…do as the Romans do. That’s what everyone says! But what happens when you have food allergies, and physically can’t do as the Romans do? Or really, as Italians in general? Eating is their favorite pastime, and boy do they love their food!
In just a few days, I’ll have been in Rome for an entire month. Believe me when I tell you, Roma è bellisima! Rome is beautiful! I’ll be in this beautiful city for another three months, and it is quite honestly an architecture major’s dream. In contrast though, it seems like a set up for a nightmare for anyone with food allergies. Yet, here I am. I never wanted my food allergies to get in the way of furthering my education, so I packed up my bags and hopped on a plane for a semester studying architecture in Rome. But I did not do so without extensive planning.
After listing my food allergies under “Other Concerns” in my application and receiving my acceptance in May, I was contacted immediately by Catholic University’s Center for Global Education. They told me that while they have housed students with food allergies on our Rome campus before, it has never been someone with as many allergies as me and they wanted to come up with a plan to keep me safe. Over the course of 65 emails in one thread, three in-person meetings, and a skype call with the student directors in Rome, we came up with what seemed like a foolproof plan.
While the other students on campus receive breakfast Monday – Friday and dinner Monday – Thursday, I have a personal chef who comes in Monday – Thursday and while the kitchen is empty in the morning, she prepares my lunch and dinner. She puts it in Tupperware and places it in the fridge that only she and I have a key to. On Thursday, she prepares extra meals for me that I can eat Friday through Sunday. Then, in the middle of February, the Australian Catholic University students move off campus and a faculty apartment is available. So now, in just one week, I’ll be moving into that apartment that is just down the hall from my current dorm where I’ll be able to cook my own meals for the rest of the semester. With this plan in place, I felt safe getting on a plane and living in Rome. (But I also did pack nearly an entire suitcase full of safe snacks to bring with me!)
But of course, not everything can go as well as we plan. On my first day in Rome, I met with my personal chef Cristina and the Assistant Student Director. Together the three of us went grocery shopping, with the Assistant Student Director serving as translator between Cristina and I as we discussed what was safe and what I liked. Because Cristina would not start cooking for me until Monday, and I arrived on a Friday, we bought food for the weekend that didn’t require a kitchen to prepare; slices of turkey, bread, and salad. It wasn’t much, but we all read the ingredients and everything seemed safe. That was all that mattered to me! The next day, within the first two bites of my turkey and bread that I decided to have for lunch, my first “Italian” meal, my tongue was instantly itchy. I took Benadryl right away and prayed that it wouldn’t get any worse. Naturally, within the hour the terrible feeling moved to my stomach. Even though my tongue was no longer itchy, I was scared and frustrated that this was happening. I stood up in the middle of our orientation session and walked to the back of the room. The Assistant Student Director saw me do this and followed me to the back. She saw the tears in my eyes and walked me to the Director’s office where I could sit and evaluate what the next steps needed to be. Fortunately, I soon realized the pain in my stomach was going away, and the only thing I needed now was some rest.
After sleeping for a few hours, I woke up feeling much better physically, but I was sad and frustrated. Was all of the planning for nothing? Would it be smarter if I just went home? While all of my friends went exploring and got acclimated to our new campus, I wallowed in doubt. I was so tempted to call my parents and ask them to buy me a plane ticket home.
I really wanted to. I was so close to asking for that ticket. But for some reason I couldn’t bring myself to.
The next day I went out into the city for the first time. Suddenly looming in front of me was the Pantheon. The Pantheon. The Pantheon which is almost 2000 years old. The Pantheon which has the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. The Pantheon which I have been learning about since my first day of architecture school. The Pantheon. As an architecture major, it was jaw dropping. I instantly remembered why I’m here; I’m here to learn about architecture in it’s birthplace, in a way I cannot learn back in the United States. Once inside, I was drawn to a statue of the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus, and I knew that in the same way Mary watched over Jesus, Mary was going to watch over me during my time here. I just had to have faith.
Now that it’s nearly been a month, I have seen so much more than just the Pantheon, and I’m so glad I’ve stayed. It has not always been easy, but it has gotten better. If I let my food allergies pressure me into giving up, if I let my anxiety and fear of the unknown cripple me, I would have missed out on the experience of a lifetime. I may not be doing exactly as the Romans do, but let me tell you – my allergy friendly pizza is absolutely delicious, and I think the Romans are okay with that.