There is nothing more tedious than another person’s vacation photos.
By law, every sitcom in the ’70s and ’80s had to make a joke about it at least once each season.
So, in the way of these things, we have built our world of the future around an idea we once (correctly) mocked.
What are Facebook and Instagram? Other people’s vacation photos. What is Apple? A company building devices that allow you to subject others to your own wretched vacation photos.
Since most people spend hours combing through a virtual mountain of this junk, Anthony Bourdain was a sort of miracle. He was the one person on Earth whose vacation photos you wanted to see.
Bourdain was a lot of things – chef, bon vivant, lover of meat in tube form, student of history, reluctant-verging-on-unwilling travel guide – but he was most remarkably a curmudgeon.
Bourdain’s natural cadence was an exasperated sigh. His physical presentation was impatience. If you’ve watched his shows, you’ll recall the way he would lope through a new city, palms folded back aerodynamically, arms swinging like a majorette, attempting to run over the camera operator scurrying backward in front of him.
Bourdain travelled for a living, often on an arbitrary clock (The Layover), was routinely jet-lagged and hung over, rushing and irritated, in desperate need of a shower – which is what travel is. Travel is awful.
Being somewhere new is often great, but getting there is always torture. What is hell? Hell is standing in the aisle on the first leg of a Delta itinerary into Tampa, realizing there is no more room in the overhead bins and locking eyes with the malevolent six-year-old sitting behind your middle seat.
Bourdain’s genius was braiding together the glamour of fin de siècle gastro-tourism with the total misery of post-9/11 travel. This balancing act only seems more remarkable now that the pandemic has put a stake through the heart of the tourism industry as we knew it.
Bourdain’s secret sauce was charismatic bad humour. He always seemed on the verge of a titanic temper tantrum, one that never arrived.
Who can forget Bourdain’s judgment of Toronto, as seen from the cab ferrying him in from Pearson Airport? (Everyone has forgotten it except, of course, Torontonians. We never forget.)
“Soviet chic,” Bourdain said, off on one of his muttering jags. “Cryptofascist Bauhaus.”
I hadn’t thought of it in terms so explicit until he said it, though it’s hard to deny.
But that’s other people’s Toronto. That’s Toronto for someone who’s not from here. My Toronto – all the places I’ve been going to my whole life – is Shangri-La.
Bourdain understood the distinction. As a non-native of every place he visited, he wasn’t revealing anything to you. He claimed no special insights. He was humbled by the enormity, grandeur and sheer weirdness of our world.
Also, he was busy talking to randos and drinking to forget at a bar he stumbled into by accident. He was a man in the midst of a global search for a good night out with a few friends.
Bourdain travelled the way people ought to, but rarely do – led around aimlessly by his curiosity and appetites.
The Toronto line gets pride of place in Bourdain’s posthumous new book, World Travel: An Irreverent Guide.
Its publication is a bit ironic. A regular bit in one of his programs had Bourdain reading aloud from and then ridiculing a guidebook put together by his producers.
World Travel was a vague idea when Bourdain died by suicide in 2018. His former assistant, Laurie Woolever, talked to him about the specifics of it for only an hour. Using scripts he wrote for his shows, she has compiled a compendium of Bourdain’s thoughts about the places he visited. The result is something between a Frommer’s Guide and Schopenhauer’s Essays and Aphorisms.
Bourdain was a better writer than he was a TV host, which is saying something. Along with Martin Scorsese, he was the early 21st-century’s master of the voiceover monologue.
But untethered from the man, even his best lines land flat on the page. Reading what Bourdain once said aloud just made me miss Bourdain. It did have the salutary effect of sending me back to his shows. I could watch those on a loop.
Aside from sports news and general bile, no topic is better served by the internet than where to eat. It’s easier to find an abundance of online information on the best chicken rice in such-and-such covered food court in Singapore than it is to figure how to adequately save for retirement.
That crowd-sourced bonanza has made the printed guidebook an anachronism. The only thing it’s going to do for you these days is increase your odds of getting mugged.
But if this is what it takes to keep Bourdain’s spirit in the midst of the conversation – and not just about travel, but about life and how to best live it – then we will grudgingly, harrumphingly admit that, sure, there is a place for it. Especially if you plan on reading it while sitting at your favourite bar, and not the one someone told you to like.
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