Monday, November 26, 2007

The End of the Italian Journey

I moved to northern Italy with my husband and our three sons two years ago. My husband’s job as a military officer was the reason for the move – he had no choice but to answer the “call to duty.” As for me, I heeded the “call to journey - with celiac disease.”

Prior to the move, numerous family members and friends had expressed concern about how I would manage my gluten-free diet while living in the motherland of pizza and pasta. Admittedly, I was also a bit apprehensive about what I would find to eat when dining out, where I would buy gluten-free products, and how I would convey my needs when I couldn’t speak the language. With our time in Italy now drawing to a close, I realize that worrying about all these things was a waste of time!

Eating is a favorite pastime in Italy so most Italians instinctively follow the time-honored practice of living in harmony with nature by preparing foods according to the season. They take great pride and care in selecting only the best products available and cooking them fresh everyday. This goes for the casalinga (housewife) as well as the Mama who does all the cooking at the local osteria (restaurant). What this means to the celiac diner is that at most any eating establishment, it’s a given that the food will have been prepared on site and the exact ingredients will be known.

I also venture to say that celiac disease is more well-known in Italy than it is in America. In fact, the only difficulty I can recall when dining out came not from an Italian but from a fellow American who was in charge of organizing a group event at a restaurant in Venice. She didn’t want me to participate because she was confident my gluten-free diet would be viewed by the restaurant owner as an impossible, and insulting, request. At first I was crushed, my feelings hurt. Then I struck back, with kindness and information, intent on proving that my celiac disease would not be an inconvenience or an embarrassment. Now, I’m a welcome member of the dining-out group. During our latest trip, to a Palladian villa followed by lunch, the familiarity with celiac was ever so poignantly demonstrated when the restaurant owner simply went to the local farmacia to buy gluten-free bread and pasta for my meal, and prepared my chicken breast on the grill rather than floured and sautéed for scaloppini.

A farmacia is the Italian equivalent of a pharmacy. It’s where gluten-free food is sold because gluten-free food is the “medicine” for celiacs! Every town, no matter how small, seems to have at least one shop. The town where I live, with a population of 16,000, has three. Big cities like Rome and Florence have one on practically every street corner. Of the three pharmacies in my town, one does not carry gluten-free food. Another one keeps only a handful of items in stock, but can order practically anything I want. The third one (naturally, the farthest from my house!) carries a constantly evolving supply. I’ve never wanted for a slice of gluten-free bread, a chocolate cookie, or a plethora of pasta. Frozen gluten-free pizza, gnocchi, and tiramisu are also available. As a familiar face, I even receive product discounts from the pharmacist. The only stipulation seems to be that I speak to her in English so she can improve her language skills, a condition to which I’m perfectly happy to comply.

Mastering the Italian language has proven to be the most difficult task for me these past two years. While the average vacationer can often get by with just a few pleasantries such as buon giorno (good day), per favore (please), and grazie (thank you), greater fluency is required when living or traveling outside the major tourist areas. Even in the town where I live, a mere 20-minute drive from where the American military base is located, English is not common. Many of the Italian students we have met due to our sons playing soccer on the town team tell us they study German as their second language. After all, this area is only a 2-hour drive from the Austrian and Slovenian borders and at different times in recent history, portions of Italy have been under both Austrian and Yugoslavian control.

So, I’ve tried to learn Italian. Sometimes my attempts are even successful. More often than not, however, I get caught up in listening to the melodic intonations of the language, imagining myself at one of the Italian operas that is performed every summer in the first century A.D. Roman arena in Verona. As such, I carry an Italian-language gluten-free dining card with me wherever I go. There’s no sense in getting sick because of a misunderstood word. I’ve also learned to recognize the words for the forbidden grains so I can read ingredient labels when food shopping.

My qualms about living in Italy with celiac disease are not unique. They are the same ones expressed by celiacs moving and traveling practically anywhere new and different. Fortunately, for both residents and visitors to Italy, there is an Italian Celiac Association (AIC), with active local support groups. Their biggest accomplishment, in my opinion, is the establishment of a gluten-free restaurant training program. Restaurants, pizzerias, agriturismi, and hotels can receive this training. Then, the AIC includes the business’ information on its website, The list can be accessed either by going directly to the “Ristorazione” section of the website, or by clicking on the segment created especially for English-speaking travelers. Entitled “Vademecum for the Celiac Voyager,” this area has lots of helpful information for tourists, including a section called “Choosing at the Restaurant,” that offers suggestions for the safest food when not dining at an AIC-trained dining establishment. As well, there is a part called “Prontuario” that lists commercially available gluten-free products.

During these past two years living and traveling around Italy and other parts of Europe, I’ve noted what’s worked best for me, and have sought to share these experiences with other celiacs who also enjoy travel. My dream is to have one central source for celiac travelers, in the form of a celiac travel guide.

In less than two weeks, my husband, children, and I will return to live in the United States. Believe it or not, we do not have a set destination. That’s because my husband has recently retired from 23 years of active duty military service. So, for the first time in our married life, after having lived in eight different places without much say about it (though I’ll never complain about having to live in Italy), we actually get to choose where we want to live! We’re taking our time. It’s a new journey.

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