Anthony Bourdain And The Painful Joy Of Travel Life
It seems easy to say this now, in the wake of his death, but the day that someone told me that I reminded them of Anthony Bourdain, my life changed.
I had always enjoyed watching “No Reservations,” a fun show about food hosted by a dude who I recognized as classic New York-guy-at-the-deli; the regular at the end of the dive bar; a walking, talking, swaggering leather jacket of a person. It never occurred to me that his life would be the life that I wanted — that, in a very small way, voiced by one person, I was already living that life.
This was back in high school, so I was hardly “living that life” in the way that sentence imagines it. I think my friend meant it more in my attitude, the way I snarked my way through most conversations. I was not nearly cool, caustic, tan, or tall enough to be Anthony Bourdain, and I never will be. (I can work on the writing, the empathetic nature, the thoughtfulness, the moral backbone, the dark humor… but that is all still a work-in-progress.)
From that day on, I saw life through the prism of the idea that I could do what Anthony Bourdain did. I could travel the world, talk to people, find out what makes them tick — and invariably I would discover the food, drink, politics, and history at the center of it all. I have long been convinced that the best and most important stories are the true ones, big and small. A good portion of Bourdain’s work has been about illuminating those stories for his audience to see.
I almost used the word “unearthing” rather than illuminating just now, and I think that would be doing Bourdain a great disservice. One of his most important lessons is that he is not “discovering” anything. His mission, like any good writer or storyteller, is to be the conduit through which other people tell their stories. The cherry on top has always been his wry, thoughtful, and blunt observations afterward; the way he could both celebrate and deflate, often in the same scene.
As time went on, however, I’ve gained an even greater appreciation, and perhaps, conversely, cynicism, for what Bourdain does.
As it turns out, Bourdain’s job of traveling around the world was harder than it looks. Many people envied his life, but few could handle it. He became a walking canvass for our collective travel dreams (as well as an advertisement for things like travel credit cards, much to his obvious chagrin) allowing us to joy ride with him for an hour before we hopped off and left him to deal with the endless flights, bumpy rides, lonely nights, the bureaucracy and stomach ailments and hangovers and the sad sameness of chain hotel rooms around the world.
A friend of mine pointed out this bit in the profile of Bourdain from The New Yorker last year:
Bourdain is exceptionally close to his crew members, in part because they are steady companions in a life that is otherwise transient. “I change location every two weeks,” he told me. “I’m not a cook, nor am I a journalist. The kind of care and feeding required of friends, I’m frankly incapable of. I’m not there. I’m not going to remember your birthday. I’m not going to be there for the important moments in your life. We are not going to reliably hang out, no matter how I feel about you. For fifteen years, more or less, I’ve been travelling two hundred days a year. I make very good friends a week at a time.”
My friend noted that a lot of my letters home from my recent four-month trip through Asia included mentions of loneliness and fatigue. And that’s true. For an endeavor seemingly built around the idea of unencumbered fun and socializing and new experiences, travel involves an awful lot of sitting around, and drudgery, and stewing in your own thoughts.
Could the travel life have played in role in Tony’s tragic, untimely death? Did the delicious meal cooked by the world-class chef in the exotic setting taste as delicious the 10,000th time he ate it? Was he beaten down by the worsening political climate, particularly when the conversation turned to the immigrant communities he so loved? Were there demons I could never understanding haunting him? (The last answer is undoubtedly the correct one, of course.)
And that scared me. What I loved about Bourdain is that he made his authentic way of meeting and understanding people and cultures look so effortless. To him, it was important and right and powerful to make a connection with someone or something he didn’t understand, but he made it look easy, too. He clinked beer bottles with presidents and peasants the way we do with old friends. His swagger was infectious. Wanting to be Anthony Bourdain was easy, because being Anthony Bourdain meant being fearless, funny, curious, and compassionate in the face of things that other people have gone to war over.
So, what if it’s not so easy? What if it breaks you?
But in looking over the countless obituaries and thought pieces on Bourdain published in the wake of his death (this one written by Alice Driver is particularly powerful), I noticed lots of quotes on travel. And none of them said anything about travel being easy, or good for the soul, or primarily so you can have good Instagram photos.
His thoughts on the subject hint at something I’ve understood since I started traveling alone in 2010: Travel is supposed to hurt, sometimes. It’s supposed to leave you feeling lonely or afraid. In that way, it’s not that much different from the rest of life.
Here are a few I’ve copied from around the internet:
“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s OK. The journey changes you; it should change you… You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”
“Travel is about the gorgeous feeling of teetering in the unknown.”
“As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life — and travel — leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks — on your body or on your heart — are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt.”
“I’m a big believer that you’re never going to find perfect city travel experience or the perfect meal without a constant willingness to experience a bad one. Letting the happy accident happen is what a lot of vacation itineraries miss, I think, and I’m always trying to push people to allow those things to happen rather than stick to some rigid itinerary.”
What I’ve realized in my limited time on this planet is that we are often hurt and lonesome and scared — but we find true happiness when we are connecting to people, losing ourselves in new experiences, and, of course, eating. And we are never more open to these possibilities as when we are somewhere unfamiliar, when someone’s inviting smile or favorite dish acts as the bridge between what you don’t know and what you’re about to find out.
Bourdain was an incredible advocate for doing things that push you out of your comfort zone in order to find something new to love. He imparted that message with eloquence and power in a way few could touch: Both for TV and the page, his writing often nestles into the folds of your brain, leaving a lasting impression. His worldview resonates not just for its message but for the way he wove it into the fabric of everything he did, and thankfully he recorded a lot of it for us to witness and hopefully replicate.
We need more people like him in this world, not fewer, but if it was his time to go, he knows better than me.
His outlook on life, and his talent and dedication for sharing it, will be missed.
Post-script — I listened to Bourdain’s interview with Marc Maron not long after publishing this, and have a new favorite Tony quote. Is there a line that encapsulates the discouraging and thrilling nature of travel better than this one?:
"When you go someplace and you go, Holy shit, I will never know anything about this country... So even just when you teach yourself to order breakfast alone in a new country is deeply satisfying.”