Amazing Travels - Despite Food Allergy Fears and Frustrations

One of my central goals is to motivate clients to push through challenges and learn to live, work, love and play despite them.  Often, this doesn’t involve fixing a problem, but rather living fully in spite of it!

In 2008 my family’s passion for travel was threatened. My husband and I had travelled with our babies, since 1995, every opportunity we had - domestically and internationally. But when our youngest had an anaphylactic episode in Istanbul, Turkey, at only 18 months old, we almost lost our gumption to continue our family pastime. Eager to not succumb to the limitations fear imposes, I read voraciously about travelling with food allergies and learned how to always be as prepared as possible for an emergency.

I planned my trips based on different priorities and with a pragmatic lens. By way of example, my journeys can and do involve air travel, but I typically avoid islands where there are limited medical facilities.  I like to rent homes or apartments, rather than hotels, so I may cook in a meal or two. Knowing “best practices” and “industry culture” is important to me. It’s not enough to just carry plenty of medicine, medical documentation, snacks for flights, wipes and other products (i.e. seat covers) to avoid cross contact. I try to stay current on airline culture (how much, when and to whom to discuss food allergies when travelling) and I try to select my destinations carefully, based on more than just my travel interests. I need to consider cooking practices and related allergen risk (hard to avoid hazelnuts in Turkey), communication (finding English speakers in Hungary was harder than Denmark) and general food safety practices (food labeling and laws, kitchen safety, etc…)

This is the story of one recent journey to Western and Central Europe, which highlights my belief that being as informed, prepared and empowered as possible facilitates an easier, relaxing and more enjoyable journey. The experiences described can be relevant if your destination is global or right at home in the U.S.A.

We travelled to Denmark, Hungary and Poland and for the most part were staying in major cities. I knew that language and local cuisine would pose additional challenges on this trip. For instance, Danish specialities rely on eggs or mayonnaise (think Smørrebrød with Hønsesalat, traditional dark bread with a chicken salad spread on top), and when in Hungary or Poland, one can’t always be assured a server with skilled English or schooled in food allergy protocols. At home or abroad, servers don't always know that mayonnaise is made with eggs or what cross-contact is and how to avoid it.  My research and planning led me to use food allergy translation /travel emergency cards and translation apps to make sure communication wasn't a barrier. Every year the market expands with more effective and helpful technology and I love working with clients to help them select the right cards or app for their needs. 

When we get to a destination, we start our trip at the supermarket. We like to stock up on safe foods and snacks for our child with food allergies.  In Copenhagen most people speak English splendidly so we simply asked folks to help us out when reading labels. Using the translated allergy cards, ensured our helpers understood how important their support was. In Hungary and Poland, finding English speakers isn’t as easy, but everyone is eager to be helpful. Tapping the under 30 crowd improves one's chances for bilingual support. My oldest child, a young adult herself, found an app for us that used the phone’s camera to literally read an ingredient list in another language and then translate it to English. These products and methods aren’t perfect, but they help. In my travel experiences, I have also found pharmacies that sell some food products, especially those specializing in health food products, to be fantastically helpful. Typically the pharmacist speaks English and sometimes the products there are produced with  labels in 4 - 7 languages, including English!!!  

Our most cherished travel experiences center around authentic cuisine! So when in Hungary, eat Langos (fried dough prepared with all kinds of ingredients), Palacsinta (crepes) or Gulyas (goulash)! Right? Well not necessarily if you or a loved one are allergic to gluten, eggs or milk. It takes determination, resourcefulness and sadly, a more flexible budget, to still eat authentically. On an early evening walk through Budapest’s District VII, the Jewish Quarter, exploring the neighborhood’s architecture, history and ruin pubs, we peeked into restaurants and asked for menus. We were determined to have an authentic, yet safe local meal. Restaurant staff tended to be more available and willing to answer questions before the busy dinner hour. This neighborhood had dozens of grungy old buildings that had been creatively renovated to maintain their bohemian charm while creating a chic dining experience. Our fourth or fifth stop was at a restaurant that looked like a bookstore. Konyvbar  (Dob utca 45, Budapest, VII) loosely translated to Book Bar, was a tastefully decorated restaurant with wall to wall bookshelves, an inviting fireplace and very bilingual wait staff!  They not only had various offerings that my entire family could eat, but they were also willing to customize whatever we needed. The restaurant’s literary themed menu offered diners an intellectual and linguistic spin on the experience, making it all the more fun. Our theme was Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho so we aptly chose from drinks such as blood orange sangria and martini madness and ate narcotic red pepper cream soup with murderous chicken and butcher’s sirloin.

Some cuisines don’t always lend themselves to customization, even when on a flexible budget. While we did delight in pierogi at a wonderful little restaurant called Pierozki u Vincenta, a Van Gogh-themed small restaurant serving meat, vegetable and fruit pierogi (ul. Juliusza Lea 114, Krakow), our other evenings in Krakow, we struggled to readily find what we needed.  We couldn’t find allergen-free recipes or wait staff that could answer our questions. Feeling frustrated, our kids suggested we try an international cuisine, one we knew well enough to “vet” on our own - and our hunger and frustration tolerance led us to acquiesce! While this definitely challenged our traditional methods of experiencing a foreign destination and its culture, we discovered a tiny little Sushi restaurant in the heart of the Kazimierz district in Krakow, called Youmiko Sushi (Józefa 2, 33-332 Kraków.)

Youmiko Sushi, which had approximately 3 four-top tables and a sushi counter service area for 7 - 8 people ranked in the top 10 on typical travel rating sites.  Unless you came off hours, you simply couldn’t get in without a reservation. We realized that if we came early, we could sit at the bar and watch our chef prepare our food. Our sushi chef’s English was very good and he followed our instructions fabulously… we were confident as we were able to sip sake, admire his culinary artistry and at the same time, make sure all knives and surfaces were wiped clean! And I must say that this sushi was some of the best and most beautifully presented we have ever had in all our domestic and international travels. In our 4 days in Krakow, we ate there twice, each time reserving the highly coveted bar stools to have the best food safety view in town! Most larger cities now have an assortment of international restaurants. Finding those that typically suit your family's eating needs is often a nice way to improve the odds that you will have a relaxing, if not culturally local-authentic, meal.

Over the course of our 18 day trip, things didn't always go so smoothly. At least 4 - 5 times in Hungary and Poland, we sat in restaurants, read menus and in the ordering process realized we needed to leave. We quickly learned to NOT order drinks until we got through the food allergy Q & A. This is where worry sat like heavy clouds around our heads. The waiter says, "I don't THINK there's mayonnaise in the sauce," or tells you not to worry because the chef RARELY puts nuts on salads. "No, I don't think he is cooking with them tonight." This is about when someone in my family gets a gut feeling, an intuitive reading that measures the reliability of what we are being told by our servers and the weight of those worry clouds. When either reaches a certain level, we just exit! Leaving a restaurant is frustrating - and often leaves you annoyed and hungry, but ultimately reflects you at your most EMPOWERED!  We trust ourselves first and foremost and listen to our inner voice at all times!

It’s also important to plan for your own pleasures. Our youngest is the one with food allergies. On our European adventures before she was born, we typically ended each evening with a treat. In Italy, for instance, we never went a day without one or two scoops of gelato - our family nightcap. It was a cherished tradition. As a family of five, we now need to plan a little differently to create our own new traditions. For food treats, we take advantage of renting space with fully stocked kitchens so we can make our own sorbet and freeze it for when we get home from dinner. And we have also taken on new non-food rituals. One of our favorites has been listening to books together on tape. The first few Harry Potter novels created beautiful shared moments on recent trips introducing our baby to my older kids’ most cherished books!

We also scheduled separate time with our older children so that they could have culinary experiences without feeling badly under the sad, jealous and sometimes even worried eyes of their sister. Taking time separately, giving space for the other children to enjoy a meal or two without our typical food allergy inquiry regimen, built more tolerance for the frustrations we often experienced when together. This commonly occurs as a matter of course for families with children of different ages. This trip, for instance, we separated to experience the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, the former Nazi concentration and extermination camp.  Nothing really prepares you for the emotional impact of witnessing man’s inhumanity to man, and our littlest wasn't ready for it.  I had read that quiet and space for reflection are needed to sort through the grief, terror, anger and many other emotions that seize you on this visit prior to transitioning back to the the hustle and bustle of touristy Krakow.

We planned therefore an entire special day long outing for our youngest to give the rest of the family time to visit the camp and to transition back at their own pace, peacefully.  My husband and I split the visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau over two days, each planning an age appropriate outing for our child with food allergies on the other. He brought her to Wawel Castle, a handsome castle perched on a hill with splendid views of Krakow, towers with dungeons, a dragon’s den, and beautiful gardens.  On my day, I planned a low tourist day, with interesting local child friendly experiences. With over 450 shows per year, children of all ages would enjoy a visit to Krakow’s famous Groteska Theater, for a puppet show. While they are typically in Polish, they are so visual that all theatergoers can enjoy the experience. There were no shows on our day together, so we chose to visit a local hangout for young families in the heart of Krakow, called Kocia Kawiarnia Kociarna, the Cat CAFE on ul. Krowoderska, just a short walk outside the pedestrian part of town. Upon entering the cafe, you order from baristas as you would expect in any good cafe with  personalized drinks, pastries and smoothies. After ordering, you are given a hand painted wooden miniature cat, which connects your party to your food and drink order and you are invited to pass into the cafe’s seating area through a special door, which separates the food preparation area form the seating zones for customers and cats - of the feline sort!!! You are asked to not pick up the cats and to only pet and indeed cuddle with them should they ask it of you. There is an additional room in the back with a loft that you can actually climb up onto, but reservations are required. We sat in the main room, patiently, eagerly hoping a cat would choose us for play! The baristas spoke English well and understood my daughter’s food allergies. They washed a blender, especially for her and made her a fruit smoothie to enjoy. She sipped heartily and happily, gently appealing to the cats with toy mice and yarn, to join her for some lap time.

Traveling with food allergies takes extra planning, effort, flexible budgeting and scheduling, and requires a good amount of frustration tolerance, and courage. By being an avid learner and creative planner and through practiced interviewing and perseverance, you can access some authentic culinary experiences and some simply satisfying, if not culturally intriguing ones. These strategies align with the principles that inspire Food Allergy U, that of educating, supporting and empowering families with food allergies. Resuming international travel after our petrifying experience with anaphylaxis in Turkey, reaffirmed my family’s travel tradition and passion. We are again, living out our values and pastimes. I can’t guarantee allergen or reaction-free vacations, but I can be courageous, creative, resourceful and flexible.