I never knew Anthony Bourdain, of course, yet there was something familiar about him to me—his laugh, his unfiltered, sometimes abrasive candor, the light in his eye when he stumbled across something beautiful: a cracked and winding road, a row of slanted houses on an uneven bluff, a friendly and foreign face, a work of art on the dinner plate laid before him. It was all familiar.
I’ve been traveling abroad since the summer of 2005, when I’d begun an MFA in creative writing through the University of New Orleans’ low-residency program. I already had my master’s degree in education and was a full-time teacher, but the lure of a degree program in which I could spend summers writing, reading, and traveling grew irresistible. Aside from a day trip to Tijuana when I was nine, I’d never left the country.
The fish-out-of-water experience I’d braced myself for never materialized. What I learned pretty quickly was that my fellow study-abroad students were of a particular breed: they were warm, open, curious, inviting, generous people, people who some might view as quirky or even outcasts, but they were neither of those things: to me, they were justcool.
They were intrigued with other people—the British bar owner who ran The Shakespeare in Montpellier, France, the bullfighters in Spain, or even me with my terribly thick Boston accent, they were fascinated. These were people who knew that the world was both big and small at the same time. That there was much to see and experience out there, every place so different from the last in its sights and sounds and smells, but, oddly, so alike at its core: people trying to be happy and enjoy the finite moments that make up a day, a year, a life. And they wanted to drink it all in: walk the streets, eat the food, dance, talk, laugh, shake hands, embrace, clink beer bottles, and laugh some more.
I saw in Bourdain the faces, mannerisms, and lusts that I’d seen in my MFA compadres, so I’d always felt, in a way, that I knew him. How could I watch an episode ofNo ReservationsorParts Unknownand not think about the long conversations I’d had in quiet Madrid bars, talks that stretched late into the night, about writing and life and tapas, our bleary eyes wincing at the gloomy dawn by the time we’d left, the city desolate, bracing for another day, street cleaners scrubbing the pavement and cobblestones in anticipation. How could I not think about the San Fermín Festival in Pamplona, stretching my calves in the narrow, uneven streets among the throng of still-drunk revelers, our eyes tipping our fear and stupidity for what we were about to attempt. How could I not think about the dark and labyrinthian streets of late-night Venice, walking and laughing with my new friends and travel companions, an open wine bottle slung from my fingers, trying to find my way back to the hotel, both lost and found at the same time.
People I talk to are interested to know that I’ve traveled abroad as much as I have—four summers as a graduate student, twice as a UMass Lowell professor leading students, and a few more times with my wife and a couple overstuffed backpacks, a dozen or so countries and counting. But before I can get too impressed with myself, I remember my fellow MFAers and just how downright pedestrian my journey sometimes seems in comparison. Many have traveled far more extensively than I, reaching the farthest corners of the globe; one expat had left the U.S. twenty years before and was living in Portugal, another had laid down roots in Poland and was teaching and raising a family there; one had made the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, a 500-mile hike through the northern hills of Spain. Others had no set plans once our summer together ended.You mean you don’t have a return ticket?The hardcore planner I was couldn’t fathom it.
They all had one thing in common—that same gleam I see whenever Anthony Bourdain is on screen: a willingness, or maybe a need, to color outside the lines, to toss aside the instruction manual and figure it out for themselves.
I don’t know Bourdain, but, God, I’m going to miss him. Just like I miss every last one of those passionate, fun, big-hearted, crazy fucks.