A year abroad is, by its very nature, riddled with potential pitfalls and sometimes unexpected difficulties. For the vast majority of students, it is the first time that they have lived in a different country, and setting up a new life amidst an unknown culture’s quirks and customs is far from easy. Finding somewhere to live, settling into a new job or internship, and, dare I say it, making friends, are all tasks to be navigated whilst also trying to maximise the amount of time spent speaking the language. When I arrived in France six weeks ago, I expected the aforementioned challenges to be tricky but what I was not as prepared for was the difficulty I would encounter whilst trying to adhere to my diet of choice: vegetarianism.
Despite having been vegetarian for less than a year, I wasn’t particularly keen on the idea of going back to eating meat, but I knew that following a flesh-free diet in France was never going to be easy. Even the most cursory of research reveals that the UK is the European nation with the population by far most likely to try reducing its meat intake, with 23% of Brits attempting to do so, and it has the third highest rate of vegetarianism in the EU. There are also strict rules in place regarding labelling foods as suitable for vegetarians. Look around: gourmet salad bars (think Alpha Bar in the Covered Market) are ten to the dozen and several colleges have now introduced ‘Meat-free Mondays’ or similar. By contrast, only 2% of the French population is estimated to be vegetarian, and the European Vegetarian Union reports that the French government effectively outlaws the serving of vegan meals at any public or private school in France. Canteens in schools must adhere to certain nutritional requirements which make the exclusion of meat nigh on impossible because the state seems to believe that all protein must come from animal sources. If you ask me, there is a whole plethora of reasons for which the state should probably look into doing a bit more research on this…but that’s another matter.
Statistics aside, my personal experience so far is fairly accurately reflected in this anonymous comment on a Guardian article: “Ah France, the scourge of vegetarians! It’s not the most pleasant place to visit if you’re a strict vegetarian. Thank god for the wine!”. Well-meant but somewhat misguided and uninformed comments such as “Oh, you’re vegetarian…so you eat chicken then?” are just the start; before I ‘confessed’ to counting myself amongst their number, my boss spent the whole of one lunchtime ranting about how vegetarians are food-stealers who choose to be awkward for the sake of it. One particularly memorable meal at work (my employer provides us interns with lunch approximately 50% of the time and never lets us forget that she does it “out of the kindness of her heart”) consisted of cous cous, mashed potato, and rice…and nothing else. A balanced meal it was not. My student budget doesn’t often stretch to eating out, but none of the restaurants I have visited so far have had more than one vegetarian option – and some haven’t had any at all. It is true that the cultural similarities between France and Britain are numerous; the ability to compassionately understand the dietary choices of others rather than simply tolerating them begrudgingly is, however, yet to cross the Channel.
Despite encountering difficulties, at no point have I been even slightly tempted to call it a day and start eating meat again. On the contrary, many quintessentially French dishes, notably veal and foie gras, have made me even more reluctant to do so. This is almost completely on account of the fact that the animals in question, before being slaughtered, typically endure a horrific amount of cruelty – something that the French seem to be almost unanimously indifferent towards and even deny. This is not the place for a description of how foie gras is produced, but suffice to say that production is illegal in the UK.
So, as that wise Guardian commenter so astutely noted, thank god for the wine, one of the few things that is guaranteed to be 100% suitable for vegetarians. Not that you can ever really be sure, as nothing here has labels on it stating as much. But I, for one, am more than willing to take the risk.