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What I learned from Anthony Bourdain

| Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Anthony Bourdain, the acclaimed chef, author and travel documentarian, was a hero of mine for as long as I can remember. His shows “No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown” were staples in my home. On these programs, he would travel the world, both unknown corners and popular cities, and explore a place’s food, drink, people and culture.

Bourdain’s illustrious career as a New York City chef made me confident he knew food. His ease and honesty behind the camera made me feel he was genuine, that whatever he was saying wasn’t just to be fair to his hosts or please his audience. His 20 years of television made me certain he knew more about travel — more about the world, even — than anyone else. His kindness, his passion, his willingness to try new things and his unrelenting love of life made him the perfect travel role model. I trusted him.

For years, every vacation I went on was planned around Bourdain’s adventures. Where he ate, what he saw, who he met — I had to do it all. I felt if I was really going to experience a place, I had to do it as he did. Bourdain’s cardinal belief was in authenticity. To him, something like going to the top of the Eiffel Tower was “lethal to your soul.” I’ll always agree with that.

The first time he went to Tokyo (before he even dreamed of being on television), Bourdain didn’t let his severe case of culture shock get to him. He walked into a restaurant where he was sure no one would be speaking English. He sat down and ordered by pointing to the plate of the man next to him. There’s countless stories like that. And because of all of them, I felt that the only possible way to do a city right was exactly as he had done it.

I had some amazing trips following this method. It’s how I did most of America, and most of Europe. It’s how I planned to do the rest of the world, if I ever got around to it.

And then Bourdain died suddenly last June. I was devastated. For many of his fans, it felt like losing a close friend. That’s how I felt, at least.

Soon after, an interview was released posthumously. Almost prophetically, Bourdain spent much of the interview talking about the effects of his life on the travel industry, and what he hoped he had taught people. He said he was happy when people came up to him and said they went to a restaurant or a bar he’d been to. But he also said, “I much prefer people who just showed up in Paris and found their own way without any particular itinerary, who left themselves open to things happening. To mistakes. To mistakes, because that’s the most important part of travel.”

I had been doing it all wrong. In trying to emulate Bourdain — in trying to be authentic — I lost sight of authenticity. I rarely made my own plans. I never made mistakes, because I thought Bourdain never did.

So when I went to Dublin during spring break to visit some friends studying abroad, I promised I’d do things differently. I went in with no plans at all. I made some mistakes. I definitely ended up at a few touristy places I didn’t want to go to. But I had probably my best vacation yet. I realized that itineraries, that “have-tos” are the surest way to ruin a trip. It’s your job to find authenticity. The only real way to do a city right is to do it in your own way.

I’m never going to do something as ridiculous as wait in line to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower.  But from now on, when I travel, I’m going to follow the best advice Bourdain ever gave me — which was to not listen to him. From now on, I’m going to leave room for mistakes.  

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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