What to Do When You Don’t Speak the Language

I’ve written about traveling with celiac disease for years, and the question I get most often is this: How do you eat out safely when you don’t speak the language? There are plenty of issues that can come up when you travel, but not being able to properly communicate your dietary needs is a thorny one. This question kept me awake nights after I was diagnosed: I wanted to visit new places, but I was terrified of accidentally getting glutened. (I’m not one of those celiacs who never exhibited symptoms. If I accidentally injest gluten, I get very sick.)

What I know now is that it’s possible to travel safely when you don’t speak the local tongue, but it does take work. Being completely honest, some destinations are easier than others. For example, I don’t speak any Swedish (except to say hej and tack), but my visit to Stockholm was one of the safest trips I’ve ever taken. That was because so many locals speak English and because celiac awareness seemed universal. (In Sweden, McDonald’s offers gluten-free Big Macs.) But that was a rare exception: most of my trips have required a lot of advance preparation.

I want to show you how I prepare for a trip. Since I’m going to Greece soon, I thought it would make a good test case. I don’t speak a word of Greek (yet), so where do I begin my research?

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The Return of the Gluten-Free Guidebook

It’s been a while! Since the Gluten-Free Guidebook is settling into its new home on Substack, I thought it would be a great time to reintroduce myself to you.

When I was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2004, I figured that my career as a travel writer was dead. Visiting foreign places—one of the great joys in my life—suddenly seemed impossible. Even dining out safely in the cities I know best (I’m Toronto born and New York based) seemed like a challenge. It was tough to imagine eating out in countries where I didn’t speak the language. While I was grateful to learn the cause of the (many) health problems that plagued me at the time, it felt like I was losing something precious in the process.

That sentiment lasted only a short time. I missed travel too much to give it up.

The first step in getting my travel groove back was to do plenty of reading and research so I was educated about what I could and couldn’t eat. Some of it was obvious—wheat, barley, and rye are the main culprits—and some of it was not (even in 2023, I’m still surprising people with the fact that traditional soy sauce has wheat in it). Next, I convinced some of my editors that diagnoses of celiac disease and gluten intolerance were on the rise (true!), and that interest in this “trend” would only grow (also true!). On the first couple of trips I took post-diagnosis, I brought along a box of gluten-free protein bars as a security blanket. It turned out, I didn’t need that many (except at airports, which are still miserable for anyone with dietary issues).

One of my great pleasures has been in discovering how caring people can be. Over and over, I’ve been bowled over by people who go above and beyond to ensure that I can dine safely. The reason I started the Gluten-Free Guidebook in 2008 was because I wanted to share my travel and restaurant research — I do a lot of it, and it doesn’t seem right that it should only benefit me! More than anything, I want people to feel empowered. Anyone with celiac disease or food allergies should never feel as if they can’t travel — they just need a little more advance planning.

Over the past several years, my work has changed. These days, my full-time job is as a mystery novelist (believe me, I’m still pinching myself). But that doesn’t mean my interest in travel has waned. If anything, it’s grown, and book tours, literary festivals, and foreign-language translations of my books have taken me to new places I’ve never been before. Also, some of my books and short stories are set in exotic locales, and I love doing in-person research.

I missed traveling during the pandemic, and I’m thrilled to be back on the road. In the past few months, I’ve been to Barcelona and Boston, Miami and Montreal, Philadelphia and Toronto. Later this fall, I’ll be visiting Greece. It seemed like the perfect time to bring back the Gluten-Free Guidebook. I’m relaunching it on Substack for a couple of reasons: one is practical (the FeedBurner service I used to use gave up the ghost in 2021), and the other is personal (I moved my mystery-writing newsletter to Substack months ago and have been thrilled with the results).

What can you expect to find here? Plenty of recommendations about places I’ve visited myself, plus suggestions from other sources, including fellow readers. There will be specific information about restaurants, hotels, and shops, as well as more general information about how to navigate issues like foreign languages and unpleasant surprises on the road. There will also be plenty of travel information that’s useful for everyone, plus links to relevant news. About the only thing you definitely won’t see here are recipes.

I’d love to hear from you about what you’d like to see in this newsletter. Substack makes a lot of things possible, including video chats and podcasts. That would be terra incognita for me, but you already know I love traveling into new territory.