On Choosing Life, two Years Later

Bourdain and our shared humanness

Photo of a farmers’ market in Amsterdam by Euan Cameron on Unsplash — Bonus: here’s Bourdain on Amsterdam in one-liners

Anthony Bourdain was the stranger everyone knew.

To me, he embodied all that is most precious about our shared humanness, what the Portuguese call ‘convívio’ and the Dutch refer to as ‘gezelligheid’. Both words loosely refer to the art of being together, i.e. community, and are impossible to translate accurately.

To convey what community means in such different countries located on the same continent would take much more than a dictionary definition.

Where there’s community, there’s inevitably food, the one thing guaranteed to bring humans together as we all need to eat. Food is personal and cultural edible history. My love of whole, natural foods comes from childhood. I was raised in a concrete jungle but my parents had grown up in small villages in Northern France. Despite the grocery store around the corner, my father went to the local farmers’ market as well every week. Until the end of last year, he still did. Now, the greengrocer delivers because they’re one of the many family friends who have rallied round my parents when my stepmom was diagnosed with cancer.

Food binds humans together in innumerable ways.

Depression and food make for unexpected storytelling.

I can cook on auto-pilot but if depression has got my heart in a chokehold, whatever I make isn’t going to taste good and it’ll probably look funny, too. Do not attempt any kind of creamy sauce with black bean pasta unless you want to feast on a plateful of cement. The appeal of gray food is limited, no matter how many shades it has.

But the day I made purple bread (with purple yam) was an excellent brain day, and there was pink bread (with taro) another day, too. The Pacific Northwest was a good place for ingredients from sunnier climes; a trip to Hawaii in 2016 helped broaden my palate and fall in love with just about everything mother nature provides in abundance, usually sold on the side of the road by a guy with a machete.

Whenever I was in the kitchen, my feet were in Seattle but my mind teleported elsewhere through ingredients, spices, and stories.

I wasn’t always just writing ingredients lists and instructions but giving the recipes odd names and weaving a narrative around them. For example, I make a 3-seed vegan and gluten-free loaf called Pain Domi. ‘Pain’ is bread in French, Domi is short for Dominique, my cousin the pastry chef who had to rebuild a life from scratch when he found out being around flour was a bad idea for his health. Also, ‘pain de mie’ sounds similar in French: this loaf yields large square slices of nutty, springy softness. And pain as in ‘Ouch!’, although gluten-free bread is the easiest thing: no kneading required. But the pain of not being able to take over the family business is something my cousin had to deal with.

Each recipe contains universes nestled into each other, like matryoshka dolls.

Every mouthful tasted like hope.

So for a while during the five years I lost to depression and nothing made sense, I wrote strange recipes.

I took a lot of pictures, all terrible because the light in the kitchen was unfixable, not even with a $10 desk lamp from Fred Meyer. My notes piled up, always on scraps of paper with lots of food stains. I don’t know where they are anymore.

My aversion to throwing out rare evidence of creativity may mean I threw the notes into a box and the box in a closet.

The closet is in America, where I’m not.

It remains a little mystifying to me how I ended up back in the Netherlands when I intended to move to Portugal, or even how little borders seem to matter online, at least in the West. There is so much potential for so much good, for so much collective self-inquiry, for so much combinatorial thinking.

And yet, it’s hard to look at ourselves in the digital mirror day in, day out.

We’re faced with the monstrous reflection of the system we encouraged, enabled, and empowered. The internet is a toilet of greed and people are going hungry.

Still, the best cooks and chefs out there will show you how to eat well on a reduced budget. It takes heart to feed people well, it takes Jack Monroe, it takes José Andrés and Eric Ripert and World Central Kitchen, it takes food banks and corporates and individuals who help them serve the most disenfranchised. In short, it takes everyone. We can always contribute by raising awareness even when we can’t donate.

It takes heart to write about our shared humanness, too, and Bourdain did this exceedingly well.

And then Bourdain died. And then I decided not to, two years ago. I took it one word at a time. I still do most days but curiosity demands feeding, whatever the inner weather. When it is at its worst, there’s soup. There’s almost always soup yet I rarely make it.

I’m alive and eating soup in the Netherlands, life is quite the adventure.

Today is the day I take stock.

I could make some but we’re having another heatwave. The windows are propped open with the suitcases I never got to unpack, folks are hanging out on the square, on their balconies, or in their gardens out back. Stragglers are going back into class as lunch recess draws to a close. My laptop is on top of a foot stool on half a desk, I’m still writing.

And, somehow, the monitor lady in the playground has a megaphone now. She didn’t before. I don’t understand much of the message but the tone is interesting.

It takes heart and human warmth to live.

I very nearly ran out of both and now they’re everywhere, in the laughter of every kid on that square, in the knowing look of every cat I spot from my window or on the street, in the off-key tune my downstairs neighbor just belted out between two sneezes... I’d have looked up the words online and sang along only I couldn’t identify the song. But the intention was there.

If it takes near misses to understand what matters most in life, the pandemic remains our collective one.

Some of us will not survive it or its repercussions unless we drop the masks.

We’re all struggling to find our bearings, our collective mental health is as unstable as the political health of the US (which affects the entire world, alas) but we still have some words, the ones that haven’t been robbed of meaning by the zeitgeist. We can use them to write up better ways of being and doing human.

Curiosity is the easiest way to travel, even when sheltering in place.

I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor now based in the Netherlands. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

— 2018

— 2019

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