A Bittersweet Journey
How Anthony Bourdain’s life & death affected my outlook on life.
Content/Trigger Warning for discussion of depression, suicide, and miscarriage.
If you or a loved one are struggling, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1–800–273–8255 or chat with a counselor online at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat/
Autumn 2014, I sat in my then-boyfriend’s dining room, eating dinner with him while watching Parts Unknown on CNN. This had become a fairly regular occurrence, but whatever night this was, I was truly enthralled by Anthony Bourdain’s monologue. His words lit a fire in my stomach, a desire for adventure and knowledge that burned steadily higher, yet his voice was soothing and melodic, somehow keeping the fire from turning me to ash.
“That’s what I want to do,” I announced before stuffing a bite of pasta into my mouth.
Ex looked startled. “Serve beer to expats?”
“No! Be the type of journalist that HE is! Travel and have these experiences and be able to share stories with the world about all types of people and places that aren’t otherwise heard.”
“Good luck with that,” Ex said, rolling his eyes. “You won’t get that far with your writing. Be realistic.”
February 2015, I was snowed into that house and living out an oddly peaceful nightmare. Between long, daily phone calls with my doctor, I spent my time in the fetal position, either wrapped in blankets on the bed or in the tub as the shower ran. I’d hide my face from Ex if he walked into the room, neither of us able to express our feelings over the fact that an unexpected, poorly timed, but not unwanted 10 weeks of life was bleeding out of me.
Three days later, the outside world thawed enough for us to get to the doctor, who confirmed the loss I already knew.
Despite the new lack of ice and snow, everything at the house became colder. The kitchen became my haven, as the only times I felt warm were when I took it over while everyone else was out for the day. I’d turn on the TV and bake my own takes on apple crisp, cheesecake, cookies, and more as Anthony Bourdain shared stories with me that lit a spark in my heart.
By May, Ex was officially EX, I had moved into my own apartment, and fallen into a routine — every other week, on a day I wasn’t working, I would walk 1.5 miles to the local library with my laptop on my back, intending to write. The times I felt unable to write, I would pull A Cook’s Tour from the shelf and read.
That Autumn, one year after Ex had sarcastically wish me luck, I was meeting with a small media company I longed to work with, and by Spring 2016, I was freelancing with them, uncovering the realities of being an activist and digging into corruption within the government. It wasn’t what I had dreamed of, but it was a step forward.
In 2018, I was eagerly researching and planning for a road trip of the Great River Road, where I would interview creative people of all mediums along the Mississippi River. But one year ago on June 8th, I woke up and saw that Anthony Bourdain had taken his own life. I was stunned, and my chest ached with a hollow feeling.
“He had everything I wanted,” I sobbed on the phone to a friend. “He had this platform to share the stories of his experiences with the world, he was making a difference! He had all this freedom to explore and create, but he still felt the need to take himself out.”
Whispering, I voiced my fear. “What if it’s the same for me? What if I can’t get past the depression, even if I am doing what I love in life?”
My friend, also shocked by the news, could only say over and over, “It won’t be like that, Tara. You’re stronger than that. You can learn from his life, but you are a different person.” Hearing that didn’t help in the moment.
What helped was a trip to the bookstore.
I wandered into my local bookstore, feeling weightless, still shell-shocked by the news. It was only 10am, but where Anthony Bourdain’s books should have been was an empty shelf. I asked an employee, and they pointed to the three they had, safely ensconced in a glass case.
I left Appetites for the guy behind me who said all he wanted to do was light up a joint and cook a great meal in his memory.
Once I got home, I dove into Medium Raw. While usually a quick reader, I took my time and savored his words over the next several days. I’d always enjoyed his way with words, but Medium Raw was on another level. It was blunt, raw, full of pain and regrets, but even more full of reflection, hope, joy in life, and a huge amount of love for his daughter, her future, and his own.
It didn’t help me to understand why he was gone, but his words soothed me as they always had. I returned to my trip planning, determined to move forward and follow my heart in seeking out new experiences and stories of places and people whose passions deserved to be shared with the world.
The road trip didn’t go at all as planned.
That first week, camping in a new Minnesota state park every night and meeting new people in small cafes and strange museums was fantastic. Then depression hit me overwhelmingly while I explored the Twin Cities, where I had lived from the age of 10–20. It was great to see people and places I hadn’t seen in more than seven years, but I felt as if something was missing.
After a particularly rough night full of anxiety and tears, I happened upon a small cafe while wandering Minneapolis and stopped in for breakfast. I pulled out my copy of A Cook’s Tour and began reading. As the server delivered my food, I came to a chapter called “Back To The Beach” where Anthony goes to his childhood home in France with his brother.
Somehow, I had missed this chapter in all my perusals of this book over the past years, but it struck a chord deep within me now.
Throughout the chapter, Anthony describes his visit, stopping at his former childhood home, the boulangerie (bakery) he used to frequent, eating fresh oysters, riding motor scooters along the same route he and his family used to drive, but all the while feeling as if something was missing.
His words could have been my own about the trip I was currently on. Driving past my old house in a north St. Paul suburb, visiting the park where I used to hang out with my friends after school, the lakes where we would lay out on the beach in the summers, the bagel and coffee shop where I studied, my old high school, even my old church… for the most part, I felt empty and a bit lost.
“I’d been looking to hook into the main vein on this stretch of my around-the-world adventure. I’d thought everything would be instant magic. That the food would taste better because of all my memories. That I’d be happier. That I would change, or somehow be as I once was. But you can never be ten years old again — or even truly feel ten years old. Not for an hour, not for a minute. This trip, so far, had been bittersweet at best.”
-Anthony Bourdain, A Cook’s Tour
Except for the shiny new playground equipment at my old neighborhood park, it was all the same. All still delicious, all still beautiful, all still familiar. Despite the fact that I didn’t get my license until my early twenties when I lived elsewhere, I didn’t need a GPS to get around at all.
But the magic I expected to feel wasn’t there.
Just like Anthony exploring his former home, I was a completely different person than the adolescent who had once lived here.
And that was more than okay. It hurt a bit, and was certainly confusing — but it was also beautiful. All the other places I’d lived and visited over the years since I had last set foot in Minnesota had changed me. Anthony, in his writing and on Parts Unknown, made it clear that he had experienced this as well, and believed it was an extremely important part of living on this world.
“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.”
-Anthony Bourdain, The Nasty Bits
That night in the apartment where I was Couchsurfing, I pulled out a notebook and entirely reworked the rest of my plans for my trip. Basically, there were no more plans — just a flexible timeline of when I would be at different points along the Mississippi River.
With no worries about the things I felt I had to do and see, the rest of the trip felt much more magical as I simply let myself discover new places and interact with strangers along the way. Not one bit of my adventure went as planned, but it was one of the greatest things I’ve ever done. Now, I have my own book coming out about my journey along the Great River Road in January.
I’m not planning to reach Anthony Bourdain’s level of success — especially because I have taken his “Reasons Why You Don’t Want To Be On Television” series scattered throughout A Cook’s Tour to heart. But I plan to continue traveling when I can, let life happen along the way, and share the stories I encounter, whether ten people read them or thousands.
While none of us will ever understand why he took his own life when he did, the way Anthony Bourdain lived his life makes him a genuine role model in my eyes. His passion for this world, the many different people in it, and their ways of living life, especially as it related to food and music, are inspirational to all.
His way with words and great ability to truly listen and experience life are something I hope to emulate as I continue on this crazy, magical, bittersweet journey of growth, experience, and being changed by life.
❤ ❤ ❤