Anthony Bourdain, the feels, and Calvino’s Invisible Cities


Lately, I’ve had the feels. They’re like happiness-draining remoras that suck my life meter into the red zone. To combat this, I stuff my brain with content (movies, books, articles, Twitter, TV).

Consuming this content one Sunday, I read Calvino’s Invisible Cities the same day I watched the Parts Unknown episode in which Anthony Bourdain goes to Sicily and has a breakdown because some man on a boat tossed stunt octopi into the water above his head while he was supposed to be snorkeling for live octopi, which he was supposed to be eating for dinner that night. Apparently, these dead cephalopods caused him to slide into a “hysterical depression.”

“Is this what it's come to,” he asked, “back in the same country almost a decade later, and I'm still desperately staging fishing scenes?"

Okay, so. If you don’t know this already, Anthony Bourdain has probably the best life ever.

He gets paid a ton of money to eat, drink, and travel to hundreds of cities around the world, ad infinitum. Beautiful, intriguing, mysterious, dangerous, austere, ancient, charming, bustling, urban, rural cities. American, Chinese, Canadian, Colombian, Russian, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Peruvian, Chilean, Mexican, Argentinian cities. And though he does the same five things on every show (eat, drink, fish, walk around, talk to people) in every city, I’ve watched him go to every single one. Because I am obsessed with cities (every city I go to I daydream about living in) – their history, their aura, their varieties of cultures and people and architecture. Maybe I love cities for the same reason I ingest so much content: an inundation of details and experiences can tamp down the feels.  

In Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Marco Polo recounts his travels of 55 cities to an aging Kublai Khan. Similar to watching Parts Unknown, reading Invisible Cities is like travel porn for the restless. It’s intensely satisfying to read Polo describe dozens of distinct and wonderful cities to the great Khan – for instance: Laudomia where inhabitants “frequent the house of the unborn to interrogate them,” or Octavia, “the spider-web city … [hanging] over the void.”

Though Polo and Khan speak as if Kublai Khan has conquered all of these cities, Polo mentions so many of them – including modern-day cities (San Francisco, Los Angeles) – that (we realize) he’s not exactly describing only the cities in Khan’s empire, but cities, generally (real, imagined, and dreamed) and the ways that cities as corollaries of human life grow and die and morph into unrecognizable versions of their former selves even as those selves refuse to recognize the change because of nostalgia or fear or lack of self-knowledge.

Another thing happens while Polo describes these myriad beguiling, oddball, distinct, wonderful cities: they meld in the mind into one soup of City. They become the city of Trude, whose inhabitants say to Polo: 

“You can resume your flight wherever you like," they say to me [in Trude], "but you will arrive at another Trude … The world is covered by a sole Trude which does not begin and does not end. Only the names of the airport changes.” 

Trude, soup of City. Now, that’s a weird nightmare.

Kind of like the weird nightmare of eating exquisite cheese after exquisite cheese (always with a breathtaking view in the background) after finding meat on sticks after meat on sticks after meat on sticks from streetcart after streetcart after streetcart after getting hangover after hangover after hangover from expensive pinot noir after expensive pinot noir after filming fishing scene after fishing scene after fishing scene for dead fish after dead fish (as the stooge for the Food Network, now CNN).

“I may look normal,” says A. Bourdain at the end of the Siciliy episode, “but I'm not barking uncontrollably or running around shrieking with my pants wrapped around my head. Which is what my instincts tell me I should be doing."

Yup. Humans are cray. We break down for no apparent reason – sometimes not in spite of abundance, but because of it. Even the Great Khan is not immune. At one point while listening to the fecund details of his empire, he breaks down with:

a sense of emptiness … a dizziness that makes rivers and mountains tremble … the desperate moment when we discover that this empire, which had seemed to us the sum of all wonders, is an endless, formless ruin, that corruption's gangrene has spread too far to be healed by our scepter, that the triumph over enemy sovereigns has made us the heirs of their long undoing.”

Emptiness. Desperation. Dissatisfaction. Breakdowns. Dead fish. Exquisite cheese. Too many people on this earth making us feel insignificant. Fecundity of detail. What are we to do?

*looks around for answer … continues to look with obsessive concentration … keeps looking … looks into the sky … looks in books … looks under cat … looks under the couch … looks under fingernails ... gets distracted by fingernails; cleans them … forgets what she's looking for ... grabs a beer … sits down with friend to watch Anthony Bourdain visit Paris ... dreams about living there.*