• Paul D. Wilke

The Empty Spaces

For a generation, Anthony Bourdain was a kind of lifestyle guru for the aspiring world traveler, ever-quotable on the virtues of getting out there and experiencing the world in all its many flavors. He practiced what he preached. His trademark was exploring the unknown with wide-eyed curiosity, visiting exotic locations and sampling off-the-beaten-path local cuisine at every chance he got. Nothing was too weird to sample. His fans lived vicariously through his adventures, wanting to be like him, if only ever in their dreams. "Someday...me too, maybe..." So it's no surprise that those fans have paid homage to Mr. Bourdain by posting some of his most memorable quotes on the value of getting out there and experiencing this wonderful world we live in while we still can. Here's a sampling:

And yet, a sad irony remains. For all the quote-mined inspiration, for all the life-best-lived-through-travel tropes that make the rounds in our popular culture, of which Mr. Bourdain was a leading spokesman, he still killed himself in a foreign hotel room, far from home, alone, while filming the show that spread his travel adventure gospel. That's something to ponder. It is a jarring contrast between the ideals we loved him for and the reality he lived in his head, between his public and private personas, and between what he said to us and what he actually felt inside.

There were hints, only evident in retrospect, that all was not always well.

“I’m living the dream,” Bourdain told People in 2016. “I have the best job in the world and I’m very grateful for that. And I don’t plan on walking away from that any time soon, I can assure you — but it comes at a cost.”

“I now wake up alone in a lot of faraway places looking at beautiful vistas and doing interesting things. But the truth is I’m alone for most of that time.”

And, “Well, things have been happening, I will find myself in an airport, for instance, and I’ll order an airport hamburger. It’s an insignificant thing, it’s a small thing, it’s a hamburger, but it’s not a good one. Suddenly I look at the hamburger and I find myself in a spiral of depression that can last for days.”

And, “I communicate for a living, but I’m terrible with communicating with people I care about. I’m good with my daughter. An 8-year-old is about my level of communication skills, so that works out. But beyond that, I’m really terrible.”

Finally, a recurring dream Bourdain had that he related to his therapist: “I’m stuck in a vast old Victorian hotel with endless rooms and hallways trying to check out, but I can’t,” he said. “I spend a lot of time in hotels, but this one is menacing because I just can’t leave it. And then there’s another part to this dream, always, where I’m trying to go home but I can’t quite remember where that is.”

You can almost feel the alienation and loneliness in those quotes. All the travel, all the amazing food, and still the void. No matter where you go, there you are, fellow traveler. I have no doubt that Mr. Bourdain felt most alive when he was traveling and experiencing new things and meeting interesting people. I know what that feels like.

Maybe it was the empty spaces in between that were quietly eating him from the inside out like little termites of the soul. Depression is like that. It's not all the time, it comes in a wave of darkness, but if you hunker down and wait long enough, the wave recedes. But the termites are still nibbling away, quietly and relentlessly, and the next wave is building, quietly and relentlessly. And it never stops.

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