If I learned anything from Anthony Bourdain, it’s truth in story telling is everything. Whatever you put out there in the world be it words, art, music, or food better be authentically you, or what’s the fucking point? Because he respected honesty in writing and personal character and frequently pontificated on his own idols like Iggy Pop and Paul Bocuse, I’d like to think he’d be ok with the following over the top nonsense written on the blog of an average white lady.
“If I'm an advocate for anything, it's to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else's shoes or at least eat their food. It's a plus for everybody”
Anthony Bourdain was just a few years older but infinitely cooler than me. He had that New Yorker bravado topped with a devil-may-flip-you-the-bird-while-eating-greasy-pork-item attitude. He was cocky and unapologetic and often came across a total asshole. However, watching the first “reality” host genuinely appear to give no fucks had me hooked with his first “pass the fucking turkey, cocksucker”.
Didn’t hurt that as a nerd raised by many 80’s PBS documentaries, this was the first time an average guy had shown me exotic parts of the world outside a National geographic or nightly news focused lens.
Most seasons of Tony’s travels with No Reservations ran parallel to my early time in New York City. As he explored the globe, I explored my own multicultural backyard. Without his means to travel, I began my own series of trips to ethnic neighborhoods across the five boroughs. For three years I ran monthly tours mimicking his formula of cultural activity plus local authentic food and a bar (or five). Because I was lucky enough to live in a city created and populated by immigrants I was able to try the same adventurous foods and talk with people from those countries.
I also prioritized travel destinations and went out of my way to eat and drink at places I saw on his show. Hell, I ordered a bowl of chicken soup from a traditional stall in the Cuzco market and drank in the strip club in Amsterdam (sorry mom and dad) because it’s what Tony would have done. My 33rd birthday at a Russian super club in Brighton Beach -- done because he said it was “as if John Waters imagined a musical" -- remains my lifetime favorite.
I have never once regretted my blatant fan-girl mimicry of anything that man recommended.
“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.”
As an educated suburban white lady, New York was my first real exposure to the culture of other. There was nothing like walking from grad school directly to object caretaker in a holocaust museum to smack me right in the privileged face! (The Complete Idiots Guide to Judaism and I became attached at the hip at lightning speed!)
The longer I lived here, the more exposure I had to people from all walks of life. I packed priceless art in billion dollar Manhattan penthouses as well as the humblest of artist studios. I was a theater usher making minimum wage while simultaneously attending high profile million dollar celebrity filled galas. I became besties with a guy from Lima, a Bosnian refuge with her war zone childhood, and a drag queen of utter grace and beauty. I dated Kenyans, Indians, tons of Spanish men and guys from Jersey (a subcategory all their own) with their wildly different views on love and relationships. Each one of those interactions, experiences, jobs, friendships and relationships changed who I was inside. My mind expanded and I increasingly stopped to consider someone else’s point of view.
Similarly, I watched Bourdain move to CNN and gain access to troubled war-torn areas of the world. His show became less about food and more about the real lives of underrepresented people, their culture, unique and often tragic history and impacts of world politics on their existence. As his views became less snarky and more considered the show had tighter narratives and a cinematic feel that often focused on the simple beauty found in the humblest of settings.
“I want you, the viewer, to feel the way about a place the way I want you to feel. I want you to look at it and see it from my point of view, if at all possible. Or at least consider other points of view. But it is, almost always, just one point of view -- or one lens through which you are seeing things: mine.”
Parts Unknown was absolutely my favorite television program. I recommended that show (and shall continue to do so) with the relentless vigor of an evangelical fundamentalist preacher.
As the seasons progressed, Tony’s genuine interest in learning transformed his interview style while his choice of subjects grew more intimate and personal. To date, these are the only images I have even seen of Iran, Cambodia, Vietnam, Libya and Cuba that depict actual average people leading normal real lives. With each dinner with grandma or humble street stall meal, Parts Unknown uncovered the basic human condition.
The show wasn’t a large corporate news outlet or whitewashed travel program. It was real stories told through the eyes of real people. The ones that continue to resonate: a man at his own dinner table explaining why Hezbollah represented safety for his young family, hearing love explained through the philosopy of karate by an Okinawan waitress, and that deep jungle train stop in Madagascar where Tony and the crew were overrun by children living in utter starvation.
“At a time when genuine human connection and the willingness to embrace and understand the unfamiliar feels so fragile and fraught, the erasure of his voice is an unequivocal loss.” - Wil Fulton
In today’s fear-based racist corrupt despicable chapter of Trumpian America, I return to Parts Unknown episodes again and again seeking hope. My consistent take away; while people might have diametrically opposed views on the world they can find common ground over a meal -- if they are only willing to invite someone in. Much to the confusion of many, these days I personally open the doors to my home to complete strangers from around the world through Air B&B to share in the roof over my head. From them I’ve learned first hand about working an oil rig in the Iranian dessert, how it feels to live with AIDS as a survivor of the 80’s crisis, and why cession from Spain is deeply personal for Catalonians.
In this and other avenues in my life I’ve operated on the premise I saw on Parts Unknown; that generally speaking humans are humans and just want to live in peace. They want a roof over their head, quality time with their family with the chance to raise their kids in safety, practice their personal belief in god and eat. Tony showed that all over the world people like to sit and tell stories, grill meat, have a drink, laugh, dance and love.
I truly believe if we could all just start with that idea the world could be a MUCH better place.
“Maybe that's enlightenment enough: to know that there is no final resting place of the mind; no moment of smug clarity. Perhaps wisdom... is realizing how small I am, and unwise, and how far I have yet to go."
Which brings me to waking up to the buzz of texts that Anthony Bourdain had killed himself.
Because I don’t yet know how to feel about this and I’m desperately hoping a few more details come to light, I’m pausing my thoughts. My initial reaction is definitely one of confusion and anger as suicide (and his particular methodology of self-harm) feels so antithetical to his overall philosophy on life. I know he had many demons and part of what made him popular was his openness in discussing them with others. But since those demons already took him too soon, I refuse to let them also taint his messages on how to live.
So, in Iceland this November I will eat the fermented shark, take shots of black licorice moonshine, luxuriate in hot springs, and sing bizarre tunes at a music festival in the dark far north. As I watch my first northern lights dance, I will look up and thank Tony for showing me the true beauty of an entire planet and its diverse human beings.
RIP Mr. Bourdain. I hope you are in the low-plastic-stool-spicy-Asian-noodle-soup-rock-& -roll-cold-beer in-a-hammock-on-a-white-sand-beach heaven of your dreams. Thanks for everything.
PS - I’m also really sorry I’ll never get to see you naked, you hot hot old man!