February 1, 2014, by Guest blog

The challenge of vegetarianism in France

During my time in France, I came across a number of cultural challenges. For example, I discovered that the French really do not share the English sense of humour. This resulted in many embarrassing situations where I seemed inadvertently to offend people (note to self: never use sarcasm in France) or to get into a heated discussion because of an offhand comment I had made that was taken too seriously. However, for me, the biggest cultural challenge I had to face was the issue of food.

I am a strict vegetarian and have been all of my life. In England, I have never had a problem with it as every food item in the supermarket and in most restaurants is labelled with a giant “V” which makes life much easier. I was aware vegetarianism is not so popular or easy in other countries and had faced a few challenges before while travelling in the past. However, what I found to be the biggest challenge in France was people’s attitudes towards my decision not to eat meat. Going out for dinner with friends (or, even worse, eating at friend’s houses!) was a battle that always ended up with me being close to tears with frustration. Having been a vegetarian all of my life, I know what foods I can and can’t eat. I know that certain cheeses, ice creams, sweets and desserts are not suitable for vegetarians. I have lost count of the amount of times I have tried to explain this to people. In general, when I say this to people in England, they look shocked for a few seconds and then accept that I know best and that they have learned something new. French people, on the other hand, seem to be incapable of admitting they don’t know something (particularly when it comes to food.) Whenever I said, for example, that I can’t eat certain cheeses such as parmesan, they would scowl and inform me it’s made of milk (oh thank you! I never knew that!) I started to dread meal times whenever I was eating with other people because I was aware of all the questions that I was going to be subjected to. During every meal, I felt like the stupid foreign girl who foolishly believes there are animal products in a lot of foods and who was making a fuss over nothing – but this is the last thing I wanted!

The only thing I truly missed about England (apart from my family) was food. People laugh when I say that I’ve been living in France and missed English food. I have no doubt that French food is very good (if you like meat) but my issue is their attitude to food. In England, it is true that we are bad cooks and that we are overweight and that we don’t really have any typical English dishes. However, what I love about “English grub” is that we are open to all kinds of food from around the world! I love Indian food, Chinese food or Thai food, for example, whereas the French are too snobby (sorry, I love French people, but they are snobby when it comes to food) to try other foods and accept their worth. Cooking with my French friends was a nightmare as they seemed to criticise and belittle everything I did because I am English and can’t possibly know how to cook (even to the extent of how much water to put in a pan to make pasta … I’m a student, I think I can manage to cook pasta…) I could talk about this all day because little things like this upset and frustrated me so much.

Anyway, somehow, I am still a vegetarian despite the amount of abuse I received for it and am about to embark on the next leg of my journey to the land of jamón … (aka Spain.) Wish me luck!

Posted in Cultural challenges