Mourning a Stranger

Steph Conroy

I had just arrived home from a night of embarrassingly flailing my limbs about to fantastically bad music at the Year 10 Social when I opened my Facebook and discovered Anthony Bourdain had died. My first reaction was disbelief. Had I not just seen him posting pictures filming Parts Unknown in Hong Kong with his incredible director girlfriend Asia Argento? Hadn’t I thought he looked so cool, so alive? What happened next was confusing; I came to realise I was inexplicably sad about this man’s death.

I knew because the next morning when I awoke I lay in bed for about 2 hours, miserably reading every article about his death I could get my eyes on. Searching for information, explanation? I Googled ‘Asia Argento and Anthony Bourdain’. I Googled his daughter, her daughters, his friends. What other chefs had said on Twitter. I searched Book Depository for every book he’d written and put them on my wish list; he is a fantastic writer. After a while, I got up and showered and drove to the Dandenongs and walked vigorously. As I did, I searched for ‘Anthony Bourdain’ on Spotify and found a playlist called ‘Anthony Bourdain: Music to cook by’ and I listened to it twice through. I finished my walk and got back in my car and drove home. I parked in the street out the front of my house and started to cry. Still his death hadn’t left my thoughts, which were basically: Suicide. France. Suicide. Anthony Bourdain. Legend. Suicide. Just filming in Hong Kong. Suicide.

In the same way I thought I’d never be someone who smoked cigarettes, I assumed I’d be someone who would have more interesting things to do than watch TV every night. But this is what I do. Almost every night. When I get home from work, I make some unimaginative dinner; a variation of fried eggs, faux meat sausages and half a head of broccoli or salad on the side, and I plonk myself on my lumpy couch and I watch Family Feud. Then, I switch to channel 94 and watch House Hunters, which as my housemate put it is a show about watching people look around houses they might like to rent or buy. None of the houses are ever a perfect fit, and they almost never choose the one I think they should. By then it is 7:30pm, and for three months of the year I flick stations again, back to channel 10 to watch MasterChef, which I think I actually hate, but there is something that keeps me coming back. Maybe it’s the food. The process of creating and the colours and the plating. It certainly isn’t the judges- fuck those pretentious idiots- or the soundtrack with it’s painfully obvious accenting of the mood; inspirational, upbeat music for those happy moments where they’ve nailed the dish, a Lord of the Rings-style battle soundtrack for tense moments where, oh my god, their curd has separated and they’ve got to start over but there’s not very much time. After I’ve endured this, it is 8:30pm, and over to SBS Food Network for a dose of real cooking (provided it isn’t Mystery Diners – fuck that show). For a glorious time last year, this time slot was allocated to Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. This was the show that made it okay to sit on the couch and waste my life in front of the box because this was what it was all about: eating, drinking, talking, smoking, travelling, learning: living. For those who haven’t seen it, it’s a show where a charismatic chef (Bourdain) travels to countries the world over and eats local food with local people; people from all walks, whether they be notable celeb folk or a guy who makes noodles alone in his high-rise apartment in Hong Kong, and has done every day for the past 30 years, and will continue to do so every day until he dies. It’s a travel show, cooking show amalgamation that is funny, poignant, insightful, and honest. The program is over a decade old, and things may have changed, but fuck, I loved every moment. It inspired me to get off the couch and actually get out there and see this shit. I’ve never encountered anything that has done that quite like No Reservations.

If you asked me a week ago who I’d trade lives with if I could, I’d have told you: “easy. Bourdain.”

The day after he died I put on season 3 of No Reservations and watched it on my laptop in bed and laughed and sighed and cried until I fell asleep.

I am currently at a crossroads in life, and have been for some time. Approaching 29, I have no partner, no children, not a great deal of job satisfaction, and I don’t own my own home. Like TV and nicotine, this is not what I thought life had in store for me. It can be liberating on a good day, crushing on the next. I have some money saved, and I’ve decided to take a year off work in 2019 to travel South East Asia; a place I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of, but somewhere I find myself irrevocably drawn to. Am I worried my life isn’t going to plan? Yes, persistently! But I want to experience life, not just watch it happening to other people. This weekend I told my housemate about my plans to leave. My friends and family know. And I was going to buy my plane ticket. But suddenly, something has me stalling.

I have anxiety, and for anyone who knows me, that won’t come as a surprise. I’ve been seeing psychologists for most of my 20s, getting help to alleviate the ‘symptoms’ of this, but I have always been uncomfortable with thinking of myself as depressed. Sure, I feel ‘bummed’ a lot of the time, maybe even more than I feel content; but everyone gets sad, I tell myself. When, in the news, people say ‘this is something we don’t talk about’, I find myself disagreeing. Everyone I know talks about it. A lot of people I know have it. The Facebook algorithms that inform my news feed ensure discussion about depression is never far from view. As a result of this- compounded by propensity to worry- I’ve often wondered if I am depressed. And I think that’s why Bourdain’s death has shaken me so; because I have long held onto the private hope that no matter how bad I might be feeling, no matter how shit things were, there was always the possibility of leaving. The knowledge I could pack my bag and escape overseas: meeting people and eating and smoking and drinking and talking and adventuring and living, and this would provide a balm for my restless dissatisfaction and apathy. But with Bourdain’s allegedly depression-provoked suicide, has come the scary realisation that maybe that won’t work. That maybe it is as Sylvia Plath put it: that “wherever I sat—on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok—I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.” I know I’m shedding tears because a wonderful, honest, intelligent, enigmatic, tolerant advocate, and fucking cool man who was an inspiration to me, is dead. I’m also crying because with his death, some hope that burned in me has been extinguished.

As I am writing this, it has been four days since he died. I should be writing reports. I am still dazed, still sad. Still searching for meaning in his death. Just now I looked up the names of his various shows on Spotify and found a playlist of music from Parts Unknown. Almost immediately, Hey Jude comes blasting out of my UE Boom and fresh tears spring to my eyes, and then comes sobbing that shakes my body. I am grateful no one else is home to see me grieve a man who is, in reality, a stranger.

So where is the light in this? I am determined to find it because this would be a pretty fucking miserable piece of writing if I didn’t. So: the song has changed to Listen To Your Heart by Roxette. And what my heart is telling me is that there is still hope. That expecting travel to fix life-listlessness is not realistic, that placing this pressure on it sets it up for failure, and it is not fair, the same way we can’t expect any one person to keep us afloat like a life raft, and fix things when we feel like we’re sinking. I am also not Anthony Bourdain. I know nothing of his private world and unlike the cretins who write for the Daily Mail, I am not in a position to speculate. In the fallout since his death, I read something that suggested idolising a person is akin to envying them, and envy is analogous to wishing we had their life, and in doing so we are comparing our life to theirs, and we are inevitably disappointed when we realise we don’t have what they have. Or we think we are in a position to tell them to better enjoy what they do have, just because we think those things will make us happy. Perhaps this is what I have been doing, unconsciously. Like Bourdain has done, I want to write, and I want to travel. I crave connection. But most of all I want to feel contentment. And I plan to never, ever stop searching for it.