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.
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.)
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!)
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.
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.