Being Vegan While Abroad: Some Reflections & AdviceJuly 31, 2011
So I’m just getting back from a two-and-a-half-week vacation in Berlin, where I had an absolutely fantastic time. Berlin is a really wonderful city with so much to explore and enjoy, and I would’ve gladly stayed longer if I could. But this is a food blog, not a travel blog, and so I’m not going to spend time here reminiscing about the many exciting experiences I had during my trip. However, seeing as food is such a big part of my life, food was a big part of my time in Berlin as well. And in particular, this vacation was unique, food-wise, in that it was the first time I was travelling overseas since I started identifying myself as more vegan than vegetarian, and, as a result, in the weeks leading up to my trip, I was faced with the following difficult question:
Will I stay vegan while abroad?
Perhaps some of you have had to grapple with this question yourselves (or its vegetarian equivalent). It really is a tough one, because it actually has so many different facets. To name a few that ran through my mind…
- Can I be vegan?—Even if I’m committed to staying vegan, will that be possible? Will I be able to find vegan food to eat? Will I even be able to get people to understand what ‘vegan’ means, especially in a country which speaks a foreign language?
- Should I be vegan?—Isn’t part of the point of travelling to experience the culture of where you’re visiting, and wouldn’t staying vegan involve missing out on a lot of the local food culture?
- Must I be vegan?—Why am I being vegan in the first place? What will I really be accomplishing in staying vegan while abroad?
To make my own situation clear, my current dietary maxim is that I’m 100% vegan whenever I’m in control of what I’m eating: that is, when I’m the one making it or buying it. However, I do still allow myself occasional vegetarian allowances, such as when other people have prepared non-vegan food for me and so on. And so, the question for me was really whether my vacation should count as one of these “allowances” or not. But in addressing this question, I kept mulling over all of the above questions as well.
Now, Berlin is unique in many ways in relation to these questions. First, though it is a Germany-speaking city in a German-speaking country, the population is largely English-literate, and since my German is also not that bad, the foreign language barrier was not really an issue for me. (The situation would’ve been much different if I were travelling to, say, Laos.) Second, Berlin is a world-class, progressive city and home to many vegans, so there is actually no lack of vegan restaurants scattered throughout the city. (Again, the situation would’ve been much different if I were travelling even just to other cities in Germany.)
So perhaps I was a bit lucky in landing up in Berlin this summer. Still, I think the basic guidelines I ended up giving myself and following could apply to any travel destination. All I did was follow these two simple pieces of advice:
1. Don’t panic! (which just so happens to be generally good travel advice)
By this I mean: Don’t get overly stressed out about staying vegan—and more importantly, don’t feel overly guilty about breaking vegan. While travelling, it’s nearly impossible to be perfect. You may unwittingly order something you’d never knowingly consume, or you may be stuck in a restaurant with no other options. It’s important to recognize that these things aren’t the end of the world. The last thing you want to feel while on vacation is anxiety and guilt.
Furthermore, during my travels I was blessed to enjoy the hospitality of numerous strangers, who were kind enough to both let me into their homes and then on top of that to cook for me. No part of me would’ve felt right in turning these people down and abstaining from the lasagna or mozzarella platters they had so graciously prepared for me. And no part of me felt wrong in partaking in a little bit of cheese for the night. Travelling can really show you how big people’s hearts are, and I do not believe one should not let one’s diet get in the way of the generosity of others.
(Side note: It may seem strange or even wrong of me to say this. Most strict vegans I know are driven, at least in part, by ethical reasons, and to “break vegan” once in a while may seem like an unacceptable moral transgression. However, though I too am persuaded by the ethical arguments for veganism, I do not believe we are under some universal moral imperative never to eat any animal products, which applies to every single thing we put in our mouths. What I think is most morally reprehensible in non-vegan diets is the perpetuation of an industry which views animals as mere meat-making machines, and not as the living, breathing creatures they are. Therefore, what I am most concerned to avoid is engaging in a diet that repeatedly and continually demands more animal products from the market. This is why I don’t think vegans have to be “perfect”.
And in fact, I think this sentiment is largely in line with how veganism was originally defined by the Vegan Society:
‘veganism’ denotes a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and practical — all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose…” (I first saw this here)
Travelling often throws us into situations where veganism becomes simply impractical, and in these instances you should rest assured that there is no deity or judge looking over your shoulder disapprovingly. Do what you can, and don’t sweat it when you can’t.)
2. Don’t slack off, either—eating vegan will actually make you feel great
Nevertheless, although vacation time can provide an excuse from veganism, it should not be seen as an excuse—that is, as a vacation from veganism. For me at least, veganism is not about denying yourself certain foods, and so having an excuse is no reason to take advantage of that excuse. I’m vegan because I want to be vegan: vegan foods are simply the foods I want to eat. Now yes, it does require some extra effort to find those foods when you’re in a new and unfamiliar place, but what I realized during my time in Berlin is that such effort is completely worth it. It felt great searching out the various vegan hotspots around Berlin, and the meals were more than satisfying. Just being able to use my limited German to request a latte with soy milk rather than regular made me feel really good. And that’s because I was doing what I could to get what I wanted. Being in Berlin actually reminded me of why I’m vegan in first place: because the end result of eating good, cruelty-free food more than makes up for whatever extra effort it may require.
This relates to something I often hear from others about vegetarianism or veganism: that it sounds great, but it’s “so much work”. I can’t disagree with them—maintaining a vegan diet does require more work than most people put into food. Even for people who are practiced chefs of omnivorous cuisine, vegan cooking requires you to learn some new techniques and expand your repertoire in certain ways. But you know what else is “so much work”? Writing a novel, or raising a child, or bringing about meaningful social change. Yet we do all these things because we recognize that the effort we put in is outweighed by the value we get out. And I think it’s the same for veganism. That is, when I think about the ‘work’ involved with veganism, I don’t see it as struggle, effort, or toil—in other words, unpleasant labor—but rather, as an accomplishment or achievement, a goal that one willfully strives toward, as in the phrase your life’s work. Veganism is indeed work, but it’s work well worth doing.
In summary, then, I’d say that overall my experience of trying to be vegan in Berlin was very positive, quite contrary to the stress I felt about it going in. I was by no means perfect, but I wasn’t lazy either, and the extra effort I put into being vegan while abroad made me feel empowered—empowered to eat what I want and what I should. And although I might not have experienced much of traditional German cuisine (I did manage to find some vegan currywurst though!), I never regretted it, since I was finding so much other food that I loved.
Last but not least, I should add that, without a doubt, my most rewarding and enjoyable experiences in Berlin were when I had the opportunity to cook with others. My time abroad reminded me of the unifying force food can be—how it can bring people together, teach them about each other, and help them communicate in new ways. And even more rewarding was getting to share vegan cooking with other people and to see their faces when they tried something totally new—whether it be cashew cheese or beet hummus, tofu étoufée or dhal, or even chocolate beer pancakes. It reminded me of how vegan cooking really is its own cuisine, and can open people’s eye to new wonders in the world of food.
And that’s where I’ll leave it for today. But before I sign off, I should note that all the credit for the above photos goes to Greg Wong, who got me to do all those silly poses without either of us knowing they would get used here. Also, expect another post in the not too distant future giving a run-down of the many Berlin restos I visited.
Until we eat again,