When I see the word “France,” I am immediately transported to the Seine, strolling by the Eiffel Tower, biting into a warm, crispy baguette. I know I’m not alone.
After six months of studying French at a university in Caen, France, asking what I ate is still the favorite question of all of my friends and family. And who can blame them? No one visits France without eating a croissant, a snail, or a creamy slice of Brie.
But when food is your worst nightmare, how do you enjoy a world so centered around it?
Especially for an extended period of time? This was my struggle during my life in France.
As a vegetarian, I already had some difficulties to begin with. In my experience, the French don’t always take kindly to those with dietary restrictions, because they do not like limitations to their food.
However, there were always many delicious options for me. From breads to cheeses and everything in between, I never lacked in options for my meals. And my vegetarian host family ensured that I was well fed at dinner.
That wasn’t all, though.
Within the previous year, frequent vomiting that had begun as the result of a severe anxiety disorder manifested into an eating disorder called bulimia. I grew up with a lot of guilt surrounding eating, and even more anxiety about gaining weight, so this was a rather natural transition.
In my daily life, my mind is centered around food. I love cooking, and I love tasting food, but I am terrified to eat it. I find myself avoiding food as much as possible, and, when I do eat, the question remains of whether or not I will keep it down.
This dilemma followed me to France, and haunted me during class. I found myself wondering every day if I should eat lunch and then what I should eat. This distraction was a familiar battle to what I face at home, but new surroundings made it simultaneously different.
From my first moment abroad, I was very shy about food. Especially around strangers, I was far less likely to eat full meals or even keep food down. It is a constant game of comparisons – even though all bodies need nourishment in different ways. As I slowly opened up to others it became easier, and I was lucky enough to have friends who cared about my wellbeing.
But aside from being nervous around people, my bulimia and food-related anxiety prevented me from enjoying all of the foods I had been dying to try for years. Anxiety surfaces in different ways for different people, but for me, it means that I am afraid of food and too much stress makes it impossible to eat or keep food down. Even the most common or simple foods often result in pain or vomiting.
In France – where food is the way of life, but keeping up appearance is everything – it was a constant pressure of whether to eat or not eat in any given situation. Which caused even more fear of the foods that surrounded me. The sights and smells seemed to taunt me at every glance into a patisserie or boulangerie.
Even a glass of wine was intimidating at times.
I have never been a picky eater, and now even the most basic foods seemed like giant hurdles I had to eat my way through.
Simple meals of salads, rice, beans, were scary. The fear of sickness or gaining weight always lurked in the back of my mind.
Suddenly, I was terrified of being surrounded by rich foods full of flavor. On top of not wanting to gain weight, I also felt I did not deserve to eat delicious foods. There were so many elements that made it hard to eat to begin with, let alone keep food down.
While working hard to study French and to connect with others, I was also working hard to make a relationship with food.
Anyone who has been abroad knows that eating is one of the most exciting parts of traveling.
Trying new foods and local recipes is one of the most special and important ways to integrate yourself in a culture. It is also one of the most incredible ways to meet new people – and hopefully ones that will cook for you! I know this is one of my favorite parts because, despite everything, I still have a special love for food.
I was terrified at first, but luckily I used the necessity to talk about my vegetarianism as an opportunity, instead of shrinking in fear. Rather than simply picking something that looked “normal,” I made an effort to talk to business owners and learn more about the food. This is always an easy tactic as a vegetarian because — especially during meal times — I usually needed to know what was in the food anyway.
I found that the more I talked about the food, and the more I learned, the more comfortable I felt eating it.
I loved being able to connect with cooks and cashiers over our shared interest in food, from donuts to falafel. Learning about what I was putting in my body definitely eased my conscious around eating.
On my own, without the inspiration of other people around, I shyly ate bits croissants or soup. Many evenings, I went to small shops and picked the simplest sandwiches I could find. From there I would go to my favorite park and sit in front of the carousel and pick off cheeses or wipe off mayonnaise.
All of this was often followed by nausea, but still I was eating!
Nearly every meal went on this way, especially during lunches spent trying to stomach sandwiches overflowing with mayonnaise. These rich foods sent me spiraling into sickness most days, but slowly I let myself enjoy these — except mayo (I just can’t get over that one).
This slow transition began to change my entire world.
Still fearful of food and still more than willing to purge, enjoying food was something I had completely forgotten how to do. While still cutting back on the rich foods, savoring my food was becoming easier. I could finally order things and not feel obligated to make sure they were the least fattening or know that I was going to throw up later.
This has not completely gone away, of course, but it has been a huge part of the healing process.
Throughout the semester, the people around me were so accommodating and loving in regards to my vegetarianism and eating disorder. My friends were happy to take a break from baguettes to indulge in vegan hot dogs or pancakes from Pancake Night Fever.
This delicious restaurant is one of my favorite food related memories of my time in France. The eclectic and funky restaurant was only the backdrop for the incredible vegan food that adorned the menu. It was one of the few places I never had to worry about what I was eating, and the owners were wonderful. We had many nice chats about the food — in French — and their puppies that loved to run between my legs. As I was very comfortable eating here, I loved to stop here for a weekend brunch or a long dinner with classmates.
Restaurants aside, my lovely host parents learned that I would always eat lots of goat cheese at every opportunity. Throughout the entire semester, they made incredible meals they knew I would devour in delight-especially if it involves potatoes. They played a huge role in encouraging me to eat in their own ways. They loved food, ate very healthy meals, and never showed any disappointment or pressure if I didn’t like something on my plate.
I owe so much of my progress to the supportive people like them who surrounded me.
I’m not cured by any means. That kind of change doesn’t happen overnight. But…
Thanks to French food and a lot of lovely people in France, I’ve finally been able to begin the process of accepting my eating disorder in terms of understanding that I did not have to let this unhealthy obsession control me anymore, and, with that, start learning to appreciate food again.
I’m learning to have a healthy relationship with food again, and those baguettes are only the beginning.
Have you ever had anxieties while eating abroad? We’d love to hear your stories in the comments.