I'll just get right down to it, y’all. I have some persnickety bowels. Thankfully, over time I’ve found a way to eat that keeps them mostly under control, except of course when it comes to travel. It seems every mile I put between myself and my home toilet gives my belly another reason to misbehave.
When I was younger, this was an even bigger problem. Eating at restaurants terrified me because I was afraid of how my body would react to unfamiliar foods, and the flimsy walls of bathroom stalls were never enough to hide me. I once half-ruined my mother’s birthday dinner because my entrée decided that standard digestive procedure was just too slow for it, but there was an attendant sitting in the bathroom like a sentinel, ready to see, hear, and smell my sin. So instead I just sat doubled-over in my chair and pestered my mom until we could go home, but she wanted to hang with her family and dance the night away. We were on Beale street, for Heaven’s sake.
From that point on, I coped with this fear by simply not eating anywhere but home or other select, trusted locations. I would go to restaurants and claim I’d already eaten, or order a side salad and barely nibble at it. This meant that once, during a trip to New Orleans as a junior in high school, I would eat a small breakfast and then nothing else for the rest of the day until we were back at the hotel, where there was a safe, single bathroom with a lockable door. I missed out on some incredible dishes, and I didn’t poop once that entire week.
In college, living in a dorm with a common restroom for two years helped me face my fears to a certain extent, although there was still the time that I went on a road trip, during which I ate nothing for all 12 hours in the car--because what if something happened during a stretch with no exits?--only to have such a crisis after finally eating that I had to text a friend from the hotel lobby bathroom to ask for water, as I was too dehydrated to stand up from the toilet seat.
With these and other similar incidents in mind, the excitement of an upcoming trip still comes with a touch of dread concerning food options and restroom accessibility, particularly outside of the US, the land of the free and the home of the public bathroom. For example, in Barcelona, I forced a friend to speedwalk the whole 45 minute bathroom-less journey back to our airbnb. Then, of course, our host was there to have a nice chat with us upon arrival, and my digestive system was distracting me too much to appreciate his Spanish accent, casually shirtless outfit, and interesting ideas on the state of American politics at the time. I have also made other friends buy espressos or beer at random cafés so that I can use the customer-only facilities. So, to all who have traveled with me in the past and will travel with me in the future: thank you for your patience as I continue to take my personal burden and turn it into a shared one.
Just to be clear, though, this isn’t as big of a deal as I make it out to be. Back in high school, when I experienced the joy of a woman’s first colonoscopy, the doctor basically shrugged and said it sounded to him like IBS. So that’s what I say is wrong with me, but honestly it’s not much more than a glorified sensitive stomach. As I said before, I’ve figured out how to eat and schedule my day so that it’s reduced to a minor annoyance--except, of course, when I travel, when what I eat and when I do things get all mixed up.
These days, I’m happy to say that being a tourist no longer means starving myself. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still weird about it, as nearly constant bloating remains an issue, and there’s still some fear in there combined with an inescapable obsession with calorie-counting, which is a whole other issue. But ultimately, I've learned that the experience of the food is worth the 15% chance of bathroom emergency.
So every once in a while I might still be too afraid to eat, but I’ve also gotten to taste gelato, crêpes, paella, fish and chips, sacher-torte, Kürtőskalács, and more in their respective signature countries, and I’m willing to risk more cramping and embarrassment to to do so. It’s one of my my proudest signs of personal growth.