How to travel with an allergy

My family and I are in Barcelona and really enjoying our time here, although one member is finding it a little tough. My youngest child has a cow’s milk protein allergy and he’s been struggling. Thankfully the Lego his grandmother has been buying him seems to be compensating.

Lego a treat for allergic child photo
Beats chocolate

Allergic reactions and travel: not a good recipe 

Technically my son has an intolerance, not an allergy, and thank goodness we haven’t needed to rush to the hospital like when he was a baby. Nevertheless the reactions have been pretty horrendous, especially at night. Arching his back in pain, rashes, crying throughout the early hours and I won’t go into the digestive issues in case you’re squeamish.

I wonder how anyone with an allergy can ever be bothered to travel. When you need a special diet you get to know where to shop, which products are off limits, the restaurants where you’ll be able to enjoy more than fresh air or your own packed lunch. When you travel, you start all over.

Here in Barcelona we’ve had to start from scratch, hunting out the good grocery stores, reading (and translating) labels and asking assistants five times over ‘are you really sure this doesn’t contain milk, dairy or milk proteins? Can I check the label myself please?’

It’s so tiring, so frustrating and I wonder how sufferers travel to places where allergies are not as common or the locals are not as educated. I wish I was in Japan where being dairy free was as normal as being male or female. Here in Spain it’s tough.

spanish dairy free paella photo
Dairy free at last

Clueless indifference v health and safety bureaucracy 

It’s not that the people don’t understand, this is true of the UK too. ‘Ahhh, he can’t have dairy? OK, I’ll leave the egg out then’. It’s more that there are seemingly no procedures in place. Assistants don’t check labels, there are no allergy listings on menus, waiters carelessly confirm that there is no dairy on the menu (even in butter croissants).

Perhaps the UK takes things too far. I’m breastfeeding my son so I’ve also been on a low dairy diet. Recently at a British restaurant I asked if a meal contained dairy and then when the waiter informed me that it did, I said a very small amount would be OK. It was only after reassuring three different members of staff and signing a consent form that I got my kedgeree. Perhaps this is too much red tape, but given the choice between a bit of bureaucracy and a sick toddler and I know which I’d choose.

This laissez faire attitude to allergies rings true in many countries. On the one occasion that an Expater friend with a peanut allergy spontaneously tried a new restaurant in Belgium, she had to run home for her epi pen before we got to our mains. Meanwhile another friend in Italy always seems to get a vegetarian dish when she says she’s coeliac. No matter if the vegetarian option contains gluten or not.

Offending those you love

The doyenne of allergy free cuisine, Ella Mills, aka Deliciously Ella, advocates packing homemade snacks and even a travel blender. Having learned the hard way, I always try to carry snacks for my child. In fact my handbag contains more oatcakes than makeup (which says a lot).

What about when you’re eating with family or friends though? I used to worry about offending hosts when I explained that my child would not be eating their lovingly prepared Sunday lunch. I used to feel pressured to give my child an ingredient that they assured me was dairy free even when I knew that it wasn’t. After a year of this, I’ve become more direct. I’m trying to be more relaxed in terms of diet, but I’d rather offend someone’s feelings than my son’s belly.

allergy child photo
Searching for cake

When it’s a child with an allergy people tend to be fairly understanding, but I wonder if adults get off so lightly? Expaters with allergies, how do you do it?

Times are changing, my son is changing too

Thankfully Barcelona is evolving and while a year ago it was near impossible to find good quality dairy free alternatives, today health food shops and vegan restaurants are becoming as fashionable as tortilla patata. My son is also growing out of his intolerance.

vegan allergy menu photo
Vegan is now on the menu in Spain

Soon we’ll be moving to a new country and I’m just praying that our new host country will get what it means to be dairy free. To be on the safe side I’ll be stuffing my case with oatcakes and lots and lots of Lego.

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