Right now, I’m in Greece during the trip of a lifetime because of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown….
At the moment, I’m sitting in Naan, one of my favorite restaurants in Mytilene, Greece, on the island of Lesbos, just off the coast of Turkey. The walls of the building are made of old, exposed rock and brick, and clearly older than anyone who works in the establishment. The ceiling is simple, exposed, unfinished pine. Just in view, and outside the green painted barn style doors at the entrance, tourists pass on a narrow brick and stone street as motorbikes whiz by in between them.
Nearly everything served here at Naan, from the sodas and beers to the ingredients in every dish, comes from Greece. The food is either true to Greek tradition or inspired by the home of a refugee that has worked here. The fare is amazing – not always perfect, but always genuine. You can almost taste the cook’s home and passion for genuine, simple cuisine that is true to the culture that created the food and…and created the chefs that make the recipes reality.
To my left, a Greek beer – Hellas Fix. To my right, an appetizer of hummus, chicken korma, and basmati saffron rice with raisins and special spices that the waitress refuses to reveal to me. And in the middle…my tablet, playing Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown.
Last week, I had just finished downloading the latest episodes of this season of Parts Unknown when a friend coincidentally texted me the news about Anthony Bourdain. I put my laptop aside to think and then asked the two questions I commonly ask about an event that takes place beyond my control: What did this mean and what could I take from it?
But why (you may ask) would I ask such questions about a man I’ve never met? I’m glad you (may have) asked…
Good food, cocktails, and Parts Unknown: The recipe for surviving the “real world” until your next adventure…
A long time ago (nearly two years at this point) I was “trapped” in the real world. Living in Dallas, Texas, I was working as a management consultant, supposedly living “the good life”. But honestly, something felt…off. Every day that I put on my suit and went to work, I felt like I was deceiving the world and, even worse, deceiving myself.
The best parts of me were under stimulated or unused more often than not. Though the weekend often brought something interesting, the most reliably uplifting event happened every Thursday. Sometimes I hosted a guest or two, and sometimes it was alone. Sometimes it was at 6pm. Sometimes it was at 1AM after finishing my work…but it was always great.
Steaks. Moscow Mules. Anthony Bourdain. That was my survival recipe.
The Moscow Mules were from scratch, made with fresh ginger and all. The steaks were good enough for the approval of an Argentine asado expert, always ribeyes or flank steaks cooked on seasoned cast iron skillet. The Anthony Bourdain episode was always on a place from my “to travel to” list, or a place that I had been to, loved, and hoped to return to.
Every time I sat down or watched from my kitchen as Anthony Bourdain explored and detailed some new or familiar locale it’s food, the culture, and the oddities, it bought me another week in the real world. It reminded me that the world that I lived for was still out there, I just had to hang on just one more week…until my escape plan was complete. Until on May 15, 2017, when my escape date materialized. Anthony Bourdain helped me keep my sanity and stay the course until that point.
In the time between now and when I heard about Anthony Bourdain’s suicide (a week ago) my most significant thought about the event was, how was his TV show, and his personality, that enjoyable? How was exploring a foreign city and its food so satisfying when done vicariously through him?
I think, it was the combination of the adventure, the possibilities it reminded me were out there and his “I generally don’t give a $h!t” character. The person he was.
So, in honor of Tony, here are the 7 things I was reminded of every Thursday night as I seared steaks and sipped Moscow Mules. Here’s to you Tony….
My 6 thoughts on Anthony Bourdain, why he was awesome, and some useful lessons to take from him
1. He kept the adventurous corners of our hearts alive between the tame and dull parts of daily life
The same way that I watched a Parts Unknown episode each Thursday to stimulate my adventurous side, I know many other people used Anthony Borudain’s work as a vicarious escape to places too far away for their weekend getaways each month or two weeks of vacation each year. I can’t overstate the value of this. For many Americans, the insulated and bubble wrapped routines of our daily lives and ever increasing commitments gradually make us forget what we would do with our lives if anything was a possibility. What kind of existence would you paint on the canvas of life if time and resources weren’t an issue.? That is a valuable question with an even more valuable answer.
The guests on Tony’s shows, the locations he added to my “to do” list, and the dishes he detailed helped me keep my answer to that question fresh in my mind until I could “paint my life” however I wished. For that, I thank him.
So, if you have an adventurous side that is stifled by the daily rigmarole and daily commitments, find a way to keep that adventurous side alive. Similar to your mind, your heart, or any other “part” of you, that adventurous part of you atrophies without proper nourishment and, if it dies you undoubtedly lose something that will be very difficult, if not impossible, to get back. Use Anthony Bourdain’s work, or any other work that strikes a chord in you, to keep that adventurous side alive.
2. He provided a “taste” of the value of travel and experiencing the worlds beyond your own, and convinced many to “taste” it for themselves
Some experience the world through taste
Some experience the world through the beautiful views
Some experience the world through architecture and witnessing the evidence of human accomplishments
Some experience the world through the outdoors and immersing themselves in the wild
Some experience the world through firsthand accounts of history and the stories that made us who we are
But, all experiences of the world lead to a deeper understanding, of how big the world is, how small we are in it, and how much of a gift the experiences of exploration, travel, and life truly are.
For those who have never booked a one-way flight to a country where the locals don’t speak your language, taking the leap into this style of exploration can be daunting enough to make you question whether the experience is worth the risk and trouble. Let me tell you from repeated experiences, it is. Do you know who else would tell you the same? Anthony Bourdain.
As you (or I) watch episode after episode of No Reservations, Parts Unknown, or any of his web clips lingering around the net, it instantly becomes clear that the experience of being somewhere else and absorbing everything offered is an education you can’t get in college. It starts with the people. The people of any place grow up steeped in the culture and language of their home, which shapes their tastes and preferences. Their tastes and preferences are top of mind as they wander their lands looking for the foods their land has to offer and has offered for generations. They take the unique foods and spices that their land has to offer and shape them, in their kitchens, as they’ve been taught for generations. The product: a dish, that arrives at your table made with the epitome of their land, shaped by their culture and history, and encapsulating who they are into something so potent you can literally taste it. Something that, in the end, words just can’t capture. You just have to experience that one dish, in its home country, for yourself to understand.
By simply pursuing a small sliver of the food a place has to offer, a “taste” of what they have to offer, we also become more familiar with the land, the culture, the language, and ultimately the people that put it all together. I was always astounded by how Tony and his team could share how valuable and deep the experience of travel is, simply by sharing a few dishes, the people that eat them, and the stories behind them.
So, when you globetrot, eat as the locals eat, ask where the food comes from, then listen and watch closely. The experience to follow will be priceless.
3. Nothing is wrong with being rough around the edges. It does mean that you can’t exist (in peace) everywhere, but do you really want to?
As a friend put it “some places suck for the soul” – and by just being you, you can self-select out of the places that aren’t meant for the “true you.” In return for you just being you, fate does you a favor and guides you to where you should be and to the people that are genuinely like you.
Anthony Borudain had tattoos and cursed like a sailor (and that’s with the editing). If that doesn’t represent “rough around the edges” then I don’t know what does. But the kicker, is that people enjoyed it so much they came back for more. People around the world welcomed him because of who he was and how genuinely he displayed his character. In the quotes from friends I read while I was trying to find out what happened to Tony, one friend said “People would always ask what he was like off camera, and I would tell them that he was the exact same as he was on camera. That was genuinely who he was.”
Let’s be honest, in this world the path of least resistance is often conformity. Conformity (for many) is also the quickest path to abandoning your “true self.” From the moment that you lose your “self”, you’ll be continually lost until you find yourself again.
What’s the point? It is ok to be rough around the edges. You may not be allowed into every place, but have you thought that maybe those are actually the places that you don’t want to be in the first place, but haven’t realized it yet? So, perhaps, fate is trying to do you a favor if you’ll let it.
Improvement and growth are usually great things, but, changing who you are at the core just for the sake of change (or fitting into a place you are not meant to be) is a waste of time, energy, and life. From my perspective of the personality Bourudain put forth on his shows, throughout life he expressed himself and let the chips fall as they may. This is a great lesson to apply throughout your life. You do you, boo.
Each time you watch a Parts Unknown rerun, revel in the fact that “Tony Bourdain” wasn’t perfect. And remember that you don’t have to be either.
4. He lived as he pleased and he’s a reminder that you (and I) can do the same.
Anthony Bourdain found his passion for food abroad in Japan, long before the success of his books and TV shows. He repeatedly expressed and acted on his passion for prose and writing long before hitting any best seller list. Along the way, despite the fact that food was his passion, he admits that some jobs as a chef he merely took for money, comfort, or convenience, even though “true passion” would likely have led him a different way. But, for several periods (however short) he felt like taking less sensible paths, so he did. Some led to “interesting stories”. Others led to successes. All of them led down the path he wanted. A path paved with forgoing caution in favor of experience.
What is the point? More like Frank Sinatra, Tony did it his way. Some choices may have been “sub-optimal”, but he seemed fine with that. Sometimes following your gut, or your urges is worth the potential sacrifices – as long as the decision is coming from you, and nowhere else.
What’s better? There’s no reason that you can’t do the same. Sure, there are risks and sacrifices that come with taking “the other path” but your choice to take the safe path in the end should ultimately be your choice, not a requirement from an external party, or a decision made out of fear. In reading Tony’s books, hearing his story, and watching his TV show I loved the reminder that, outside of the judgment you may receive from other people, there is nothing keeping you from doing what you want to do. And if you don’t care what other people think…then your last real excuse for not living the life you imagine just went down the drain.
5. Titles didn’t make Tony. Titles don’t make you either. You make you.
What would you say Anthony Bourdain was? A writer? A chef? A traveler? An activist? It would be difficult to state one single title that could fully capture your idea of what he is.
This is also the case for me, and quite possibly the same for you.
When people ask me “what do you do?” or “how would you describe yourself” I always laugh as I try to think of the right answer. Or at least I used to. The real answer is…there is no right answer, because I have no idea anymore. Am I a writer? A traveler? A digital nomad? Just some wanderer? A former Marine. A corporate runaway. Some kind of hybrid hippie? Another “global citizen” just exploring? Maybe yes. Maybe no.
At the end of the day, what do I do? I do what I want. That’s all that matters. I don’t need a title or label to define me. Neither did Tony. Neither do you. If you are in search of that one title…maybe there is some other activity more worth that effort. Maybe there is something else more worth searching for in life.
6. The standard for success and fulfillment in your life lies in your mind, so plan accordingly and treat it like your life depends on it
I imagine that, oddly enough, this is the thing that Tony’s shows, writing, and (what I know of) his life unintentionally reminded me of often, but Tony forgot in his own life. And this is possibly the most important lesson Anthony Bourdain will leave us with.
What is greatness? What will lead to happiness? What is success? How do I measure what is worth achieving in my own life? Or sacrificing for?
These are important questions that most people (especially those unsatisfied with their lives) need to ask before they will ever have the chance to get on a path that leads to their version of satisfaction. But one thing is certain – the answers to these questions are unique to you as an individual and start in your own mind. There will always be external factors and opinions trying to influence your perception of what life “should” be, but the tre answer (and the answer you choose) begins in your own mind. It starts by understanding your own life and what is most important in it.
Every Thursday that I watched Parts Unknown with a Moscow Mule in hand, I reminded myself that my “perfect life” was well outside the cubicle, and the daily grind was a stepping stone and necessary evil to reach greater things. Within the span of each episode, I regained clarity of what I wanted my life to be, and why I existed. Though the cubicle walls seemed high and confining at times, a mission was calling aloud from Hanoi, Vietnam. There were sights to be seen in Burma. There were trails to be walked in Nepal. Continually staying in touch with my own standard of fulfillment, and what I wanted from life, kept me sane and satisfied until the time came to move on. The right time.
Stamps on my passport. Dishes tried. Close calls survived. New friends made. Languages learned. On my death bed, I won’t think of my last promotion. On my death bed, I’ll think about the family and friends I loved, and who loved me, and I’ll think about every one of these “accomplishments” and adventures instead. Lives touched. Vistas seen. Handshakes, genuine goodbyes and “I hope to see you again” type phrases uttered brokenly in newly learned languages. These are my standards for measuring a worthwhile existence.
I have no idea what went through Anthony Bourdain’s mind in his final hours. Perhaps Anthony Bourdain felt he had done everything he wanted to in this life and decided to go out on a peaceful high note.
Perhaps Anthony Bourdain reached a point of unhappiness and dissatisfaction as his current life wasn’t lining up to his own standard of satisfaction in his own world.
I hope the reason he decided to leave was the former, and that he ended his days at peace.
In the event that it was the latter, and that Tony may have stumbled upon the realization that his life wasn’t lining up with what he felt a life could be at its best, I take this as a final reminder and lesson from Tony – be brutally honest with yourself about what is worth doing in life and what is required for your happiness and satisfaction. When you find this “purpose” pursue it aggressively and defend it as if your life depended on it…because it truly does.
Once you find your standard for a worthwhile existence, build a life around it and guard it uncompromisingly. Live for it daily. Chase this standard for your life and adapt to it as this standard (and you) grow and evolve over time. The process of staying in touch with what you need life to be may be confusing, chaotic, and tumultuous at times, but (as long as you stick with it) the average and the end product will be a more fulfilling existence
I am appreciative and thankful for the creations that Anthony Bourdain put forth. I’m not one to idolize celebrities, but, he will always be one of the characters on my list of people I’d love to have had dinner or a beer with. Unfortunately, that opportunity has passed, but he has left a legacy for me to enjoy while I ponder what that experience would have been like.
Thanks Tony, and wherever you are, I hope you’ve found the peace you were searching for. I’ll have a Moscow Mule and some street food in your memory.
Thursday 14th of June 2018
What a great post! And Greece is one of my FAVORITE countries! We can't wait to go back!
Thursday 14th of June 2018
Truly amazing post, and a very touching homage to a writer/traveler/chef/explorer who was inspirational to many of us! Thank you for sharing!