Some countries don’t get vegetarianism: how to cope as a veggie abroad
If you’re looking to make the change to a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, there is no shortage of helpful advice out there to guide you as you take those difficult first steps: ‘take things slowly; make it easy on yourself; set realistic goals; provide the right environment for success, etc. etc.’
However, I’ve clearly never been much of a one for realism, let alone making things easy, or I’d never have moved to a foreign country in 2004 without speaking a word (well, very few) of the language and having no job lined up. This obviously wasn’t enough of a challenge so I decided to finally stop ignoring my conscience and go vegetarian.
So here I was in a country where vegetables tend to be viewed as little more than a garnish to the meat dish and whose regard for animal welfare is notoriously not always high on the agenda (bull burning festival anyone?). In Spain, anyone choosing to forego the pleasures of a good jamón is to be pitied as they have clearly been born with some terrible taste bud defect, are unable to enjoy food and live a colourless, joyless life. I found myself attempting to convey complex concepts like “I find the level of cruelty inherent in the meat industry intolerable. Would you perchance have anything on the menu that was not once a sentient being?” Somewhat ambitious since the best I could manage back then was “Me no eat that. Me no eat that either. Or that, that or those. You no have anything me can eat?”
Many a poor camarero’s brow was furrowed I can tell you. I’m sure that in one particular bar on dark winter nights they still gather round the fire and scare the children with the tale of the girl who sent back a salad three times. First she wanted it without the ham, then she sent back the tuna version they had thoughtfully substituted for the ham, and finally she demanded another salad entirely when she realised they had just picked the ham and tuna off and served it up again. Just no pleasing some people!
So how did it go? Did I stick to my meat-free guns or fold in the face of rampant carnism?
After I’d been living in Spain for a few months my communication skills had improved vastly. I was no longer limited to utterances like ‘me Vegetarian, you Jane’ but was capable of sophisticated phrases such as ‘me Lacto-ovo Vegetarian, nice to meet you Jane’. However, I was beginning to realise the real problem lay elsewhere…
Finding anything on a Spanish menu that isn’t animal-derived is like a particularly fiendish Where’s Wally. Even the occasional vegetable stew is likely to conceal a pig’s foot in its depths (“but it’s only for the flavour”). “Leaving your food comfort zone will take you on a voyage of discovery of new cuisines” advises the Vegan Society. Well my Armada ran aground pretty damn quickly on Spanish shores I can tell you.
Another, greater obstacle is the flat refusal of most Spanish people to accept that it is actually possible to stay alive without ingesting coronary-inducing levels of protein on a daily basis. When I walked the Camino de Santiago my first summer in, some people in the villages actually pinched my thighs to see if my muscles were wasted when I told them I didn’t eat meat. Several were surprised I was even capable of walking 20km a day without collapsing into an undernourished heap. Needless to say, the protein myth is particularly strong south of the Pyrenees.
Finally there’s a lot of confusion here about what being animal-free actually means. I’d never heard so many variations on ‘vegetarian’ in my life. Here I can’t refrain from grumbling that certain people going around calling themselves vegetarians but actually eating fish (‘because it’s easier’) does nothing to help the Spanish get the clear picture. At this point the true vegans reading this will be thinking of chick mincers and about to call me out on my egg-eating hypocrisy, but give me a chance…
Despite my moaning (or maybe partly because of it) the outlook for veggies (the people, not the food) in cosmopolitan Barcelona, where I have been fortunate enough to live these past 10 years, has improved no end. What with all my negativity earlier you might be forgiven for thinking I’d never stick it out. But you’d be wrong; not only have I celebrated a decade of vegetarianism (with grumble garnish), I’m now about to take it one step further by going vegan. Look out for me causing even greater confusion in the eateries of my adopted home soon. I must be a glutton for soy-based punishment.
I must admit to being a little bit nervous. Although sheer stubbornness has got me through the last decade, turning down that staple of the Iberian diet, the tortilla, is tantamount to treason here.
So how do you survive as a vegetarian/vegan in Spain or any other meat-heavy country? From experience my top tips would be:
- Be patient and keep your temper – while it can feel like Groundhog Day every time you go out to eat, it’s not the waiter’s fault you’re the first alien life form they’ve ever met.
- Gently educate, don’t lecture – you’re more likely to win hearts and minds if you can explain your choices without being patronising. It might feel like banging your head against a brick wall but trust me, the message is slowly getting through.
- Seek out the best veggie places in town so you can treat yourself now and again to a satisfying meal out. For Barcelona, check out the Happy Cow guide.
- Plan ahead – you’ll find it hard to duck into the average bar for a quick bite so carrying healthy snacks means you won’t have to choose between compromising your principles or going hungry.
- Ditto making your own tasty animal-free recipes at home and taking it to work so you’ll never have to brave the office canteen.
- If everyday stores in your adopted country offer little in the way of animal-free alternatives, Asian supermarkets and similar can be a good resource.
And last but not least,
- Keep a sense of humour. Having a few friends in the same boat to let off steam with doesn’t hurt either.
If you’re just embarking on your own animal-free voyage of discovery, ¡mucha suerte! If I can do it so can you.
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1smallholdingsister August 9th, 2015
I went to a fabulous veggie restaurant in Madrid, L’Estragon.
Feel your pain though, at a wedding at L’institute du Monde Arabe the veggie option was a mountain of steamed vegetables, smothered in chicken gravy.
2Kate Williams October 16th, 2015
Thanks smallholdingsister. I have been to several weddings in Spain with less than mouthwatering veggie catering. Top (or bottom) of the list was one where we got served liquid hummus and grilled vegetables with no dressing. Then they gave us a sliver of desert while everyone else got huge helpings. I think here they believe that we don’t care about what we eat because, if you don’t like meat, you don’t like food.