Studying abroad can be difficult. You’re thousands of miles away from home, not everyone speaks English, and there’s no peanut butter. Like, anywhere. You think you’re not a big fan of peanut butter? Just you wait until it’s nowhere to be found.
When I studied abroad in Madrid, I almost had a breakdown over a meal because nearly everything in our dining hall was meat-based, and my poor little vegetarian heart just couldn’t take it. However, it did mean that I got very accustomed to buying my own Spanish groceries and eating out at restaurants. Boy, are there are some things I wish people had told me before I went abroad.
1. No, Seriously. Where’s the Peanut Butter?
Food that’s common in America can be hard to find abroad and is often unrecognizable if you do find it. Don’t get any cravings for peanut butter, s’mores, corn dogs, maple syrup, or ranch dressing abroad, because you’re not going to be able to get any. Take this as a chance to try new foods that you don’t recognize. You may even find a new favorite food.
2. This Doesn’t Look Like What I’m Used To…
There are a lot of foods available abroad that we know and love in the US. However, foods like pizza, lemonade, BBQ, hamburgers, and even bread and cheese are all slightly different from their American versions. In Málaga, Spain, my friends ordered hamburgers—only to be served actual ham patties on a hamburger bun. Be prepared for some familiar foods to be very unfamiliar.
3. To Tip or Not to Tip?
Tipping abroad isn’t like tipping in America. For starters, most servers are paid a full living wage and don’t have to live off their tips like American servers. In some countries, tipping can even be seen as an insult. It depends on the country you’re in, but for the most part, tipping is unnecessary. If you must tip, go for about 10% of the bill—the 20% US standard is considered excessive elsewhere.
4. Uh, Waiter?
Once I sat with my friend at a restaurant for a half hour waiting for the waiter to come over and take our order. Why? Because at many restaurants abroad, you have to take the initiative. You have to ask to be served, let your waiter know when you’re ready to order and flag them down when you want the check. And oftentimes, they take their sweet time in helping you out.
The key here is to be patient. In many other countries, eating is considered to be an enjoyable experience and not to be rushed. If your waiter takes forever to come to your table, use it as an opportunity to get to know the people around you better.
5. Order in the Local Language
Ready to hear something infuriating? In some foreign cities, menus printed in English often list higher prices than menus printed in the local tongue for the same food. Restaurants will actually charge you more for speaking English. Talk about knowing the local dialect really paying off.
All puns aside, never ask for a menu printed in English. Break out that translator app and order in the native language, because us college students can’t afford to have our wallets penalized due to a language barrier. Or better yet, take this opportunity to learn a new language. You’ll feel great when you order without the waiter blankly staring and still have money leftover for dessert.
6. Don’t Expect 24/7 Food Availability
The US is unique in our love for anytime dining. Unfortunately, lots of countries abroad have specified times for eating, and you won’t be able to get food if you go outside of those times. Some restaurants won’t open until 3 pm and then will close at 6 pm, or nothing will be open after 9 pm. Say goodbye to your midnight munchies, and get ready to eat on a stricter timetable.
7. Hole In the Wall = Best. Food. Ever.
The most amazing dishes I had abroad weren’t at the oldest restaurant in the world or the four-star fancy eateries. It was the small, out of the way, family-owned shops that had the best food. I got to see a better picture of what the average person eats, and nothing beats home-style cooking. Nothing.
These restaurants will often be far away from tourist sites, and much less expensive. What you lose in walking far, you’ll more than make up in cheap, delicious eats. If in doubt, ask the locals where their favorite places to eat are. Search out that sketchy gem hidden away on a side street—I promise it won’t disappoint.
8. Feed Your Sweet Tooth
This may come as a shocker: America doesn’t have the best chocolate or coffee. When it comes to these basic treats, other countries have perfected their recipes to a level that America hasn’t quite reached yet. When you go abroad, make sure you try the chocolate and coffee and taste how amazingly flavorful it is.
This advice can also be applied to lots of other foods abroad, so just try new things! They may just surprise you, and you could find yourself stuffing your suitcase full of goodies to smuggle them back to the US.
9. “Fresh Fish” Has a Whole New Meaning
One time, our table ordered grilled fish to share. My jaw dropped when it arrived with heads and scales still attached. This wasn’t a rare case; fish is often served whole in other countries. You’re expected to scale it yourself. It’s not so bad—just grab a fork, scrape it along the skin, and make sure you get all the bones out. You’ll learn a new skill, and have a great story to tell all your friends.
10. Lower Your Breakfast Expectations
For some odd reason, foreigners haven’t embraced the amazingness of large, lavish American breakfasts—their loss. People in different countries often have small, simple breakfasts. I’m talking “single piece of bread, maybe some butter, and a cup of coffee” simple.
However, don’t fret too much over the lack of pancakes and bacon. Instead, take advantage of the smaller breakfasts to spend your daily calories on sampling a wonderful array of foreign desserts.
11. Where’s My Water?
You know how at restaurants back home, water is complimentary and refilled frequently? Not so much in other countries. If you ask for water abroad, you might be given bottled or sparkling. Always make sure to ask for water “without gas,” and be prepared to suck it up and buy bottled water if you’re thirsty.
If you really need to stay hydrated, carrying a water bottle everywhere with you will help you save some cash. But be careful of tap water—water safety varies from country to country, and in some places, the water from the faucet isn’t safe to drink. Always ask if the tap water is okay for drinking before you guzzle it down.
12. Relax Your Diet Restrictions
Being vegan, gluten-free, or having other dietary restrictions is really difficult to sustain abroad. A lot of places are getting better about this by offering more options that accommodate diverse diets, but not every location is up to par. If you don’t have allergies, consider loosening your diet or ditching it entirely. It’ll make eating easier, and you’ll get a fuller foreign-food experience.
For me, this meant stepping down from full vegetarian and going pescatarian for the months I was in Spain. Obviously, this doesn’t work for everyone, but consider if it will benefit you. Maybe you’ll fall in love with a new cuisine—who knows?
13. Take a Grocery Store Tour
Foreign grocery stores are fascinating—they look like the supermarkets you’re used to, but they’re also very different. Take the time to explore grocery stores and marketplaces around you, and soak in the everyday culture of your surroundings. Open marketplaces are particularly cool and will have lots of cheap, fresh food to try.
When you’re walking around, also make sure to try some native snacks. They’ll be crucial for when you get the munchies, and it’s fun to compare them to American snacks.
14. Get a Sugar Mama
Remember when I said there’s nothing like homestyle cooking? Seriously, it’s the best. If you’re staying with a host family, really enjoy the food they cook for you. Or if you’re unfortunate like me and don’t get to stay with a host family, make friends with locals or students who are staying with hosts. Then ask them if you can tag along for dinner one night. You’ll feel right at home in no time.
15. Be a Fearless Foodie
This one almost goes without saying, but don’t be afraid to try new things! You’re in an exciting new place full of amazing stuff you’ve never encountered before—be adventurous.
My rule was to always try something once, and then if I didn’t like it, I didn’t have to force myself to eat it. I rarely followed the second part, though, because I ended up loving so many things I thought that I wouldn’t like. So get out there, and taste everything the study abroad experience has to offer, literally.
Be aware that the best food advice differs from country to country, and what I have to say may not apply to everybody’s study abroad experience.
Do your research before you leave, and make sure you understand the local customs of your destination. Trust me, Google will be your best friend when you study abroad. But above all, enjoy yourself. Open up to new experiences, explore, and see what the world has to offer—and if it’s good enough, go for seconds.