Breaking the Language Barrier

On the Mount of Olives

When I was first diagnosed with celiac disease in 2004, I felt like I’d never be able to travel again. Just communicating my dietary needs in English seemed daunting enough, so how was I going to manage it in a foreign tongue? Fortunately, I’ve had a lot of help. In the past decade, I’ve visited plenty of places where I didn’t speak the language — including Peru, Chile, Argentina, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Turkey, and Israel — and I’ve been able to arrange for gluten-free meals along the way. Eating at a restaurant is always an exercise in trust; for the gluten-intolerant, it feels especially risky. Here’s what’s worked for me:

  • Visit the Celiac Travel website, which provides an impressive selection of cards in many languages. The list is constantly growing, but currently features 54 languages, including Arabic, Basque, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Japanese, Italian, Malay, Portuguese, Russian, Urdu, and Vietnamese. There are several companies that charge money for celiac translation cards, but none of them are better than what Roger and Lyndsay offer on Celiac Travel. If you use their cards, they appreciate a donation, but it’s not required.
  • Check out the list of “Celiac Societies Around the World” compiled by Nancy Lapid on About.com. Often, these societies will have information about restaurants and shops that cater to celiacs. While you’re at it, Google “celiac” or “gluten free” and the names of the cities you’ll be visiting; often you’ll find local groups with plenty of information to share.
  • Ask for advice on the Gluten-Free Guidebook’s Facebook Group. You’ll probably find a fellow traveler who’s been to the place you’re planning to see; occasionally, you’ll connect with a local.
  • If possible, learn a few words or phrases in the local language before you go on your trip. Knowing how to say “Tengo la enfermedad celiaca; No puedo comer harina o trigo” (I have celiac disease; I can’t eat flour or wheat) made my travels to Peru and Chile easier. Still, I have to admit that I never managed this in Hungarian.

Does anyone have other ideas for breaking the language barrier? I’d love to hear your suggestions.

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In other news, my first stand-alone thriller, Blood Always Tells, will be published on April 15, 2014, by Tor/Forge. According to Library Journal, “You can’t help turning the pages in anticipation of yet another twist.” You can win an advance copy via GoodReads before February 15th. If you order the hardcover or eBook before the release date, you can win a prize

The Gluten-Free Guidebook’s First Year

On March 15th, the Gluten-Free Guidebook marked its first anniversary. I’m proud of what’s been created here in the past year. There’s a rich archive of reports about restaurants, hotels, and shops in countries such as Spain, Peru, and Turkey; there’s also plenty of food for thought about dining in North America, from Toronto to San Francisco. Readers have shared information about their travels (and hometowns), making it easier for anyone who follows in their footsteps. (If you’re planning to visit Buenos Aires, Las Vegas, Amman, or Hawaii, read these reports first.) Gluten-free gurus Shauna James Ahern and Vanessa Maltin have let us in on some of their favorite finds on the road. We have a Facebook group to make it easier for readers to connect. I wanted to share a few important things that I’ve learned from writing this blog over the past year:

  1. Never be shy about asking for help: There are so many groups and individuals who are ready — even eager — to help navigate the gluten minefield that travelers face. Before going to a new city or country, locate a celiac awareness group for the area (you’ll find them via Clan Thompson’s Celiac Site and the Association of European Coeliac Societies). Even if the information they have on their website isn’t in your language, e-mail them for advice. If they can, they will help you out.
  2. Trust, but verify: Asking whether a dish has gluten in it is is sometimes not enough. Restaurant staff might forget — or not realize — that a dish has a little flour in it. I’ve run into this problem at home in New York as well as on the road. When in doubt, I ask the staff to tell me what ingredients are in the dish. At one very swanky French bistro in Manhattan, the restaurant manager was stunned when the chef told her that there was wheat flour in almost everything. That same manager had assured me that most of their dishes were safe for me just a few minutes earlier.
  3. Always have celiac information cards handy: I know that people have different preferences as to which cards to use (there are several free options, which you can read about in this post; I like the ones from Celiac Travel). These make travel so much easier — and safer — for celiacs. Be sure to print extra cards, since some invariably get stained or destroyed as you travel. Having extras means you can hand them out to other travelers, too. When I was at a remote lodge in Peru’s Colca Canyon, I met a woman from South Africa whose sister has celiac disease, and she was thrilled to be able to take the card (and the name of the site it was from) back to her.
  4. Have a backup plan: Travel is all about the spirit of adventure — trying new things, discovering new tastes, seeing places you dreamed about. Having celiac disease doesn’t bar you from any of that, but it means you always need to keep the worst-case scenario in mind, because you may find yourself stuck in transit with no gluten-free options available to you. This happened to me on the train from Machu Picchu to Cusco. It was a four-hour ride after a long day of exploring (I’d gotten up before dawn so I could watch the sun rise over Machu Picchu). There was food available for sale on the train — a choice of sandwiches. Fortunately I had gluten-free protein bars and trail mix to tide me over.

Please keep your gluten-free tips and reports coming. I’m excited to see what the next year will bring.

Time for Turkey

It’s official: I’m traveling to Turkey this November. I’ve just started planning the trip, and all I have right now is a return ticket to Istanbul. I’ll be in Turkey for 12 days, and I’m still working on the itinerary. I know I want to spend the better part of a week in Istanbul and a couple of days in and around Ephesus; the rest of the time is still unaccounted for (I’m also thinking about visiting Cappadoccia, or taking a cruise to visit Troy — but with 12 days, not everything can fit into the plan). If you have already visited Turkey and have any recommendations for where to stay, what to see — and especially, where to get a good gluten-free meal — I’d love to hear from you.

In the meantime, let me tell you what I’ve discovered so far. Neither of my favorite translation sites, Google and BabelFish, offers Turkish-to-English translation at this time, so I’ve been using Babylon, which gets the gyst of things but seems to miss many words. The Celiac Association of Turkey (Colyakla Yasam Dernegi) has a website that is available only in Turkish. (I’ve e-mailed the association for advice, and I’ll let you know what I hear from them.) Fortunately, Celiac Travel, my favorite site for celiac translation cards, has one available in Turkish.

One great resource I’ve found is a website called the Turkey Travel Planner by Tom Brosnahan. I’ve met Tom several times (we’re members of the same writers’ organizations), but it was a pleasant surprise to discover his well-written and comprehensive site. Not only does it cover what to see and do, but there are specific pages of interest to celiacs and the food-allergic: “Gluten Intolerance (Celiac) in Turkey,” “Food Allergies in Turkey,” and “Food Allergy Awareness in Turkey” (there’s also a section for vegetarians).

My Frommer’s colleague Lynn Levine, author of Frommer’s Turkey and Frommer’s Istanbul, also runs a website called Talking Turkey. There’s no celiac-specific information, but there are good overviews about Turkish food and drink, as well as pages devoted to regions of the country, museums, spas, and shopping.

I’ve started reading the Turkish Daily News, a 47-year-old English-language newspaper that can be read online. An article from February 2008 mentions Saf, an Istanbul restaurant where “all dishes are low in salt and fat, raw, organic, gluten free and vegan.” I can’t wait to try it. In the article, Saf’s address is listed as: Akatlar Mah. Cumhuriyet Cad. No:4/6 Club Sporium, Akatlar; the phone numbers listed are 0212 282 79 46 and 0212 282 72 91.

Celiac Travel 101

September 15th marked the six-month anniversary of the Gluten-Free Guidebook. I want to thank everyone who has made it such a success so quickly. Many of you have taken the time to write to me. Some of you have passed along the names of local restaurants or tips about places you’ve visited; others have shared stories about their celiac diagnosis. I love hearing from readers, and I really appreciate any suggestions about travel, restaurants, hotels, and shops that can be shared with other readers.

Some people have written with specific questions about destinations they plan to visit. While I don’t have the time or resources to give recommendations, I wanted to share the process that I go through to research a destination. This happens to be a great time to do it, because I’m currently trying to settle on a place to visit this fall. Here are the steps I take:

  1. Round up the usual suspects. There are several sites that I always refer to before a trip. One is Celiac Handbook, which has listings for restaurants that serve gluten-free meals in countries from Cambodia to Iceland. If I’m traveling in North America, I’ll consult the Gluten-Free Restaurant Awareness Program, which has a lengthy list of celiac-friendly restaurants. I also visit Clan Thompson’s Celiac Site, which has information about different cruise lines, links to travel sites, and other travel resources.
  2. Locate the local celiac association. If you’re planning a European trip, check out the Association of European Coeliac Societies. In addition to providing useful information about gluten-free products, there are links to celiac organizations across the continent. (Note that in some countries, such as Belgium and Spain, there is more than one association.)  If you’re traveling to South America, Israel, Turkey, South Africa, or Australia, you’ll find information about celiac associations on Clan Thompson’s Celiac Site. When I need an English translation of a site, I use Google or Babel Fish.
  3. Ask for more information. Once I locate a celiac association at my destination, I e-mail to ask for a list of recommended restaurants and shops (some organizations provide this information on their website). Don’t worry if you don’t speak the language; I’ve found that people are helpful, though it may take more than a week to get an answer.
  4. Line up your language cards. I’ve previously posted about how celiacs can communicate their needs in a foreign tongue. Some of the resources mentioned in that post have gotten even better: for example, Celiac Travel now has 42 translation cards (the latest additions include Flemish, Indonesian, and Korean). I print out several copies to carry with me when I travel.
  5. Work that search engine. It takes time to research the gluten-free possibilities at a particular destination. I type the name of a country plus gluten-free or celiac (also try coeliac); I repeat the process using the name of the region or the name of a city. Do this for Paris and, for example, you’ll find David Lebovitz’s Living the Sweet Life in Paris blog; try Italy, and you’ll find posts from the blog A Gluten-Free Guide.

The best thing that you can do is keep a positive attitude; wherever you choose to go, you will find a way to make it work. Before I went to Peru, I couldn’t find a single online resource in English or Spanish about traveling gluten-free in that country. When I went, I was armed with Spanish translation cards and was delighted to discover how easy it was for a celiac to dine out there. If anyone has a celiac-friendly travel resource that’s helped them plan a trip, I’d love to hear about it.

Celiac Disease in Translation

In the four years since I was diagnosed with celiac disease, I’ve traveled to six countries where I didn’t speak the language. Asking the right questions about food preparation when you, your server and your chef all speak the same tongue can be challenging. When you’re dealing with translation issues, it makes the entire process that much tougher. Eating at a restaurant is always an exercise in trust; for the gluten-intolerant, it feels especially risky. I plan ahead by printing celiac disease translation cards before leaving home. Here’s how to do it — for free.

  1. Start by checking for free celiac information cards from national or regional associations. Both the Czech Coeliac Society and the Swiss Celiac Society offer such cards online. For other countries, take a look at the “International Celiac Societies” listed on the Resources page at Celiac Handbook. Only a few of them provide a card, but hopefully the number will increase. Print several copies so you won’t mind if a card gets damaged in a restaurant kitchen.
  2. The Celiac Travel website provides an impressive selection of cards in many languages (currently there are 38, including Arabic, Japanese, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, and Urdu). I’ve used both the Hungarian and Spanish cards from this site and found that they worked extremely well. Given that several companies are charging money for celiac translation cards, I have to tip my hat to Roger and Lyndsay, who run this site, because they’re providing these detailed cards for free (a small donation is requested but not required).
  3. Gluten-Free Passport provides free cards online in French, German, Greek, Italian, Spanish, and Russian. I like these because you have the English and the translated language side by side, though of course that makes these cards larger to print.
  4. There are several sites, including Clan Thompson’s Celiac Site and the Finnish Celiac Society, that provide or link to free information about celiac disease in different languages. These descriptions aren’t detailed, but they certainly get the point across in languages including Polish and Thai.
  5. If possible, learn a few words or phrases in the local language before you go on your trip. Knowing how to say “Tengo la enfermedad celiaca; No puedo comer harina o trigo” (I have celiac disease; I can’t eat flour or wheat) made my travels to Spain and Chile easier, because awareness of celiac disease was widespread. But I have to admit that I never managed this in Hungarian.

Has anyone bought the celiac translation cards from Triumph Dining, or paid for gluten intolerance or food allergy translation at Allergy Translation? I haven’t tried either of these options, but I’d love to hear your comments about them.