I’m sitting in front of a plate of meat and cheese. I’m a guest in Kosovo on a school trip I’ve organized with a colleague. My surroundings are simple and poor, but the culture is richly European with a splash of the Muslim East.
A little background: for better or worse, the United States led a bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999 to ensure Kosovo’s eventual claimed independence, and as a result, the Albanian population love us Americans. The Serbs have their own thoughts. Most everyone here is Albanian. Most everyone is Muslim. And most everyone welcomes Americans as a sort of super-human species. They won’t even question my vegan diet, despite there being no concept of a vegan diet.
Tension has calmed tremendously since the last time I was here in 2006. The most dangerous thing here anymore is secondhand smoke. Holy smokes, it’s awful. With an unemployment rate off the charts, this rank habit of smoking is a popular distraction. Add coffee and conversation to the mix, and you have a day’s worth of being a Kosovar, Albanian or Serbian.
The smoke inhalation might be nauseating, but it’s the butters and cheeses and meats that go into most every dish that really make Kosovo difficult for a health-conscious individual. I knew this going into the trip. My body hasn’t experienced meat or cheese for years, so I can’t completely ingest the culture, but can I remain committed to my strict vegan diet?
My definition of vegan? Well, there is no room for strictness. If at any time I perceive my diet as strict, I would move on to something else. I eat a vegan diet for ethical and health reasons, but I don’t celebrate it as a stifling ideology. I happily eat a vegan diet, but if conditions require, I’ll adapt. This doesn’t happen often, but it does happen in the Balkans.
It’s not healthy to eat a leafy salad every meal, especially one that offers no protein or fat. So I can’t rely on leafy greens throughout my days in Kosovo. At some point I’m going to have to accept eating the freshly baked bread from the vendor across the street without knowing how much butter went into baking it. I’m going to have to accept eating a dinner of noodles without caring how many eggs went into their making. I’m more committed to experiencing, not restricting.
I don’t believe a diet should feel like chains. It should feel comfortable. It should feel freeing. Free of rules, but also free of illness.
So, I’m mostly holding true to my diet, and feeling good throughout my travels. Sometimes, however, I just have to experience life.
On the plane ride over, I read the Integrative Nutrition book–eat what works for your body, not what some label says–that’s one of the messages. Not all bodies are the same. Veganism works for me, but not for everyone, and although I’ve found being a vegan to feel the most enjoyable, I know that my lifestyle can’t always jibe with the bible of veganism.
We are guests here in Kosovo. I’ve been here before. They aim to please. We can’t seem unappreciative or disrespectful when given a free macchiato or meal.
So, like I said, I’m staring at a plate of beef chunks and feta cheese. We’re visiting my friend’s Madressa, and I’m thinking, “Well, this is it, I can’t be rude. I’m gonna have to fork a beef chunk.” I buy myself some time by reaching for a piece of bread. I wash it down with water. But I can’t just eat bread and water. “I’ll ease into it,” I think. I eat my first piece of cheese in years, a deliciously salty feta. Fantastic. I couldn’t overdo it, though. A sick teacher won’t help matters.
I reach for the loaf of bread and rip myself off another piece. I eat some rice and play a bit with the meat by shuffling it around with my fork. I take another taste of rice and plan for how best to go in for the kill. I fork another piece of cheese and chase the dry, crumbly goodness with some water. Another bit of bread. More rice. Again, I play with the brown squares of meat. I look at the other emptying plates and the faces of my hosts. My students talk casually with the principal of the school and my friend Xhevdet. I sit preoccupied with how best to down this square of animal.
I think, “Just go for it,” and I do, stabbing a piece and racing it to my mouth, but then I catch a whiff of the beef gravy that bathes the chunks. I can’t do it. I sit back and listen to the conversation around me. While I’ve been worrying about how others will view what I eat, everyone else has been enjoying the discussion. I decide to as well, minus the meat chunks.
Our hosts smile on, completely unaware of my inner conflict. They hope to see us again and remain in contact as they shake our hands good-bye. They’re happy we visited, and so am I, and sometimes that’s the best kind of food.