I was reading Slate.com the other day when I ran across a sharp piece on ‘Mad Men,’ Don Draper and popular culture’s seemingly obtuse insistence to treat them as if they were real, or at least a historical documentary of some sort. The author was of course right, a certain demographic of the American public does seem to over infatuate itself with certain TV shows and personalities and in turn use them for our own psychological needs. In the case of ‘Mad Men’ it’s a good way for upper-middle class Americans to feel guilty about something completely new and different – an entire decade over which we had no control and during which many of us weren’t alive. That started the hamsters in my head working overtime though and I realized that those of us interested in travel and exploring the world suffer from the same disease, and it’s mostly Anthony Bourdain’s fault.
The travel experience is built on a house of cards, I realize that. Travel magazines and TV shows often don’t serve to really educate potential travelers about what to see and do in a new location; that’s why we have old fashioned travel guide books. No, they exist almost solely to entice, mesmerize and to provoke endless daydreams thereby sucking the productivity from the global workforce. There’s nothing wrong with that, not really, travel (or the promise of travel) is built on a dream. A dream of a better life, of seeing things you never thought imaginable and walking in the footsteps of seemingly relaxed and well traveled luminaries. Most of these itineraries, which at times completely unrealistic are at least manageable – one can attain them with work and determination. Until you switch the channel and reach Mr. Bourdain.
Mr. Bourdain has made a career of creating and cultivating violent critics, it’s part of his mystique. However, I am not one of those critics. I am like many of you, curled up on my comfy suburban couch, eating my suburban popcorn watching decidedly non-suburban adventures from Anthony as he traverses the globe. But here’s one thing many of us never come to grips with – for all intents and purposes he is not real.
Bourdain, thanks with the publication of his first book Kitchen Confidential, has created a brand that is unique to him and him alone. I think we can all identify its key aspects: free-wheeling, sarcastic, dangerously unhealthy, alcoholic, the bad boy of travel television if you will. And he could very well be a drunk, obnoxious prick in real life too, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that is the image that has defined his on film personae and it is that personality that we all love to watch.
But ladies and gentlemen, just as the Slate pointed out with Don Draper, do not get lulled into thinking that this is reality of anything that has ever or will ever happen. It’s not. It’s TV; entertainment; something to watch while the washing machine runs; something that while part of us would love to emulate, if given the chance we would run away like little kids.
We, particularly Americans, love the idea of the ‘bad boy’ because so very few of us are actually like that. Most of us lead pretty average lives doing everything you would expect. Even those of us who have made travel a major part of our lives usually do so in a way that isn’t avant garde or unusual, just the opposite. But that’s ok and that’s the beauty and genius of ‘No Reservations.’ From a distance, the idea of getting drunk in the middle of some god forsaken country, eating cobra hearts and having meals cooked for you in the homes of local chefs sounds great. But even if you were to copy the antics of Bourdain, you would in all honesty probably have a miserable time. Why? Because you aren’t Anthony Bourdain.
No one is, maybe not even Anthony himself and that’s fine. What comes on the Travel Channel every week is not a scientific documentary, it is entertainment and a highly choreographed one at that. We’re not meant to travel to the middle of the Saudi desert to eat camels or get drunk while enjoying a sauna in Finland. For most of us that isn’t our travel style and that’s also probably why we aren’t all on TV.
So rather than always answering the “Who do you want to travel question with” question with the standard Anthony Bourdain response, instead just be content to travel as you like with those you like to travel and before you know it, you’ll have more realistic travel experiences than Bourdain could ever hope to enjoy.