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Coeliac Travellers Deserve a Break

I was really pleased to see an article in The Sunday Times Travel section this week entitled 'Disabled Travellers Deserve a Break'. The basic principle resonates deeply as someone who has what I'll call a food & loo disability (for want of a better expression).

A 'safe' meal in Colombia!

The main problems highlighted in the article were:

  • Most people don't need what you need (& therefore you're not catered for, even if legally you ought to be);

  • Feeling like it's a "them and us" situation'; and

  • Not knowing many of the things that are available to us (possibly down to marketing).

It comes down to where we all started. Food was made for the people of its time. What we have historically consumed was made for people whose insides could tolerate gluten. The Victorians' staple diet was of bread. Apart from potatoes, there were very few starchy carbs to be had otherwise. And although there are many advances in cooking, staple foods remain the same for decades before anything changes. When I was little we had cereal and toast for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch and a dinner that usually contained gluten (fish fingers, macaroni cheese, pie etc...). 4 decades later, the typical British meal hasn't really changed, and it's the same in most other countries: there's an expectation food will contain gluten.

Catering for a coeliac on holiday therefore starts with an awkwardness that isn't shared by the masses.

To alleviate problems, I like to have 3 things:

  1. self-catering accommodation so I can prepare something myself if: (a) I don't trust the cafes and restaurants around me to cater safely; (b) I can prepare a packed lunch to take on a day out so I won't go hungry if there's nothing I can have; and (c) I'll feel less anxious as I won't be playing Russian Roulette with every meal, wondering if I've been glutened.

  2. Either a nearby loo if the worst happens (i.e. eating gluten & suffering the consequences) or at least a landscape where I can hide behind a bush with a pack of wet wipes and not worry a hundred tourists are going to round the corner with their Smartphones.

  3. A coeliac restaurant card in the language of the country I'm in (including England) to explain not only what I can and can't eat but why I can't have it (just in case someone thinks I'm being faddy and won't know there's gluten in the food if I'm not told).

If you're still thinking about number 2 (ha ha, an inappropriate pun if ever there was) and how I'm happy just to have a hedge, I'll admit that's stretching things a bit, but it comes from an experience I once had in Wales,

My brother and I had enjoyed a meal in the pub the night before where I'd asked for "a vodka and orange". To me, that meant vodka and orange juice. Fresh orange juice. 100% orange juice. Unbeknownst to me, however, they gave me vodka and orange barley water, which made me grimace when I drank it and I remember the bartender offering to "add more water", which confused me. Why would anyone add water to orange juice?

It wasn't until the next day when we were striding across some stunning Welsh fields that I realised I'd been glutened. With only one oak tree in the middle of some grass, there was nothing for it but to dash behind the trunk and hope no-one would emerge from a different direction. And twenty minutes afterwards, having realised the only way to get out of the situation was to keep walking, I had to nip behind a hedge. But I was so worried someone might see me, it didn't occur to me to look behind my behind and I managed to reverse my bare bottom into some stinging nettles. As if I wasn't in enough pain already!

I've had other experiences, of course. All have started with the familiar tightening of my jeans, swiftly followed by intense cramping and then an urgent dash with (and please look away now if you're eating) a bout of diarrhoea. These have included being on a rickety train leaving Bulgaria where the loo was 2 foot plates, being caught short on the London underground on a train that stopped between stations, and a mile-long queue for a solo portaloo at the Grand Canyon. There's been many a time where pride has prevented me from jumping the line, desperately hoping nature won't take its course until I make it to porcelain.

Now there are those who'd argue that a tummy upset on holiday is par for the course. My response to that is it's horribly unpleasant but it's usually nothing a box of Imodium, zero alcohol and 24 hours won't solve. The problem as a coeliac is you're then faced with the rest of the holiday in pain; the damage is done, and you've still got the problem of eating at the mercy of others' cooking, which is now infinitely worse for any anxiety issues you've previously managed to keep at bay.

But holidaying without suffering is possible and I've done it many times. The safest holidays have been in Spain, Australia, New York and Italy, but there have also been some excellent memories elsewhere, including Maderia and South Africa (that is, until I was glutened by some seasoning).

The best way I've found to research a place you'd like to go to is to ask other coeliacs. Look at coeliac travel bloggers, ask coeliac communities on Facebook about their experiences of going to (e.g.) France, and google "gluten-free restaurants in Paris" if you want to have a bank of places to go to beforehand that you know will be safe.

Comfortingly, the final part of The Sunday Times' article ends on a note I've been parroting for a while: that because of the pandemic, people may now think a little more about the barriers others face. Hearing people moan there were whole aisles of the supermarket where they couldn't get food, for example, is just one of the ways we as coeliacs can illustrate what life is like for us on a daily basis. Let's hope that, whether we're travelling or staying at home, our gluten-free lives will get easier.



Hi! Great to have you here...

My name's Ali and I help people on gluten-free diets have a better, easier and healthier lifestyle. 

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