On Anthony Bourdain, Study Abroad & Transformative Travel

This post originally appeared on Maura’s blog, In Lieu of Postcards.

Anthony Bourdain eating with friends on Parts Unknown, “Iran.” (Source: CNN.)

Like most people who love travel, I was hit hard by Anthony Bourdain's death earlier this month. When we heard, my husband and I had just wrapped up year two of the short study abroad program we lead in southern Italy (for the University of Oklahoma), and were visiting friends in Exeter in Devon, England for a few days before heading back to the states. We spent the day and night following his death in a way Bourdain would appreciate: exploring a place we'd never been – the rocky English coastal town of Lyme Regis – and then settling down for an epic dinner of local crab salad, sausages, cheeses, beer, and wine over conversation with good friends.

In that moment especially, I felt that these are the kinds of experiences that make life worth living. Anthony Bourdain believed that, too – or at least he expressed as much in his writing. Why a man with so much passion for life decided to end his, we can't know. We can only hope that at this time of crisis in our country, his straightforward, inspiring, important body of work can continue its reach and impact.

Anthony Bourdain's Legacy

As with most things, I wasn't able to truly appreciate Anthony Bourdain until he was gone. I had followed two of his travel shows – No Reservations and Parts Unknown – and read some of his work, even assigning one of his essays, "The Hungry American," as part of last year's study abroad curriculum (this year I subbed it out to make room for more women writers). I knew, as clearly as one knows that Neapolitan-style pizza is superior to Domino's, that his travel shows were by far the best in the genre. But I hadn't really reckoned with the complexity of his work – what it was all about, and what it was doing – until he passed. I came home from our three-week European trip jet-lagged, sick, and determined to return to Bourdain's oeuvre, for my money one of the more impressive in the history of travel writing.

When I returned to No Reservations and Parts Unknown, it hit me immediately just how much of my perspective had already been subtly shaped by years of watching these shows. When I became familiar with Bourdain in my early twenties, I was already in love with travel due to my study abroad experience living in Ireland and traveling in Western Europe. But funny as it sounds, Bourdain's work actually helped me to better understand my own experience of living and traveling abroad. And he also introduced me slowly to new places I had never thought of traveling, approaching them in ways both accessible and unexpected.

The Saturday market in Catania, Sicily: a Bourdain-esque cultural experience, 2018.

Though Bourdain has stated that before beginning No Reservations he'd "been basically nowhere," his perspective is informed by his experiences as the grandson of French immigrants and as a longtime chef. Chefs, I would have to imagine, confront on a daily basis the influence of the global on our day-to-day life. Whether brought here by immigrants, colonialism or other means, American food as we know it would not exist without the influence of a great many cultures. So it was natural that Bourdain evolved into a crusader for global travel and cross-cultural exchange, and in his down-to-earth, freewheeling way, took viewers around the world like no one else on television has done. Geared toward all curious parties (recognizing that the majority of viewers would never make it to such far-flung places), Bourdain's shows eschew the guidebook format of hosts like Rick Steves and Samantha Brown. He brings viewers as close as possible to the experience of transformative travel in the interest of creating a more open-minded and better world.

The Bourdain Philosophy of Travel

Overall, watching Bourdain uncovered for me something I had already learned, but perhaps refused to acknowledge: that to travel and really learn something – truly connect – is difficult. Due mainly to our work-infatuated culture, we in this country often see travel as synonymous with vacation. Escape is a term that comes up often: escape from our day-to-day lives, our responsibilities, our mundane selves. But transformative travel, of the kind Bourdain favored, is quite the opposite.

The busy streets of Naples, 2018.

Claude Levi-Strauss's 1955 travel memoir Tristes Tropiques features one of my favorite travel-related quotes: “Perhaps, then, this was what traveling was, an exploration of the deserts of my mind rather than those surrounding me.”

Of course people – relationships, meetings, connections – are central to his work, but I think Bourdain would agree that travel is at its heart about the traveler. That the primary reward of travel is its impact on one's consciousness and perspective, the way it nudges one's mind open painstakingly, almost imperceptibly. For travel of the non-“escape” variety, as Bourdain knew, means not shirking but taking on additional responsibility – the responsibility of the respectful, curious traveler who attempts real connection with another culture and the people in it. This traveler must navigate the attendant confusion, awkwardness, discomfort, and self-consciousness this implies. It's not easy, and attempts may even feel "unsuccessful." It may take days, weeks, months, years to sink in – until one morning, you wake up to find you've grown to understand the world just a little bit more.

With our study abroad group in Napoli, learning about the mafia, 2017.

Study Abroad à la Bourdain

Our study abroad course, taught through the College of International Studies at OU, is technically a hybrid of Art History and Travel Writing. My husband the art history professor tries to teach our students (as much as one can in the course of a mere 11 days) how to look at things, how to notice and describe and make meaning from the act of seeing. And I introduce them to something called "travel writing" (of which most have never heard) through readings and discussions about what it means to travel, to be a traveler, and how to tell stories about travel and evoke a sense of place.

But the real point of the course is much larger. What we hope students really take away is not the ability to describe the mosaics at Pompeii or write an entertaining essay about getting lost in Naples. Ours is (or should be) the goal of every study abroad course: for them to learn that travel can be more than just taking a photo with the Colosseum, or sitting on a beach at a resort (though there's nothing inherently wrong with those things). That the real reward is the process of learning about, negotiating, and connecting with another culture. We want them to see that difference isn't scary. We want them to learn that there are people all over the world, speaking different languages and practicing different customs, with whom they have an awful lot in common. And in the end, we want them to see that traveling with an open, curious mind is one way to grow as a human being in this world. It's a tall order for less than two weeks. The best we can hope for is to plant a seed.

Farm in Sorrento, Italy, where our group learned about local food, 2018.

This same mission statement is behind pretty much all of Anthony Bourdain's travel-related work. In an America that grows increasingly paranoid and isolationist by the day, he made it his mission to demonstrate that our differences on the surface belie our similarities underneath. Recently, I revisited his Travel Channel series No Reservations, which I remembered as perhaps less intentional than Parts Unknown. I was surprised to find that from episode one, the Bourdain philosophy made famous by the best episodes of Parts Unknown ("Hanoi," "Iran," "Cuba," "Jerusalem") was already crystal-clear: that much of the ethnocentrism and xenophobia present in our culture is a result of ignorance, and that travel is its essential antidote.

I had forgotten that No Reservations began just a few years after 9/11, when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were in full swing and the United States had adopted a with-us-or-against-us position regarding its allies. The first episode takes place in Paris, with Bourdain critiquing the ridiculous anti-French sentiment and "freedom fries" rhetoric of that era. In this episode and others, Bourdain performs a balancing act, highlighting cultural differences and idiosyncrasies while always keeping up his mantra: we're all pretty much the same. This is a delicate message for a cable show, but he makes it look easy.

Take Bourdain's conversation with then-President Obama on the most famous episode of Parts Unknown, as the two share a dinner of bún chả in Hanoi, Vietnam: "We're at a point where we seem to be turning inwards," Bourdain remarks. "I mean, we're actually talking about building a wall around our country. And yet you have been reaching out to people who don't necessarily agree with us – Gaza, Iran, Cuba – I mean, I just wish that more Americans had passports. The sense in which you can see how other people live seems useful at worst and incredibly pleasurable and interesting at best."

Obama, nodding his head, agrees. "It confirms the basic truth," he says, "that people everywhere are pretty much the same."

Our students doing Judo with teenagers in at Star Judo Gym, which helps children in Scampia through sport, 2018.

This is the kind of balance those of us who teach study abroad courses must strive for: to highlight the specific and unique aspects of a culture without exoticizing or othering, always attempting to maintain that tacit acknowledgement that really, we're all the same. For our program, we're lucky enough to work with an Italian guide (the marvelous Katia) who integrates Bourdain-like experiences into our curriculum: meetings with immigrant-advocacy and anti-mafia nonprofits, as well as locals whose lives have been touched by the mafia, a visit to a local organic farm, and even a visit to a judo gym for underprivileged children and teens. Of course, Italian culture is not such a difficult one for new travelers to embrace, and it's unencumbered by the negative associations Americans have with places like Iran or Cuba. But it all comes down to the same principle: introduce travelers to actual people from that culture, and those travelers will likely come away with a great deal more empathy and less fear.

Global Education in Trump's America

And so though I'm somewhat new at this whole study abroad thing (and this whole teaching thing, for that matter, as I've only been doing it for a few years), more and more I've realized how crucial learning about other cultures – even if one can't travel – is to becoming an educated citizen. Every day in Trump's America, we see the results of the opposite. Trump promotes ignorance and fear of those different from us and a belief, despite this ignorance, that we are superior. It's a sickening, cynical way to look at the world, one that directly results in mistreatment of immigrants, people of color, the lgbtq community – and the list goes on.

Meeting with staff at Eleven in Catania, Sicily, a restaurant that hires and trains immigrants from Northern Africa, 2017.

It's true that not everyone can afford to travel the globe, and many lack the financial means to travel even to another state. But through work like Anthony Bourdain's, they can approximate the experience. And that's worth a lot. Because in addition to teaching us open-mindedness and empathy, travel – or the approximation of it – humbles us. This is true for young and old, experienced or first-time traveler. The world is staggering and vast, we quickly learn. But this revelation need not be a negative one. Personally, when I think about how much of the world in all of its beautiful complexity I have yet to learn about, I feel awestruck, energized, even comforted. People are mostly the same, yes. But that fact makes their differences all the more interesting.

One of my favorite Bourdain quotes to this effect comes from an early episode of No Reservations set in Peru. Plainly inspired by his experience, Bourdain demonstrates the enthusiasm, passion, and embrace of life that made his death so difficult to comprehend. "It seems that the more places I see and experience, the bigger I realize the world to be," he says. "The more I become aware of, the more I realize how relatively little I know of it, how many places I have still to go and how much more there is to learn." He pauses. "Perhaps that's enlightenment enough – to know that there is no final resting place of the mind, no moment of smug clarity. Perhaps wisdom, at least for me, means realizing how small I am, and unwise, and how far I have yet to go."