They say that music is a universal language. In many ways, so is food. No matter where you travel, people show pride in their heritage and express their emotions through food.
As world travelers, my husband, Victor, and I want to expose our children to different cultures. Both of us have worked abroad – he in Brazil, I in Japan – and have visited many countries in Europe, Asia, South America and Africa. We would love to take our children to Japan and India, the birthplaces of our ancestors. But we’ve been reluctant to do so because of our son Julian’s food allergies. Given his sensitivity to several foods and the challenge of language barriers, it may be a while before we work up the courage to go to either country.
When we first embarked on this food allergy journey, the world felt like a dangerous place. Taking baby steps, we opted for North American destinations with a high level of food allergy awareness and quick access to medical care.
As Julian matures, we recognize that we need to do more to prepare him to travel without us. Now in Grade 7, it is only a matter of time before he goes to a foreign country with classmates and adults who may be less knowledgeable about his allergies. His ability to self-protect, in many ways, will be his greatest safeguard.
Julian feels that he can fend for himself and points out my tendency to “hover”; his way of saying that I can be over-protective. However, he agrees that to gain more independence, he must speak up more and ask questions about which foods are appropriate.
Recently, my family made its first international trip. We started slowly, visiting England and Ireland, where we could communicate in our mother tongue. The trip helped to build our confidence. International travel with food allergies does require a lot more planning – but it can be done. If you’re thinking of going overseas, here are some tips to consider:
Connect with international allergy associations
Visit www.foodallergyalliance.org, the website for the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Alliance, where you will find links to associations from North America, Europe and Asia. Though none will provide a list of safe foods, they can point you to resources about food labeling regulations and possibly food policies on local airlines. Some provide links to services that can translate allergy-related information, which may be especially useful for travelers who don’t speak the local language.
Take extra epinephrine auto-injectors
In case bags are lost, our habit is for Julian to carry two auto-injector devices (as usual) and Victor and I to each carry one backup. We also take a note from the allergist which supports Julian’s need to carry an auto-injector in case we are stopped by authorities. And don’t forget to wear MedicAlert identification, which is recognized internationally.
Be prepared for an emergency
Find out the emergency number in the country or area you will be visiting. (For example, it’s 911 in most Canadian and U.S. locations.) Learn how to operate the local payphones, which are often different outside of North America, and carry change. Remember that you may not have cell phone service abroad so look into renting a local cell phone. Be sure to always have an epinephrine auto-injector available and review how to use it. Some ambulances may not be equipped with epinephrine, and some paramedics may not be allowed to administer it. When selecting a hotel, ask how far it is to the nearest hospital.
Pack your own food for the flight
Only bring foods that have been consumed safely before, and pack extra safe snacks in case of delays. Don’t bring foods that require heating, as airlines do not have microwaves (they have equipment to keep airline meals warm). Although attendants may be willing to reheat food in oven-ready containers or foil after the meal service, you need to think about the possibility of cross-contamination.
Use dining out experiences to train your child
Encourage your child to think through the questions to ask food service staff ahead of time, then role play. When he’s ordering, don’t interrupt, but jump in if his questions are not thorough. Though Julian remembers to ask about the oil and ingredients in French fries, he often forgets to ask whether shellfish, to which he is allergic, is cooked in the same fryer as the fries.
The only negative experience on our trip happened after we landed in Toronto. Security staff scolded us for bringing in one green apple, which I had packed with Julian’s food, and we were held back for more than an hour. Lesson learned: Remember to find out about local restrictions on foods you can take into a country, even your own country. This being our only glitch, we’re now ready to venture onward. Next stop – visiting relatives in Spain!
Laurie Harada is the former executive director of Food Allergy Canada, www.foodallergycanada.ca.