I almost drove off the road when I saw the text. Sitting at a light, I looked down at my friend’s message on my phone-“Anthony Bourdain died!” My first thought was this has to be one of those celebrity hoaxes; you know, the kind where on the day Betty White really does die no one will believe it. Once my twitter feed seemed to confirm the tragic reality of it all, a giant whopping pit in my stomach developed. Before I could even think about all the possible causes of his death, I was stricken with the powerful and crippling emotion of grief. I needed to know more. When I pulled into my school’s parking lot, I texted back my friend-“How did he die?” I was sure it was from a heart attack, or severe food poisoning, or an accident that took place while filming his show, or some other noble and adventurous death that would maintain his bad boy image and adventurous legacy. “Suicide” she wrote back. Silence. Although there were cars pulling in next to me and parents dropping their kids at school all around me, all I heard and felt in that moment was pure, unshakeable Silence. Like the collective shock much of the world has experienced these last two days, I could not begin to comprehend how a man, who seemingly had the most amazing life anyone would want, could bring himself to leave it.
As I went about the day, celebrating my high school students’ final day of Senior year, I couldn’t help but see the irony in all of it. Here were these exuberant and energetic 18 year olds, joyously celebrating the culmination of their high school years, and eagerly looking towards their unknown futures, and yet, here was this man who felt he had no future. Throughout the day I smiled and laughed with my students, but on the inside I was devastated and could not shake this creeping sense of sadness and dread. How could a death of someone who I didn’t even know hit me so hard? Why did this feel so personal? And then I realized, it was personal.
Anthony Bourdain was never just a TV personality to me, he was a journalist, an ambassador, a voice for the downtrodden, and an enthusiastic advocate for humanity. He was everything I aspired to be in life- open to new experiences, adventurous, socially and politically minded, opinionated but not judgmental. Like so many millions of fans, I became hooked on Bourdain through his Travel Channel hit series, “No Reservations”. I remember watching him cruise down the Mekong River, cooler of beer in tow, puffing cigarettes as he chatted with the locals, and explained it all to us, his viewers, in this insightful snarky manner. I needed more! I watched all his shows, read all his books, followed his Instagram and Twitter feeds, ever thirsty for his politically and historically minded insight and commentary. When his new series “Parts Unknown” was first aired on CNN, I remember being so incredibly excited to watch the first episode on Myanmar. I will never forget the breathtaking scene of Anthony shuffling through the green and lush country-side in a rickety Victorian-era train left over from the British occupation. Two years later, I was on a plane to Myanmar.
As evident in the outpouring of grief, love, and shock expressed by so many people from so many different walks of life, the legacy of Bourdain will continue to touch the far corners of the earth. How many people have gone to places such as Vietnam, Hong Kong, or Myanmar because they traveled there with Bourdain through their TV sets first? How many people have sought out restaurants in search of the perfect meal or food experiences because Bourdain went there? How many people became more aware of history or a social problem like the #metoo movement because Bourdain was an avid voice for social justice?
There are countless travel memories that I hold near and dear to my heart that were in one way or another influenced by Anthony Bourdain. Like the time we went searching for “happy pizza” in Cambodia, or the time we meandered down some alley in Vietnam to have an incredible meal of fried noodles, sitting on plastic little chairs under a tarp to keep us dry from the pounding Monsoon, or the time in Vienna when we decided to ignore the museums and palaces altogether, and head straight to the Naschmarkt to find his favorite place where they offered us the “bourdain special” each time we popped in.
I will always be grateful for these experiences, and I know that I would not have the urge or courage to seek them out if it were not for watching his shows for the last twenty years. It saddens me, like so many, that he could not find the joy in living he so inspired in others. As I continue to pray for his family and for him, I can only hope that he is at peace somewhere, enjoying a heaping bowl of noodles with a mischievous grin on his face. Rest In Peace, Anthony.