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Anthony Bourdain – Travel, Taste…and Troubles

Anthony Bourdain’s suicide is both shocking and something that I could see coming.  It saddens me and I wish I had been wrong.  Let me explain.

People I run across during my travels often comment that my propensity to “get out there” and try truly exotic foods, to really “go local” by connecting with people and pushing far outside one’s comfort zone cause them to say, “You are like Anthony Bourdain!” I kindly respond that I was doing “Anthony Bourdain” before he was.

But it is not about longevity. Anthony Bourdain had a presence, an intellect, passion, and even, early on, a charm that drew people to him and his candid views and wanderlust that I long admired and respected…and don’t believe I have the capacity to honestly put myself into his league or measure of stature.  As you will read, he affected my life in more ways than one.

My love of cuisine combined with travel probably got its true start back in the early 1980’s when I visited the Peruvian Amazon for the first time.  I was in a very small group that included three recently divorced, out of shape, women that were using the trip to prove themselves strong individuals.  Well, let’s just say our guide spent a lot of time trying to keep these women from injuring themselves and pulling them out of the mud during our treks through the Amazonian forest.  So needing a break he asked me if I would join him leaving our encampment for a cold beer, as he knew a woman that had a propane refrigerator.

We walked through the forest to a clearing on the riverbank were a donkey was turning an old stone grinding mill.  We entered her shack and was given a cold beer.  We sat and her monkey climbed onto my shoulders, made himself comfortable and began sipping on my beer with me.  Seeing I was a white man comfortable in her home/store/restaurant, she offered to cook us dinner.  Not knowing how to compliment this woman who spoke no English I asked my guide if requesting more of her cooking would be OK.  Well, she was so excited!  She was out of fish, but brought me into her kitchen (a small stone grill that burned wood on a dirt floor) to show me how she cooked and my next course:  one of the guinea pigs that was running around in a pen (a/k/a live garbage disposal)!  After my unique second course, we thanked her and as we walked out into the pitch black night she offered me her monkey, as he was so comfortable with me and I loved her cooking.  (BTW, walking back in the dark – and without the monkey – was more than a challenge!)

Added to that, just a few years earlier, I was also a bartender in a James Beard and Wine Spectator Award winning restaurant…solidifying my culinary and travel connection.

So with those sorts of life experiences, and my generally curious but somewhat snarky, approach I was drawn to Anthony Bourdain. I read Kitchen Confidential and A Cook’s Tour twice, watched every episode of A Cook’s Tour, No Reservations and The Layover.  I loved how our paths would cross from time to time, but also how much depth he found in each experience.  He was more than a great storyteller.

But I noticed something when Part Unknown, his last television series, started.  I felt a bit of darkness, sadness, bad attitude.  My thrill of seeing a new Anthony Bourdain show pop up on my Tivo became less exciting; eventually transforming into, “I don’t know if I really even want to watch it.”  But because of my business and desire to learn I have tried to make myself watch the shows.  It was hard and I have probably a dozen I haven’t yet watched. But why?

A couple of years ago Anthony Bourdain was a guest speaker at the Ensemble Travel Group International Conference.  He met with the owners of the mega-agencies in a private function, but I ran into him at the hotel bar.  He was not happy. He exuded he didn’t want to be there.  He, at best, acknowledged I was in the room.  I left him alone.  He was not nice to the Ensemble staff who had to mike him up when he was running late.  And when he finally got on stage he fumbled for about five minutes…until his “persona” kicked in. And then he showed that happy, cocky, enthusiasm that drew people to him. But I knew…really knew…he was just putting on a show.  It affected me and not in a good way.

It really didn’t hit my until today why my near lust for Anthony Bourdain’s experiences had become disdain:  Mental illness.

I was married for over two decades to a woman that suffered with a variety of mental health issues as well as a hidden alcoholism.  I stayed in the marriage for the sake of my children and did everything I could to help my ex from counseling to therapy to prescriptions.Without making this about me, suffice it to say she presented well to friends and others.  Quite charming for the most part.  But I knew what she presented publicly and what she was like privately were two different people.

So I have been reflecting today, thinking about the “tells” that professional gamblers and athletes look for in their opponents.  And Anthony Bourdain – despite “Having It All” and “Living the Dream” – had his “tells” and I picked up on them.  And I did what I did during my marriage:  Tried to avoid dealing with the fallout from mental health issues when I knew there was nothing I could do.  But with Anthony Bourdain I did not identify his tells as a mental health issue, but wrongly as sadness and arrogance.

I have my own sadness today for a number of reasons; the least of which is that Anthony Bourdain will not be around to create enthusiasm and wanderlust in people.  My sadness is that he suffered and suffered for a long time.  I cannot imagine the pressures he felt when he was alone.  When he had to struggle to be that persona with people wanting him to invest in this, endorse that, create something else, fulfill their celebrity expectations.  It had to be such a struggle.

Anthony Bourdain helped change the face of travel and culinary experiences. He made diving deep not only a cool thing, but something that one really had to do.  I am confident that he made my experiences in Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and India more relevant, deep and important.  I am sure that because of Anthony Bourdain I better enjoy my cheese in France, my pasta in Italy and my meat pies in Australia and my overwhelming wonderment of Antarctica even more so.

I do not want Anthony Bourdain’s suicide to be ignored.  For all that he had done to make people think, to experience things they never thought they would, I hope he can posthumously encourage people to see the tells and to intervene.  It is an uncomfortable place and an unnerving experience, but pushing us into those places is what Anthony Bourdain was all about.

May he, truly, rest in peace.

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