As we walked into our apartment in Osaka and got unpacked, Shell sat down and muttered “Oh no…”
I began to fret just a bit, she isn’t one to be dramatic. She was looking at her phone.
“I have bad news” she continued.
It was news of mental illness having taken another life from us and news outlets just getting the push notification flywheel spun up on Bourdain’s death.
I take my mental health for granted each day. I would like to think otherwise, but it doesn’t seem to work that way. I learned from my Dad how to be compassionate and involved with mental health. He worked in the capacities he could to affect change in our community and get more resources, tools, and methods to those on the front lines of helping those experiencing crisis. Years later, when I return home, I’m still told of the impact he has had on our community. I’m proud of that, and it motivates me to do more than I have.
Reflecting on the subject of suicide has made me realize how prevalent it has been in my own life. I remember being told of a family, whose kids I played soccer with, had jumped off a parking garage and all died. I don’t remember exactly how I felt but confused is certainly one of the many emotions running through me at the moment of that news. A neighbor kid I ran around with was also a victim. A friend we ran around with in New York, too. You often do not know who is struggling until it is too late.
Suicide rates have gone up over the last 15 years by 24%. That seems staggering to me, even if our measurement has gotten better, that rate is too steep. Kate Spade’s suicide served as a reminder that success and a picturesque life that so many try to attain is not an answer. Maintaining your brand is not an answer. Money makes a lot of things a lot easier, but it doesn’t solve any of our inner struggles.
Most of us know about the money part by now, but its events like this that kick us in the teeth when we’ve forgotten. Robin Williams is another, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. I’m sure you have many you can recall.
Shell and I are less than a week away from finishing a year on the road. I’d be mistaken if I acted like Bourdain didn’t have an influence on our big decision. We’ve taken inspiration directly from him for more than six years. While writing on Cambodia, lunch in Saigon, dinner in Hong Kong, and a day in Amritsar, for example. There are plenty of other times we’ve taken to using his suggestions.
More than that, it was how we travel and why. We try to focus on being where we are, open to the random interaction with the locals, who may simply be trying to trap us into a transaction, but there’s only one way to support serendipity. We’ve attempted to learn about each culture we’ve visited, often through him but also through many other means of research. One thing I wished we had more of, but often don’t know how to attain, is his and his crew’s ability to set up intimate meals with locals in their homes. But to do these successfully and graciously, one must be open to all possibilities:
He has never eaten dog. When I pointed out the dog-hawker in our midst, he said, “I’m not doing it just because it’s there anymore.” Now, when he’s presented with such offerings, his first question is whether it is a regular feature of the culture. “Had I found myself as the unwitting guest of honor in a farmhouse on the Mekong Delta where a family, unbeknownst to me, has prepared their very best, and I’m the guest of honor, and all of the neighbors are watching . . . I’m going to eat the fucking dog,” he said. “On the hierarchy of offenses, offending my host—often a very poor one, who is giving me the very best, and for whom face is very important in the community—for me to refuse would be embarrassing. So I will eat the dog.” – The New Yorker, Anthony Bourdain’s Movable Feast
With everything he touches and makes famous, it changes. Almost overnight. The bún chả we had in Hanoi was where Tony ate with Barack. The place is now plastered in pictures of Obama’s visit and has a steady stream of international tourists coming in and out. Even the day after the President was there local Hanoi boys were said to be coming by day and night to take selfies where Barack had eaten in Hanoi. If you ask locals if it’s the best bún chả, the answer isn’t yes. We asked. But, it was well located and the right kind of space for the Secret Service and is owned and operated by a local family, the latter is befitting of Tony’s requirements. I imagine Tony’s ideal plan would have been a plastic stool 10 times too small for him and the President in a street gutter, bowls in hand, closer to the old quarter. Open air cooking. Maybe with an angry, motherly lady yelling at customers, including the sitting President of the United States.
In Amritsar, it was hard for us to tell if the place had changed. Posing a guess, Shell and I said no. There was no well-heeled crowd, no line, and only locals were there besides us. But bustling with locals. Amritsar may not be the most frequented place by western tourists, which helps, but we felt lucky to have experienced one of his picks the way he might have. It remained my favorite meal in India, and we had a lot of amazing food there. All the while contributing to the very problem he creates.
Anthropologists like to say that to observe a culture is usually, in some small way, to change it. A similar dictum holds true for Bourdain’s show. Whenever Bourdain discovers a hole-in-the-wall culinary gem, he places it on the tourist map, thereby leaching it of the authenticity that drew him to it in the first place. “It’s a gloriously doomed enterprise,” he acknowledged. “I’m in the business of finding great places, and then we fuck them up. – The New Yorker, Anthony Bourdain’s Movable Feast
And there is the paradox that followed him around the world. Bourdain had the job that too many of us wish we had. Fly first class all around the world, go to amazing places, eat amazing and unique treats, and converse with interesting people from interesting places. Feel alive. Connect. But, when asked about his “charmed” life:
I don’t know about “charmed.” But I’m still here — on my third life, or maybe fourth. Who knows? I should’ve died in my 20s. I became successful in my 40s. I became a dad in my 50s. I feel like I’ve stolen a car – a really nice car – and I keep looking in the rearview mirror for flashing lights. But there’s been nothing yet. – Biography Interview
He recognized his ruining the very things he loved. He shared the truth with us, at least how he saw it. This was his superpower. To bring us in and make us wish we were there, yet still, be sharing every awful truth with us along the way.
Among other things, he was one of the first writers to tell the dining public that many high-profile New York restaurants would cease to function without the work and talents of Mexican employees. It was almost a casual aside, yet it suddenly opened new subjects to the purview of food writing: immigration policy, labor conditions, racism. – The New York Times Anthony Bourdain Was a Teller of Often Unappetizing Truths
In a world that fantasizes to be seen: glamourous travel, bottle service, and Instagram posts that do not convey reality and that serve as bait for your bite, Tony provided a dose of realism with his journies, along with a dose of idealism through his words. Realism: the maiming and destruction of people and families that United States UXO (Unexploded Ordinance) has done in Laos and Cambodia and continues to this day. Idealism:
“If I am an advocate for anything, it is 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
When I wrote Travel Is No Cure, Bourdain was often on my mind. I wondered if he would think I was being intellectually lazy. Was I just not working hard enough at making the experiences I seek? Was this year of travel too much of a bite that limited my ability to execute on the kinds of travel I pursue? Or, do you think he, in all his experience, would understand?
But the world is getting smaller, Obama said. “The surprises, the serendipity of travel, where you see something and it’s off the beaten track, there aren’t that many places like that left.” He added wistfully, “I don’t know if that place (roadside meal outside Jakarta) will still be there when my daughters are ready to travel. But I hope it is.” – The New Yorker, Anthony Bourdain’s Movable Feast
One of the greatest lessons I have learned over the years, which Bourdain helped to teach, is to empathize with those whom you do not understand. There is no better way to learn than through immersion. Travel provides that immersion into the unknown and misunderstood, as long as you’re not the type to be doing it solely for the ‘gram. Champagne can be delivered with sparklers anywhere in the world, only the price changes. Instead, bump into the stranger. Stop and talk with the old man asking questions of you in a language you don’t speak, maybe you’ll find a way, as we have several times, to exchange the information he’s looking for.
We can have preconceived notions of a place and the people who live there. We might even think we have it all figured out without having been. Bourdain could be found guilty of this, but what made him admirable was his ability to change. Some used to say flip-flop in a derogatory way, but the ability to change one’s mind is a skill of maturity. On West Virginia:
“You know, I went right at those things — guns, God, and Trump — and I was very moved by what I found there. I hope that people who watch the show will feel the same kind of empathy and respect, and will be able to walk in somebody else’s shoes, or imagine walking in somebody else’s shoes, for a few minutes in the same way that hopefully they do with one of my other shows.” -Anthony Bourdain
The ability to learn requires some amount of maturity as it often involves being wrong, or not knowing and being seen not knowing. Changing one’s stance can be really hard. What is easier is to look for the simple answer or one that confirms what you already believe. Something that is easy to repeat, or apply to many things. Something that doesn’t require too many brain cells to get or communicate.
But our world is gray, not black and white. It always depends, and so the sound bite is never a whole. There’s always more to understanding.
“Life is complicated. It’s filled with nuance. It’s unsatisfying… If I believe in anything, it is doubt. The root cause of all life’s problems is looking for a simple fucking answer.” -Anthony Bourdain
With all his braggadocio, his schtick, his willingness to punch you in the face with words without regret, behind all that was a man of growing wisdom.
“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.” -Anthony Bourdain
As mentioned, on the night of the news I was in Osaka, so I put on the Parts Unknown episode with Masa, shot with the duo in Japan. During a mountain getaway part of the episode where the men gather together, cook, drink, and share stories with Masa’s old mates, Masa mentions 一期一会, Ichigo Ichie, a Japanese idiom that means something like “Once in a lifetime, never again”.
Moments are to be cherished, as each one is never experienced again.
Lajaunie, the former Les Halles owner (Where Bourdain was chef when he wrote Kitchen Confidential), said of Bourdain, “He’s extremely kind, but it’s the genuine kindness that comes from deep cynicism.” Lajaunie went on, “He has accepted that everyone has broken springs here and there. That’s what most of us lack—the acceptance that others are as broken as we are.” After Bourdain read “How to Live,” Sarah Bakewell’s 2010 book about Michel de Montaigne, he got a tattoo on his forearm of Montaigne’s motto, in ancient Greek: “I suspend judgment.” – The New Yorker, Anthony Bourdain’s Movable Feast
Mental health, taking another person away from us all. Someone who ended up finding his voice, and success along the way. I hope that we as a species are able to find two things: a greater understanding of our mental health, and a greater ability to talk about and share the struggles that we feel the need to hide from each other.
Thanks for reading.
Photo: Awaiting the Rain, Kyoto