) I usually had limited options, even at the nicer restaurants. I ate a lot of plain spaghetti. I even had it for breakfast once.

In one of our early Italian experiences, the English speaking waitress told us that the pesto doesn’t usually have Parmesan cheese in it, so it was safe to order as a vegan. Excitedly, I tried this at our next meal only to discover when I was almost done, that this restaurant does include it. But I didn’t spontaneously combust or throw a fit. I just ordered another glass of wine and learned my lesson.

I’ve decided the Italians could use some advice on the art of preparing vegetables. The vegan-friendly appetizer was always grilled vegetables, and typically included only eggplant, zucchini and red pepper. And they were DRENCHED in oil, with little or no seasoning. We obnoxiously added pepper to everything, as it seems that spices are reserved for the meats. Then, they serve the salad after the meal. The first time this happened, I was excited to experience the custom. But in the end, I just disagree. Salads are full of fiber, and take the edge off of hunger so that the heavy pasta dish can be enjoyed slowly and in moderation. If I eat pasta on an empty stomach, (while drinking wine of course), I need a nap before I can pay the bill. So, thereafter, I identified myself as a “strict vegetarian”, and included instructions to bring the salad first. Per favore and Grazie.

But about a week and a half into our trip, I began to get really bored with the oily vegetables and simple spaghetti that is not the taste of Italy I so desired. So, on a treacherous hike up a mountain overlooking the sea in Chinque Terre, I began thinking about eating some fish. Why fish and not cheese? I don’t know. But I had a lot of time to think, and I was hungry, dehydrated and tired. And by the end of the hike, I had made a decision.

For the sake of the readers of this blog (that’s you, my friend!), I would prove that there is no award to be earned by being perfect. Unselfishly, I, Colleen Towner, vegan-extrordinaire, would order seafood pasta. And then I would eat it. After all, we were so blessed to be taking the perfect vacation, one that many people never get the opportunity to experience. Logically, I would be a complete asshole if I was also the perfect vegan on aforementioned perfect vacation, right?

I didn’t tell my husband of my resolution. Instead, I got all dressed up in the Italian sundress I purchased in a sea-side boutique and told him he could choose the restaurant. No worries on my restrictions. Whatever he wanted. (Though he eats mostly vegan at home, he was enjoying the cheeses and fish without guilt or explanation.)

As we strolled down the cobblestone sea-front street, passing restaurant after restaurant of people eating beautiful food on outdoor terraces as the waves crashed in the setting sun, I was salivating as I glanced at each plate, already tasting the flavors of grilled salmon, broiled mussels and delicate, flaky white fish. Oh, I was going to break the rules and love it.

I saw the exact dish I desired as we passed a small place with yellow table clothes, and the only translation I intended to use was, “I’ll have what she’s having”. But my husband took one look and said that he had something else in mind. He had noticed a restaurant earlier that had great looking pizza and wanted to “take me” there.

Oh. My. God.

I put up a mild argument as I longingly watched the woman eating the food that I so desired to taste (for the sake of my readers, of course), but in the end, I consented to follow him to his choice. Of course, I began to pout, but he was so excited for the pizza that he didn’t notice.

I certainly wasn’t going to swan dive off the my vegan high-horse by eating a lowly pizza, so when the waiter came, I stuck with my “strict vegetarian” spiel, if only to prove to my husband that while I can be flexible, I can also be difficult. (Though I suspect he already knows that.)

And though I had a bad attitude, the karma Gods forgave my silliness. The waiter (also the owner, as is often the case) lit up at my request, saying that he knew “just the dish’ that I would love. A bit later, I was served “Pasta alla Norma”, which was not on the menu, but a classic dish common in Sicily that he felt I would enjoy. My mood improved dramatically, as it was absolutely delicious.

But I was still annoyed. As my husband enjoyed his pizza, he was completely unaware of the drama taking place in my head. Because he’s a dude. I’m willing to bet this is the case more often than I realize.

So the next day, on the train ride to France, I took some time to reflect on whether or not I should try again to eat something that I normally wouldn’t. Honestly, I consider myself a rule-breaker at heart, and I’m not sure if my strict vegan diet is because I’m so morally convinced it is the right thing to do or if I am just stubborn. Probably, the truth is both. And when one reason fails me, the alter-ego kicks in, and I’m still vegan in Europe AND vegan on vacation despite my bipolar mood swings.

But after a lot of soul-searching, I decided I would stay faithful to my heart-felt values and remain vegan in Europe. And here is why:

My family and friends have supported me over the last few years, going out of their way to make sure I’ve got something to eat. I have been a no-compromise pain-in-the-ass, ultimately inconveniencing everyone I know. Of course, I have also been a positive influence, and it’s been very rewarding to see others make changes as they listen and understand the issues that create my passion.

My husband is willing to walk an extra mile (or more) to make sure we go to a restaurant that I can order in. My mom researches recipes and always creates beautiful vegan food when we eat together. My carnivore-for-life father googled “vegan ice cream”, and found the ingredients to make it for my family. My sister makes sure that there are vegan versions of everything she serves. Friends and even acquaintances who invite us to dinner always make sure there is food that I can eat. Restaurants we frequent recognize the “vegan” and offer to make unique entrees with ingredients they have available.

If I had gotten my choice of restaurant that evening and ordered the seafood pasta, then the next night, as we chose where to eat, my vegan status would have (rightfully so) been called into question. And in the future, when finding food that I can eat becomes inconvenient, the memory of “when in Rome, eat like the Romans” would have made it more difficult to object to “when in the United States, eat like an American”.

I’m an American. I’m vegan. It’s not always easy. I appreciate to the depths of my soul the efforts those around me go to to respect my beliefs, and I’m glad my decision to eat seafood was thwarted by the vegan karma gods. Ironically, it also makes me more tolerant of those who feel hunting and eating meat is an important part of who they are. We met a couple on the train from Alberta, Canada. He holds the world record for shooting the largest elk on record. If we ever visit, I promised to admire the mounted head in his cabin. He promised to serve me a proper vegan spread.

I am not perfect. I definitely drank too much wine and even smoked a cigarette that a fellow diner offered me (I didn’t want to be rude!). It made me queasy, but I felt very stylish at the time, as everyone smokes over there. (At several places, our waiters were smoking while they worked!) However, I was sick to my stomach the next day, so that was the last time I used the “When in Rome…” justification. 

In conclusion, traveling is an awesome way to see life from a different perspective. Our culture and my way of life is one of many. I don’t think that of all the life paths to chose from, there is only one right way to live. I believe that heaven is at the top of the mountain, and there are many trails that lead up, as long as you are willing to climb.  And if I would have eaten the seafood pasta, or indulged in some cheese, the world would still turn and life would go on, and I would still be a vegan. But I’m glad I had a chance to think about it. And I’m happy with the decision I made.

And I’m glad to be home.

Eating vegan in Europe was as simple and complicated as it is here. And the truth is this: if you are vegan at home, you are vegan on vacation.