Camping, and thoughts on cultural similarities

After feeling like an alien last week, I discovered one thing that Americans and Europeans have in common: when confronted with vegetarians, their reaction is OMG QUICK GET THEM HEALTHY THINGS. I’ve sat through piles of steamed zucchini at weddings, iceberg lettuce salads at work functions and well-intentioned but slightly bland lentil concoctions.

A rare sunny moment, taken at the lake in Autocamp Brodský, nearish to the city of Červený Kostelec.

A rare sunny moment, taken at the lake in Autocamp Brodský, nearish to the city of Červený Kostelec.

Let me explain. This weekend, I was on a camping trip with Erasmus students, a large group of students from all over Europe and Asia, and the theme was “survival.” (I’m not an Erasmus student, but the student group in Hradec Králové University has taken me under their wing.) The weekend was fun: divided into teams, we had to compete in various competitions. It was rather civilized for camping: the cottages had little fridges, and there was a mess hall which served food, coffee and alcohol.

Which is where the OMG HEALTHY food comes in. First, let me say that it was awesome that they were accommodating to both vegetarian and gluten-free foods. (I was a little afraid I would be dining on the banana chips, cheese and almonds that I brought with me.)

The pasta dish from lunch.

The tasty pasta dish from lunch.

Not to seem ungrateful— the pasta lunch on the last day made me wish I could’ve asked what kind of gluten-free noodles they used. (They were really good!)

 

VEGETARIANS MUST ALWAYS EAT HEALTHY. Lentils and potatoes, with some type of shredded beet root.

VEGETARIANS MUST ALWAYS EAT HEALTHY. Lentils and potatoes, with some type of shredded beet root.

But I did think it was funny to see the food on Friday and Saturday nights: a nice, healthy lentil potato dish. However, all my dining companions had french fries and fried cheese— and it’s just hard to eat a pile of lentils when you’ve been thinking about french fries, not to mention smelling them.

 

A vegetarian's dinner, non-gluten-free: breaded cauliflower and cheese patty, with potatoes.

A vegetarian’s dinner, non-gluten-free: breaded cauliflower and cheese patty, with potatoes.

Which brings me back to the cultural similarity. Too often, people assume that vegetarian and gluten-free must be super healthy: steamed broccoli, brown rice and beans. Which I have eaten before, and will happily eat again. I just find it interesting that people think the only kind of vegetarian food is “healthy—” or there is something wrong or bad about vegetarian food not being healthy. (When ordering french fries, I’ve had people say, “but you’re vegetarian!” as if potatoes where not vegetables.)

It reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend, about faux meat products. He asked why a vegetarian meal had to include veggie patties, or cheese, or eggs, and why it couldn’t just be a nice bowl of well-seasoned vegetables. And I replied that while the seasoned veggies would be a lovely side dish, it just ain’t going to fill you up. It at least needs beans, or nuts, of some kind.

It also was an interesting insight into typical Czech food, one I haven’t had yet, as I’ve been avoiding typical Czech restaurants. Breakfast was cold cuts, cheese slices, cucumbers and tomatoes, with lots of bread. (I have noticed that gluten-free Czech bread makes me think of gluten-free bread from home very fondly.)

I did notice that my fellow students were often hyper-aware of what countries people were from. Part of it, I think, was that an American, I put them all in a box labeled “European.” Whether Bulgaria, France, Greece or Germany, that was how I thought of them, as they all had something in common that I didn’t. There were Asian students there— but still, not American, not North American, or even a native English speaker.

I was particularly aware of the labeling at the evening party, which involved lots of alcohol. When a fellow teammate looked like he was swaying, I helped him over to the water table, and convinced him to buy potato chips.

“You’re so nice for an American!” he said. To which I laughed so hard I choked on my wine. I have no idea what he meant— maybe that Americans are competitive, or superficial, or prone to wearing cowboy hats. Or that I would draw on him with a Sharpie, take photos and post them online.

But, it did make me realize the pointlessness of grouping people into boxes based on race or country or something else. Sure, I have certain traits that mark me as an American, and a midwestern American at that. All of us, in some way, are influenced and marked by our culture.

And just as we are influenced by our culture, we are not wholly defined by it. Some people are loud, or rude, or quiet, or really into math or science or art, regardless of what country they’re from. (And yes, I know I’m guilty of this, especially if you read my last post.)

In addition, despite whatever culture one if from, a vegetarian, gluten-free mean must mean OMG VERY HEALTHY. (When I was in China, people kept asking if I was a Buddhist.)

We’re all only human.

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2 responses to “Camping, and thoughts on cultural similarities

  1. Hey, I found your blog 🙂
    Anyway, I think that vegetarians are generally thought to make healthy choices because they do something that isn’t common. When you willingly choose to avoid some kinds of food, you usually do it because you think that particular kind of food to be unhealthy, or not good for you. Thus, you’re making a healthy choice and people assume that you want the rest of your diet to be healthy too 🙂
    People just aren’t used to something that’s out of the norm. They always get so hung up on me not eating anything made from grains – and then they are like “okay, have some potatoes” 🙂 Kinda hard to explain that I don’t eat starches either, without being looked at as if I was completely crazy 🙂
    Jana

  2. Yay, you found it!
    And I totally get you on the healthy choices part— and most of my choices are pretty healthy, I’d like to think. But I did find it interesting, and a little comforting, in a roundabout way, that veggie food is also classified as very healthy here Especially next to the regular vegetarian plate on this trip, the difference between my food and theirs was striking.
    And about potatoes (and also rice): I have the opposite problem— when I tell people I don’t eat wheat, they always ask if there is wheat in rice or potatoes. (Really.) I’ve even been asked if there is wheat in corn.

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