I had been vegetarian for four years, ever since going cold-turkey in 2018. I never struggled with cravings, and (after a while) had the support of my unapologetically meat-loving family. Eating different food than everyone at the table was difficult for a while, but I quickly learned to love it. Becoming a vegetarian taught me to cook for myself, and gave me a new appreciation for where my food comes from. Living in America, too, made transitioning easy. Products like tempeh, tofu, seitan, and protein powder were readily available nearly everywhere, and so were recipes. I made sushi with tofu, Thanksgiving turkey with homemade seitan. I learned how to roast, steam, stir fry, marinate. I began to understand what flavors pair well together, what produce is in season when, and where to find all the ingredients in the grocery store.
Italy, of course, is not America.
This much I anticipated. Over the summer before my semester abroad began, I realized that being vegetarian in Siena would be difficult. I was grocery shopping with my mom one day, back on Long Island, when I suggested our family have fish for dinner. I would prepare tofu for myself, but assured her I was willing to try the fish again. My thought was that, if I could at least eat fish, getting protein in my diet during my time in Italy would be a bit easier. Gradually, I reintroduced fish to my diet. By the time I left, my hair was feeling thicker and my nails stronger. Nowadays I consider myself a pescetarian.
While Italy is famous for many fish dishes (think the Feast of the 7 Fishes) I didn’t properly consider the implications of Siena being a Tuscan, land-locked city, with no fresh access to fish. While you will find good fish on the menus of restaurants here, they’re often some of the most expensive options. The grocery stores, especially now in late autumn, hardly ever have fish to sell. So much for that.
If I eat out I may occasionally eat fish, but these days I make my own food unless it’s being freely provided by IES Abroad. There is a health store down the road from my apartment which sells tofu, tempeh, and seitan (some of them even come pre-marinated). The tempeh I usually buy is far safer to eat every day than the imported, package-sealed salmon they sometimes sell in the grocery stores.
Even when vegetarian food is being provided to me, it isn’t always a satisfying meal. I particularly remember one night when my class was taken out to a contrada banquet. For the other girls’ secondi, they were served roast potatoes and a big fried chicken. I was given a sliced tomato and two balls of mozzarella.
As for food that isn’t protein, Italy does have remarkable produce (if not limited). On Friday mornings, local producers crowd their farm stands near the city fort and sell seasonal fruit and vegetables. Early in September, the market was brimming with stone fruit and figs. This time of year, there is plenty of squash and still some salad greens.
If you’re vegetarian, you’ll have a hard time finding a healthy breakfast. When you visit the coffee bars before class, you’ll notice that the only options for food are typically prosciutto sandwiches or sugary pastries. While the other girls in my program usually come to class with food in hand to hold them over, I usually have a late breakfast midday of a pear, some nuts, maple syrup, and a yogurt from the grocery store under my apartment.
As of today, it's been over a month since I last ate fish; I am currently living like a vegetarian. And boy, have I never appreciated life in America like I do right now. I miss being able to eat something different every day. I miss not having to worry about being able to feed myself. I miss eating hot meals every night, even if they’re leftovers (my apartment doesn’t have a microwave). I miss making food for other people, like I did in college when my friends and I hosted a vegan Thanksgiving.
Is it possible to eat better vegetarian food than I do in Italy? Absolutely. As long as you like pasta, there’s plenty of dishes for you to try at restaurants and to cook at home (I personally don’t like pasta—you’re probably wondering at this point why I decided to come to Italy for my semester abroad, to which my answer is that I came for the wining, not the dining). But if you’re concerned about eating enough protein, you’ll have to fend for yourself, and it won’t be easy.
I don’t mean to sound pessimistic, but this is the reality of my situation. I had no idea what it would be like living in Siena as a vegetarian when I applied to this program, but I would have liked to know, and I hope this perspective is helpful to some of you out there now.
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My name is Olivia Bozuhoski, and I am a Boston-based Arts Administration student. I love painting, reading, journaling, hiking, wine, and learning about art history. I am thrilled to be in Italy this semester, and even more thrilled to be sharing the experience with students like myself.