4 Things Belgium Taught Us About Eating Abroad

Meals! Snacks! Desserts! All important, and all thrilling when you’re a weary (and/or excitable) traveler in a new place. At least half (if not more) of my excitement in exploring a foreign country comes from sampling novel and authentic food and drinks. It is truly a magical experience.

Belgium was the quintessential example of this–Belgian chocolate, Belgian beer, Belgian fries, Belgian waffles–this country is famous for multiple kinds of foods. It was also a place where we were able to meet up with friends from the States, and share the tasting experience!

But, eating abroad is not always as simple as it sounds. Up first:

1. Foreign Customs and Languages

One thing I mentioned in an earlier blog post is how tipping culture varies from country to country. But before you get around to worrying about whether you’re supposed to tip, you have to decide what you want, and ask for it. Ordering from a menu in a different language isn’t easy. Plus, even if you do understand the language, there are often dishes that are well-known in a country but you have no idea what they are. And although asking is always worth it, if you and your server don’t speak the same language, the answer may not be as enlightening as you’d hope.

My tried and true solution to this has been super straightforward: just go for it. Try the new thing! So far there has been nothing that I’ve hated or been unable to eat. Granted, I am lucky enough not to have any allergies or dietary restrictions. That would certainly be a game changer, and in that case doing some research beforehand might prove necessary. But if you have the ability to take the risk, do it!

The other winning solution has been to have what your server recommends. They will know what’s good, and listening to the knowledge and wisdom of a local has never steered me wrong. Even when that advice comes as a surprise.

Our Brussels free walking tour guide, for instance, had something to say about the waffles. “Most of you may not want to hear this. But when you get a waffle–no toppings. They don’t need it!” He said it was like ruining a beautiful, tender, expensive steak by slathering it in ketchup. You can’t taste the deliciousness of the thing itself; all you taste is the toppings. The waffle “may as well be glorified cardboard. A little powdered sugar is okay, to bring out the crystallized sugar that’s baked into the waffle itself.” But that’s it. And of course, he was right. (Although I gotta admit, Aaron and I did also love the chocolate covered ones.)

And that’s the thing: sometimes you already know exactly what you want. But even then, language barriers can still pose a problem, especially if your order diverges from the menu. We went out to eat in Bruges with our friends Taylor and Scott, at a place that (if I remember correctly) was called The Potato Hut. Taylor asked for a burger with nothing on it but the cheese. Instead she received a cheese croquette and a burger generously (and unfortunately) covered in the exact ingredient she was trying to avoid: mayo.

Mishaps like this can be surprisingly difficult to deal with. You feel bad for ‘causing’ it, even if it was nobody’s fault. You tell yourself, I should’ve spoken more slowly and clearly, should’ve ordered something else, should’ve just eaten the fries and said nothing. But the fact is, you can’t deprive yourself of dinner because of a miscommunication. As long as you aren’t that terrible customer angrily blaming the server or the chef for misunderstanding, you aren’t doing anything wrong. We received the correct order in the end (even if our server did seem a bit put off from chatting with us after all the confusion). We apologized, we thanked them for working with us to fix the problem, we left a generous tip, but we made sure to get a dinner we could eat, even if it was slightly more of a challenge than we were used to.

The second challenge is ol’ faithful:

2. The Budget

I want to try everything, and I want to try the best version of everything, but I’ve only got so much to spend. The struggle is real. But it is possible to at least sample everything you want to try without spending a fortune.

Because Aaron and I are backpacking, we’ve got our single burner camping stove, which has been an incredible money-saver. By grocery shopping and cooking the bulk of our meals, we’ve been able to feed ourselves in a really sustainable way. It also leaves us a bit more leeway for the times that we do eat out.

That said, we’ve also found some money-saving hacks for eating out. The first is the most important: ask a local for a good, affordable local spot. It’ll probably be better and cheaper than a chain. And sometimes, the best spot to get certain foods might surprise you.

When it comes to both waffles and frittes (fries) in Belgium, it turns out that the best place isn’t one of the shops or restaurants with luscious window displays of chocolate and fruit covered pastries or flashy signs. It’s the food carts. In both cases, the limited space means there’s a much better chance your food is hot and fresh, not made the night before and stored for the morning. (For the frittes, though, if you really want the best you have to make sure they’ve got more than one fryer, so each batch can be twice fried, and that they use beef fat, not vegetable oil. Thanks, tour guide wisdom!)

And even though there are famous Belgian chocolate shops that have become household names for their quality and history, many of them no longer make their chocolate on-site. It’s the tiny shop near where we took a boat tour of the Bruges canal that we found true Belgian hot chocolate: steamed milk and a stirrer that is essentially a chocolate lollipop on a popsicle stick that melts into the milk for the most velvety, rich drink you can imagine. (I don’t have a picture, sadly. Aaron and I didn’t actually get the hot chocolate; we tried sips of Taylor’s and Scott’s. Not sure how they had the willpower to share, but I’m super grateful they did!)

Sharing was actually how we accessed all of our Belgian chocolate! I have honestly been truly inspired by the generosity we’ve experienced on this trip. Aaron and I wanted to be a part of this amazing spirit, and so we offered to share what was left of our bottle of wine with our roommates in our Brussels hostel. We definitely were not looking for anything in return–apart from the fact that it’s not really sharing if you’re seeking repayment, all we had to offer was the dregs of a sub-par bottle and a bag of Lays chips…but Mikhail then broke out an entire box of delicate Belgian chocolates and invited us to have some while we all played cards and talked.

However, keep an eye on how you phrase things, especially when somebody is kind enough to share a foreign food. You may intend to simply sound curious when you ask, “What is that?”, but I can say from experience that you may accidentally come across as though you’re turning your nose up at it (oops).

My other favorite try-new-foods trick is sampling. Never say no to a free taste. Not only will bartenders in any country give you a taste of your beer before you order it, we also opted to get beer flights in Belgium so we could try as great a variety as possible. As per the wisdom of our tour guide, when it comes to beer in a foreign country, “If you’ve already heard of it, get something else. Don’t get a Stella–order something you can’t get your hands on back in the States!” With food as well as drinks, Aaron and I try to order different things from each other as well, so we can each sample each others’ dish.

The next challenge is eternal for all of us:

3. Nutrition

As nice as it would be to live off beer and chocolate and ice cream (which, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, is just better over here), it’s simply not sustainable. Especially not when you’re pushing your body–hiking, backpacking, and in our case, performing. Even city sightseeing can be strenuous. There are walking tours to take, clock towers to climb.

Over the past year or so, I’ve learned a lot more about nutrition than I knew before. I’ve come to understand the importance of getting a starch, protein, fat, and fruit/veg in every meal. Obviously every meal won’t be perfect, and sometimes one group has to be substituted for another. And especially when your traveling, but also in general, it’s not worth being too obsessive over. But awareness and goals are certainly useful.

Starch has always been the easiest to come by. And we’ve found meats and cheeses to be readily accessible and affordable throughout Europe. Breakfast especially is all about meats and pastries. It’s been vegetables–especially green vegetables–that I’ve had the hardest time finding.

Because we don’t have any reliable means of refrigerating anything, fresh produce like veggies aren’t the most practical for us to buy. And lettuce often doesn’t come on pre-made sandwiches; even when we’ve gone out to dinner, a dish will often just be meat and potatoes, and maybe some carrots or tomato. So I’ve been learning to keep open eyes for vegetable opportunities, seize them, and just not worry about it the rest of the time.

Finally, the fourth challenge is where it gets more personal:

4. Navigating A Complex Relationship With Food

In my case, this means continuing down the road of recovery from an eating disorder. For me, the disorder has taken the form of extended periods of binge-eating and extended periods of extreme restriction, and each phase can last for months at a time. But even if your relationship with food isn’t as messed up as mine is, just about everyone I know has some uncomfortable feelings regarding what and how they eat, and it’s pretty easy for travel to give those nasty thoughts a giant megaphone.

You’re eating way too much junk. You’re eating way too much, period. But careful, don’t start restricting again. You’re not eating enough. You’re being too controlling. You have no self-control!

I’ve been really lucky–I was able to work with a therapist and a dietician for the past couple of years, and by the time I left for this trip, I was in a much healthier place. I had the tools I needed to be able to manage those kinds of thoughts, and not allow them to consume my trip and my being. Luckily, there’s so much else on my plate right now, food cannot be the only item there that I pay attention to anymore.

But on a trip like this everything is out of the ordinary, which means there’s really no way of sticking to a routine. And that can be difficult for anybody: your body feels different, and of course there’s social attention and pressure on food and eating.

The biggest thing that’s helped me has been keeping my self separate from my self-effacing thoughts. I am not my eating disorder. Even if those nasty thoughts sound very convincing, even truthful, I don’t have to alter my behavior to satisfy them. Even when it’s hugely difficult, I can disobey them, and the more I do that, the easier it becomes not to believe what they’re saying in the first place. My dietician suggested answers I can give to those thoughts–to remind them, and me, that I’m not “eating too much”, I’m giving my body (and my spirit) the fuel that it needs. I’m being mindful, which is by nature counter to bingeing, which is mindless. And if I get off track, the world won’t come crashing down around me. I have the tools to get back on track again.

And I refuse to let these thoughts control me, or keep me from fully living this experience that I’ve worked so hard for.

Instead, I’m learning to be actively proud of the times I eat something new–whether or not it’s ‘healthy’–as well as proud of the ways I’m still seeking out balanced nutrition. And most of all, I’m proud of making food part of the fun, but not all of the fun. I guess that’s all of life, isn’t it: every day is about seeking a balance, and enjoying the process of doing it.

(Note: If you’re also struggling with eating, I found the book Life Without Ed by Jenni Schaefer to be hugely helpful. Many of my best tools were learned from that book.)

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