A few weeks ago, I walked into a kebab shop. I promise this is more extraordinary than it sounds. First, it was 5:30 a.m. Second, I was in Dusseldorf, Germany (a town I had not know existed 24 hours prior). Third, I am a vegetarian.
After spending the night on a bus, my stomach had transformed into a ravenous monster that was willing to eat anything plant-based—even the grass on the side of the road was starting to look good. So you can imagine the irony when my bus stopped for an hour layover right in front of five kebab shops, which were laid out neatly lined up in a row. Running the opportunity costs in my head, I decided that wandering around the dimly lit side streets surrounding the bus stop, alone and in the dark, was not a very good idea. I had never needed an opportunity to become well-versed in the quality of kebab shops as a vegetarian, so to avoid the frigid winds, I quickly picked one of the five kebab shops at random and walked in.
The menu was in German but not completely incomprehensible—it was crystal clear that every single dish had meat in it. Smiling at the owner, I tried explaining that I was a vegetarian. However, we quickly ran into complications. He only spoke Arabic and German. My Farsi and Urdu were not enough explain that I had walked into his kebab shop wanting to try none of his meat. In an attempt to find someone who spoke English, the owner pulled random people into his shop and called people he knew on his cellphone. This was all to no avail, so we resorted to the pointing game. Arms flailing, jumping up and down, I shook my head no as he tried scraping meat into my pita pocket. I pointed at the vegetables I wanted and he rung up an arbitrary two euro amount on his cash register for my pita pocket; crisis averted. Twenty minutes later, I settled into my seat with my delicious pita pocket, the restaurant owner and I singing along to the Miley Cyrus song playing in the background.
The definition of vegetarian changes drastically depending on which country I am in. In London, I never have a problem. All menus have a “v” next to dishes without meat and all packaged food items follow this rule as well—oftentimes also designating if the food contains eggs or dairy. This, combined with a variety of cuisines to choose from and no language barrier, make eating in London a dream. However, London is definitely the exception. I’ve had to explain to waiters in Toledo, Spain that creatures with eyes in fact do not count as part of a vegetarian diet, hunt for the Danish word for vegetables in menus full of pork, and explained to bewildered Frenchmen that I have indeed purposely chosen a life where I don’t eat meat. But my favorite interaction of all was in Portugal—a country where fish makes up a main staple of the diet. After walking from market stall to market stall, we finally found a stall with not one, not two, but three vegetarian options! I thanked the cashier for providing me with so much choice, and his response was that they strove to make sure “people with problems” also had things to eat. Laughing, I gave him an extra tip and walked away.
These interactions have highlighted the complex interactions between culture and cuisine, the ethnocentricity of English, and most importantly of all, the value of human connections. Rather than a purely transactional relationship where I simply buy my food and leave, ordering food during my time abroad has been transformed into a more meaningful experience. Wild hand gestures, much laughter, and my broken language skills have given me the opportunity to simply stop for a few seconds and be grateful for the people I am meeting and the food I am eating.