Traveling on My Stomach

palegg n. (Norwegian) Anything and everything you can put on a slice of bread.

Anyone knows me even slightly well knows that I love food.  That’s all there is to it.  I just really love food and I because of that, I’ve decided to dedicate a fairly short post to food and my own eating habits.   What does this have to do with travel, you ask?  A lot.  Food is an important part of any cultural experience (or so I tell myself every time I snap a clichéd picture of every semi-exotic thing I eat) and it’s also an important consideration for any traveler.  To really gain an understanding of what it means to travel, you have to have an understanding of all aspects of our lives, including food. 

Travel is not like a vacation, where you eat three square meals at fancy restaurants and get ice cream every time you see a booth (though my mother and I lived a bit like that when she was traveling with me).  In fact, I rarely ever eat out while I’m traveling and when I do it’s never anything fancier than a kebab stand.  It’s too expensive and it’s often very Americanized, non-genuine food.  If I want traditional food from a place, I look to the non-tourist centric areas; hole-in-the-wall diners, food stands that look they could very well be crawling with salmonella, outdoor food markets, and, most recently, locals with whom I stay.

 Cheese has also become a big way for me to experience something different in every country.  An important note: Cheese is my favorite food.  I do not say that phrase lightly.  When I say I could literally live on cheese, I’m not lying.  At home, my roommates have stopped being surprised when they walk through the door find my nibbling directly on an entire block of cheese.  The bottom drawer of my refrigerator is almost always crammed with several blocks and multiple bags of shredded cheese.  I’m pretty sure cheese is my true soul mate.  So being in Europe where the cheese is just as diverse and flavorful as the countries I visit is pure heaven.  I’ve tried it all, from smoked strings of Slovakian cheese to soft, melted French Brie.  Sure, I haven’t eaten the traditional foods famous in every country, but I have cheese tasted my way across Europe, and to me, that is more of an accomplishment.

I know that doesn’t exactly sound like a meal of champions, but believe when I say I try to eat healthy, and on an overall basis, I feel as though I actually do a pretty decent job.  I eat more fruits and veggies than many college kids.  I don’t drink soda unless there alcohol in it and I can simultaneously destroy my liver (two negatives make a positive, right)and even that’s rare.  But of course, when I sit and spoon ice cream directly out of the tub, make cookie dough never to actually bake cookies, and eat grilled cheese sandwiches for eight straight nights in a row (my record, by the way), I start to second guess my choices.  But at the same time, I consider food one of life’s simplest joys and thus don’t like to deprive myself of it simply to I feel healthy. Instead, I’ve gotten remarkably good at justifying my poor dietary choices. “Well this banana bread had bananas so that’s gotta count for my fruit servings for the day.”  “This cabbage in my burrito must be chalk full of nutrients.”  “I am a vegetarian, I need protein, and peanut butter is full of that and healthy fat”, I say as I scoop it directly from the jar with my finger in the middle of class.  You get the idea.  But even I need to sometimes remind myself that, “Because I want to eat this, dammit!” is also a perfectly valid reason to do so.

It helps that I have never been overly concerned with my body image.  I’ve never been pencil thin and I’m okay with it.  I buy jeans two sizes too big because I have muscular thighs and have to wear a belt with everything.  Plus I don’t feel the need to cram myself into pants with less bulk and stretch than the skin it covers.  I have a muscular built from years of doing sports and a continued athletic lifestyle, and muscular builds are not your typical definition of “skinny” by societal standards.  I also have a bit of a tummy that no amount of ab workouts will get rid of.  Trust me, I’ve tried.  While I’m self conscious of that, I’ve been working on getting over it…. slowly.  But I only really get self-conscious when I begin to feel unhealthy, when my muscles lose their tone, when my stomach jiggles just a bit more than normal.

Anyway, many of those poor eating habits don’t exist when I travel because I don’t have the luxury of making myself cookie dough, or having endless jars of peanut butter stashed in my cabinets.  I am limited in what I can eat on the road.  And rather than wasting money and eating out, I typically just buy food and just cook for myself.  For someone who loves food so much, I am remarkably unskilled at cooking it save for three things: all manner of burritos, gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches, and French toast.  The latter was the very first thing my mom taught me to cook outside Ramen noodles. I’ll never forget her standing over me, guiding my hand and teaching me how to beat the eggs, or when my dad told me he liked my French toast better than Mom’s even.  Whether he was just saying that to make me feel good is irrelevant.  I make damn good French toast.

I buy small amounts of groceries every place I go, sometimes carrying any leftovers with me on to my next destination.  Grocery shopping in foreign countries can be interesting to say the very least.  For one, grocery stores here in Europe are very small, markets more than anything.  I come from the land of capitalism and choice, where we are given a choice between forty different brands and types of pasta (from which I usually choose by determine which one gets me the most amount of food for my money- yes I am that person who pinches pennies when grocery shopping).  In Europe, I do not have that choice.  I have to take from the small selection offered and be happy with that.  Sometimes, I have no idea what I’m even buying considering I can’t read the labels, and I go purely based on pictures and a “well this will probably taste good” attitude.  Thankfully I will eat just about anything except meat.  Grocery shopping here can also be remarkably frustrating.  Sometimes, I have in mind something I want and I can never find it.  I just want a can of black beans to make myself a burrito, is that so much to ask for?!

But on top of the limited and often blind selection, I must also be mindful of the fact that I need to both get at least a passable balance of nutrients and buy things that don’t require much preparation.  It’s not like your average hostel has a crock pot for me to prepare stews and soups of myself.  In fact, some hostels have pathetic excuses for kitchens and I have, more than once, found myself struggling to even prepare the most basic meals (recall the boiled eggs in a water kettle incident back in Macedonia).  Over the weeks, I have put together a pretty stable list of things that I am usually able to prepare no matter what, my staple foods, if you will.  This list includes bread (whoever made up the saying “the best thing since sliced bread” had clearly never eaten loaves of non-sliced bread), tomatoes, avocados, onions (put the former four together and you have a healthy sandwich), eggs, cheese (duh), fresh fruit (whatever is in season at the local market, strange off brand jars of Nutella, peanuts, rice, and pasta (of which I always have a bag of in my pack just in case I have no other option for food when I get into a new city).

On top of that, I’ve become quite the skilled scavenger of free food at hostels, whether it be free pasta or the food left by travelers and placed on the “free” shelf in the fridge.  And of course, complimentary breakfasts are wonderful things on the rare occasion that they are provided.  Even though they are usually simple spreads of bread, jam, cheese, ham (which I can’t even eat), and muesli (granola oatmeal cereal), they are magical things and I can usually get away with not only stuffing myself at breakfast but also sneaking away some bread and spreads for lunches. 

Overall, however, my diet while on the road is anything but gourmet and while I try to fill the gaping holes in the food pyramid by eating vegetables every few weeks or so, I miss being able to cook for myself properly.  Even at Oxford, I didn’t have any of my own kitchen ware so I was limited on what I could do.  It’ll be so strange and glorious ot go home to my own kitchen (and coffee pot).  Even more, there are definitely certain American foods that I miss.  The number one thing I want to eat when I get back in the states?  Pancakes.  Good, old fashioned, fluffy American pancakes smothered in maple syrup.  I think a trip to Michael’s Diner for my favorite chocolate chip pancakes are in order the moment I get home (roommates be ready).  After that, I want the wonderful fast food Tex Mex restaurants of Chipotle and Taco Bell.  And of course, my American homecoming will not complete until I’ve sat down for breakfast with a bowl of Lucky Charms, some Poptarts, and an entire pot of coffee. T minus 17 days down.  Coffee and pancakes, here I come.