Let's Just Meet There: A Letter To Anthony Bourdain
Like many, I've been on a number of adventures with you. I remember taking the train all the way out to Keelung a mere three months ago. We got there late evening and discovered a temple along the way. The place had traditional lanterns and masterfully carved wooden buddhas, but also neon signs that flickered unevenly as people chatted loudly, cigarette at the edge of the mouth, just outside. It was dichotomous, messily life-like.
You'd convinced me to make the trip out, and to try the oyster pancakes, the bite-sized crab buckets, and the pao pao ice. I liked the latter two, but not the pancake. Its texture was too gooey for me. But I'm glad you recommended it anyway, because when we don't try things we're not used to, we can't develop an understanding of why we enjoy the things we keep returning to. It turns out I really like chicken hearts and beef tongue, but not fish tripe soup or stinky tofu. And so, why not?
Reflecting back, I remembered a french film titled Ceux qui m'ament prendront le train (liberally, Those Who Love Me Shall Take The Train). Now, I didn't go to Keelung out of love for you, but it was undoubtedly because of you. One reason I often traveled with you was that you had an appreciation for a broad spectrum of foods, from comfort ones that acted as deeply rooted reminders of home and history to locals, to fine dining establishments pushing the culinary arts through unbridled experimentation.
But above all, you understood the beauty of seemingly unremarkable places. You recognized that a bodega is often the centre of a neighbourhood, that greasy spoons were as relevant as innovative vegan kitchens, that technical prowess isn't the primary indicator of quality, that conversations with a sea fisherman, a taxi driver, or a sommelier can be equally enlightening, that wounded communities can speak to us - and to themselves - through food. You had an appreciation for the here and now. You didn't eat people's food, you ate food with people. There and then. What you shared with me, with us, were not foods, but meals.
I often made maps alongside you, so we'd actually get there. One time, I went to a noodle restaurant you'd been to and, when I found it unexpectedly empty, I asked if it was open. Two ladies laughed at me, speaking to each other in the local tongue. I asked again, but we could not understand each other. Their laughter continued and, with no resolution in sight, I simply left. It was an interaction completely lost in translation. It felt odd. There are moments like these, almost-memories, when you must allow yourself to be lost. Because some misunderstandings become fruitful bifurcations. This one didn't, but sometimes.
We all hate that you decided to take your own life. Many people can't comprehend what you did because you were famous, because you'd been everywhere and eaten everything with everyone. But in some way, I get it. I believe that the experience of our own humanity is subtly but profoundly painful. Like McQueen, another brilliant mind, the beauty of it all, the chaos, the pressure to make, to be, it weighed heavy.
I called my dad, a mental health professional, as I was writing the previous paragraph, because I didn't want to trigger anyone, or minimize how tragic suicides are. We talked for a while. He didn't know you. He told me about the author he wrote his PhD on, Witkaczy, who also wrote his own ending. We talked about the density of the thoughts people like you have inside them, the way in which everything is always at work in a quasi-physical way. A soul made of perceptibly shifting tectonic plates. Not always hurting, but never still either.
I don't know if you were spiritual, if you believed in afterlives, or that we simply cease to be. But either way, after you rupture with the world, things will settle now, more or less. Slowly, you'll join Koltès, Ducharme, Mishima, McQueen, Van der Role, Le Corbusier, Hadid, and other now permanently immaterial thought companions to move forward with, to have internal conversations with.
I hope there was a good meal waiting for you when you got to wherever you are now.
Thanks for everything, Anthony.