Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Way of the Celiac Traveler

Once a person is diagnosed with celiac disease, traveling is never again the same. It doesn’t matter if the trip is across town or around the world - it simply takes on more meaning and becomes something more akin to an odyssey. After all, most people do not travel with a suitcase full of breads, crackers, and cookies, and maybe even a toaster. Likewise, tucked inside that travel book with its list of sights to see and things to do, celiacs will also have a list of restaurants and grocery stores to which they will pilgrimage for items that accommodate their gluten free diet.

A couple years ago I discovered a book that compares this idea of the mythical epic quest to modern day travel. The Way of the Traveler: Making Every Trip a Journey of Self-Discovery, by Joseph Dispenza, is first and foremost a book about personal transformation. On a more basic level it is a book that walks the traveler through what Dispenza calls the five stages of a voyage. They are: the call to journey, the preparation, the encounter, the homecoming, and recounting the tale. The hoped for end result is an experience that brings a new understanding or appreciation of something that was once foreign, or perhaps even feared, into our personal lives. This is the stuff of heroes.

Even before reading Dispenza’s book and delving into these classical five phases of travel, I was unwittingly applying them in my own traveling life. Being what some people would call the adventurous sort, the urge to travel, or the “call to journey,” took hold of me at an early age. Just shy of my seventeenth birthday, I trekked half-way around the world to live for one year as an exchange student on a sheep farm in New Zealand. Not every journey takes us such distances, and the reasons we travel are numerous. It can be for pleasure, business, or family obligation. I maintain a “Life List” of places I want to go and things I want to do. Yet, when it comes down to picking a destination, the ability of a place to accommodate my celiac diet is crucial.

The second stage of a journey, “the preparation,” is often the most important for a person with celiac disease. It is the foundation of the trip, and it goes way beyond making plane reservations, mapping out a route, selecting a hotel, or packing up the camper. It means ensuring a particular airline will serve a gluten free meal, figuring out where to eat on the road less traveled, maybe staying in a hotel with an efficiency kitchen, and scouting out celiac-friendly restaurants and grocery stores. It also usually means packing enough gluten free food so you won’t go hungry or feel deprived when everyone around you is licking their fingers, sticky with freshly baked apple strudel from the local bakery.

The heart of any trip is “the encounter.” It is why we carefully selected the destination and made conscientious preparations. It encompasses the sights we see, the people we meet, and the activities in which we participate. Dispenza claims that for the heroes of myth, the encounter is also the moment of truth. It is when Perseus kills Medusa, and Theseus slays the Minataur. For celiacs, it is when we do battle with the gluten monster. The encounter can be both physical and emotional. As a result of the conflict, though, a change occurs within us. We realize that there are other celiacs “out there,” that there really are people who want to understand our dietary needs, and that we can continue to be travelers of the world.

According to Dispenza, “the homecoming” is an equally significant part of travel. It is the time to reflect on the expectations we had about the trip – to acknowledge how the reality was the same or different from what we expected. Maybe that restaurant recommended by someone on the celiac list really wasn’t so helpful, but you discovered an even better place. Maybe it was the first time traveling to stay with family after your celiac diagnosis. Were they supportive and grateful you had learned the reason behind your years of illness? Or they still didn’t get it? Either way, the challenges and encounters change us, make us stronger, and maybe more knowledgeable about our own disease and needs. Hopefully, there is also the realization that celiac disease does not have to be the center of our lives. It is just one of the many facets that make us who we are. The journey is not all about eating!

The final stage of travel is “recounting the tale.” Dispenza describes it as the moment “the hero ceases being the traveler and assumes the mantle of teacher.” In celiac-speak that translates to “celiacs helping celiacs.” It may take the form of responding to inquiries on the celiac list about your experiences at a destination, sharing your know-how about being a guest in a non-gluten free household, telling others about a great gluten free B&B or travel-worthy gluten free product, or even writing a travel article for a celiac newsletter.

Many years have passed since I answered my first call to journey. Many more calls have been answered in the ensuing years. It’s part of my life, my journey, as the wife of a career Air Force officer who is required to move on average once every three years. As such, I continually get to practice the five stages of travel, and often refer to myself as the professional tourist. Though moving and traveling are distinct, the elemental steps of the call to journey, preparation, and the encounter can be applied to both. With a move, however, the physical and emotional encounter is often more prolonged, and can even be an ongoing process. It can also occur simultaneously with the stages of homecoming and recounting the tale because, depending on the location, the entire tour of duty can be one huge encounter!

My most recent call to journey came a few months ago in the form of a move from San Antonio to northern Italy for my husband’s job. We now live in an Italian community called Cordenons, which is located about one-and-a-half hours northeast of Venice, near the base of the Dolomite Mountains. The preparation to get here was arduous, the encounter began the moment we left Texas, and continues practically every day. There is so much to learn. So many sights to explore. So many opportunities to hone my defensive dining skills. Not to mention my defensive driving skills! Sounds a lot like traveling. An epic quest for a celiac. A new journey of self-discovery. (July 2005)