Almost two weeks ago, Anthony Bourdain took his life, and the news has formed deep wounds within the international community.
“He was our guide, our teacher,” says longtime expat Erin Connolly. “International teachers live uniquely transient lives; it was comforting to know that we could always turn to Anthony Bourdain to give us insight into the strange new places we were diving into.”
Connolly and her husband, Chris Powers, moved from Beijing to Romania two years ago, where they currently work at the American International School of Bucharest (AISB). “Anthony Bourdain was the person we turned to every time we visited [or moved to] a new country,” says Connolly. “Book a trip, watch Bourdain. He showed me not only how and where to eat, but how to be a thoughtful, sensitive, and productive traveler.”
Bourdain got his start by writing nonfiction bestseller, Kitchen Confidential, where he detailed, explicitly, the dark side of the restaurant industry, revealing his own demons and drug addictions while working as a chef. Critics and foodies were quick to celebrate his sardonic wit and breezy storytelling ability, making him a natural choice to host The Travel Channel’s series, “No Reservations.”
He picked up several Emmy nominations for his writing efforts while at The Travel Channel, then moved on to host American news network CNN’s “Parts Unknown,” where he treated viewers to unique food, seasoned with a fascinating helping of politics, history and culture. He was filming the 11th season of the series when Bourdain’s best friend and celebrated chef, Eric Ripert, found him, unresponsive, in France the morning of June 8th. He was 61.
Selina Parnell, an English teacher at AISB, says that his death has “shaken our community.” She explains that “International school teachers tend to fill their lives with two main hobbies: eating and traveling. Bourdain taught us to do both.”
Indeed, Bourdain essentially rewrote the rules for traveling and eating. In Kitchen Confidential, he penned, “I’ve long believed that good food, good eating, is all about risk. Whether we’re talking about unpasteurized Stilton, raw oysters or working for organized crime ‘associates,’ food, for me, has always been an adventure.”
Connolly says that Bourdain not only made traveling and eating cool, but, “He taught me that food and culture are inextricably linked. He taught me that to know a culture or country or a community, you must share a meal with locals, or at least make an effort to. Without his guidance, I would not be as willing to take risks when traveling, to talk to locals, to try strange dishes, or to visit the hole-in-the-wall restaurants. He showed me that sometimes the tiniest, most run-down, hidden eateries are the best ones, and that the older the cook, the better the food.”
Connolly and Powers are part of a large subset of teachers at AISB, who identify themselves as foodies. In fact, Powers and Selina Parnell’s husband, Bryan, started a yearly tradition at the school, where a group of teachers travel to a farm in the country to slaughter their own pig. They’ve learned how to make use of all the meat and even hold sausage competitions to pay homage to Bourdain’s favorite culinary treasure: “meat in tube form.”
News of Bourdain’s apparent suicide hit the group hard, but like most of the international community, they’re trying to focus on all the joy he brought the world, despite the pain he must have been going through off-camera. “Selina and I used to dream about meeting Bourdain in the airport,” says Bryan Parnell. “We’d spend hours talking about what we’d do or say when we finally met him in the immigration line.”
These musings have been the main thread of conversation among teachers at AISB the last two weeks, with stories of close encounters and “Bourdain restaurant check-off lists” crowding the narrative.
Longtime expat Kirk McDavitt was at a Vipassana Meditation retreat when news outlets confirmed Bourdain’s death. His wife, Gitane Reveilleau, worried how he’d handle the passing of his idol, after ten days of silence and introspection. He was in tears when he found out what happened.
“I first learned of Anthony Bourdain when I was a baker and my boss lent me his copy of Kitchen Confidential,” McDavitt remembers. “He insisted I would love it, and I did. The brash tone and unapologetic nature of Bourdain’s delivery struck a chord. I saw him as the Keith Richards of the culinary world—edgy, with an axe to grind and an ability to cut through anything fake. Add to that his tendency to self deprecate and I was hooked on his personality and his opinions.”
Five years after reading Kitchen Confidential, McDavitt set off for Japan, inspired by Bourdain to see (and eat) the world. A few years after that, he met his wife (Reveilleau) at a school in Brazil. Reveilleau grew up poor, in a town where not many people get the opportunity to leave. She fell for McDavitt quickly. He was foreign, exciting. And much like Bourdain did for him, McDavitt opened a window into a world Reveilleau didn’t know existed.
Their first international teaching post was in Bangkok. “I had never thought about Thailand before finding out we were moving there,” she says. “Everything about it was brand new to me. [Before we moved] Bourdain enticed me for the first time in my recollection, to leave the flavors and smells of my beloved home behind so we could start our sensory adventure through the unknown.”
You could ask hundreds of expats why they moved abroad, and it’s likely that more than half would cite Bourdain in some way. As soon-to-be-retired AISB teacher David Robbins says, “I saw him as one of us. He advocated seeing the world and getting to know its people, and championed the attitudes and virtues of trust and tolerance—ideas so desperately needed in our world today.” Robbins taught in Kenya for 22 years before coming to Bucharest, with stints in Honduras, New Delhi and Taipei before that. He’ll soon return home to the States, for the first time in a long time. The end of a chapter.
In an episode of “No Reservations,” Bourdain said that “travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you.”
International teachers bear scars on our calves from motorcycle exhaust burns in Southeast Asia; we compare stories of what it was like to have malaria in Africa; some share stories about how they met their significant others while abroad. We commiserate over missing weddings and funerals, but relish in the excitement that only comes from traveling somewhere new. There are few people outside our strange little community that understand this, but Bourdain was one of them.
He said that, “[Travel] leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”
*If you are suffering from depression or are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or schedule a meeting with one of AISB’s counselors.