Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Move to Italy

I moved to Italy. Not permanently, but for at least a year or two. The length of stay is dependent upon my husband’s military job, which is what brought me here in the first place. As it’s not permanent, though, my family and friends look upon it as an extended vacation for me. I am the envy of them all.

Of all European countries, Italy seems to be America’s favorite. Few other places can compete with Italy’s blend of ancient history, world-renowned art, vigorous cities populated with espresso-fueled inhabitants, and misty hilltop villages. There is also Vatican City with its religious treasures, as well as Italy’s other holy trinity -pizza, pasta, and pane (bread).

The food is probably the aspect of Italy that Americans know best. Indeed, authentic Italian eateries, themed chain restaurants, and pizza parlors cover the United States like melted mozzarella cheese on a large pizza pie. These same places, however, are the ones most often shunned by Americans with celiac disease. The reason, of course, is that many of the items served at Italian restaurants in the United States contain gluten, namely the pizza, pasta, and pane. Consequently, concern about how I will manage my gluten free diet while living in Italy tempers the envy of my friends and family. They worry that I will not be able to participate in one of the country’s favorite pastimes: eating.

Trying to reassure everyone that I will not starve while living in Italy, I stress that there is more to the region’s culinary repertoire than what we find in the U.S. Likewise, I point out that some of the gluten free products we buy in the States are made in Italy, and that one of the top celiac doctors, Dr. Fasano, is from Italy. I venture so far as to say it could be even easier for me to live in Italy than in the U.S. with celiac disease.

Reassurances aside, I am nervous, and plagued by questions of my own. What will I eat when dining out in Italy? Where will I find gluten free products for use at home? How will I convey my celiac needs when I don’t speak the language? Even the U.S. military medical board that has to grant medical clearance to each member of the family prior to the move questions whether celiac can be managed in Italy.

We had about a six-month window from the time we learned we were moving to Italy until the day the movers arrived. It was a busy six months as the family and I continued to live in the present in San Antonio with work, school, volunteer opportunities, children’s activities, and dining in familiar celiac friendly restaurants. At the same time, we prepared to uproot our home and our lives. My husband planned for a new command position, the children anticipated new schools and activities, and I surfed the internet for an Italian celiac support group site, which I found. Thankfully, there was also an English translation, but we all put “learn Italian” at the top of our to-do lists.

On moving day, the months of physical and emotional preparation boiled down to four intense days of packing, cleaning, and tying up loose ends. It was our seventh military move in 19 years of marriage, so I figured we were old pros, though having celiac was the ever present cloud casting its shadow. Eating was often on the fly, but I had set aside enough gluten free food to see me through the pack out and beyond, and I was confident about dining out in San Antonio, visiting favorite local restaurants one last time. On the morning we left town, I sat on the airplane and felt the heaviness of the move’s preparation slip off my shoulders. Then, as the plane’s engines roared to life, a new weight pressed in on me, I really was on my way to Italy. Well, almost.

There was no escaping the country without first visiting our children’s grandparents. I am lucky in that my gluten free diet does not present much of a problem while visiting family. My mother also has celiac, and my mother-in-law has willingly become familiar with my requirements over the last few years. Both requested a shopping list from me so that they could have some of my favorite gluten free products on hand upon my arrival.

For a month, I visited family and friends on the east coast, purchasing gluten free foods as I went along. Health food stores and specialty grocers are getting easier to find in many areas of the country, and it seems that many mainstream grocery stores now carry some gluten free products. Dining out, though, is still a task that must be approached defensively, as evidenced by a few of my own experiences.

At an Outback Steakhouse in Barnstable, MA, I encountered acrobatic croutons that “jumped” from the standard salad mixing bowl to the one used to mix my gluten free Grilled Chicken Brisbane Caesar Salad. At least that was the explanation given to me by the restaurant manager! While dining at an Indian restaurant with my celiac mother in Gaithersburg, MD, I received assurances they were familiar with the requirements of the gluten free diet. After finishing our meal, my mother and I were asked by the restaurant host about our weight loss success with the celiac diet. I got ill from anxiety! I also tried dining at Panera Bread Company in Leesburg, VA, which seems to me a very odd place for celiacs to eat. However, many of their soups and salads are naturally gluten free, but it took them three attempts to prepare my salad without bread or fried wonton strips.

Better success was found at a seafood restaurant located on a bay in Orient Point, NY. As I launched into the details of my gluten free diet, the waitress interjected with, “Oh, you must have celiac disease.” She then informed me that her daughter has celiac, and put forward that the restaurant chef could easily prepare a gluten free meal for me. I dined on Seafood Cioppino, a classic seafood stew with mussels, clams, and scallops straight from the bay, served over rice, not pasta.

These mixed result defensive dining incidents could happen to anyone, yet they were a cause of deep concern for me, and questions about how I was going to manage living gluten free Italy continued to haunt me. Really, how was I going to dine defensively in Italy when I was having so much trouble in my own country?

There wasn’t much time to ponder, as it was nearly departure day and I had to prepare for the trans-Atlantic flight. My husband had gone to Italy ahead of our three children and me in order to start work, so in addition to feeling the stress of being a celiac traveler, I was also starting to feel the stress of traveling as a single parent.

It was supposed to be a direct seven-hour late night flight on a no-name military charter from Baltimore, MD to Rhein Mein Air Base near Frankfurt, Germay, followed by a two-hour layover, and then a one-hour hop over the Alps to Aviano Air Base in northern Italy. Because of the nature of the flight, obtaining a gluten free meal was not an option. And because I had flown military flights in the past, I packed enough gluten free food to last me several days, just in case. My carry on was filled to the brim with yogurt, tuna in foil packs, cheese, hard-boiled eggs, gluten free crackers, cookies, fresh fruit, carrot sticks, homemade trail mix, and a chocolate bar. I did not regret it.

As the plane sat on the ground in Baltimore hours past its scheduled departure time, I should have been nervous when I saw duct tape being carried to the cockpit. Like most of my fellow passengers at 3:00 a.m., most of who were on their way to duty in the desert, I was too tired to care. The duct tape must have done the trick, however, because soon we were airborne, rushing to meet the sun over the Atlantic Ocean.

I relied on my supply of gluten free food to get me through both breakfast and lunch while onboard. Upon landing in Germany, I learned that due to our late arrival and flight time restrictions in Italy, the plane was now unable to complete its scheduled itinerary. Hours passed while the crews tried to come up with a new plan. At one point the Italy-bound passengers were told the plane would still fly to Italy, but with a detour through Kuwait. I took stock of my food supply, and wondered if it would last me through such an ordeal. It probably would, but I still protested that my dietary restrictions could not be accommodated if we flew through Kuwait. Other passengers also voiced their dissent, and finally the flight left for Kuwait without us.

The military folks in Germany initially didn’t know what to do with us after that. Eventually, accomodations were made and we were taken to a hotel for the night. Arriving too late in the night for a restaurant meal, I found dinner for my children in a German bar, but nothing for me. Fortunately, the hotel staff understood the few German words I knew as I tried to explain celiac disease, and they rounded up some fresh fruit for me from the hotel kitchen. The breakfast buffet the next morning was easy to navigate, but by lunch I was once again digging into my personal stash. Hours of phone calls and negotiations later, those of us stranded in Germany (six adults, five children, and two dogs) boarded a commercial flight from Frankfurt, Germany to Venice, Italy.

My husband met us at the airport in Venice. From there it was about an hour drive north to the area I would soon call home. The task of dealing with my fear of eating gluten free in Italy was just beginning. After taking stock of all I'd encountered just to get to this point, though, I knew I could handle it. Besides, I still had some gluten free food left in my bag! (July 2005)

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