Bourdain In Beirut: The Best “No Reservations” Episode Ever?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

I’ve been catching up with “No Reservations” the last month or so via Netflix, starting from the beginning, and last night I finally saw the infamous episode in Beirut (Collection 2: Disc 3), and I’ve got to say, if you’re going to watch any travel show, see this one.

It starts off like normal, and Tony and the crew get about a day and a half into shooting, doing their normal shtick (meet up with a local, head to a local dive for traditional comfort fare, eat some street food on the way back from the bar — the somewhat formulaic routine of the show), when all of a sudden, actual shooting begins in the streets around them.

At first everyone doesn’t seem too worried and they attempt to continue on with the show, but as the hours pass, the violence begins to escalate until the airport runway gets bombed out and the crew is left scrambling for somewhere safe to stay until the government can finally boat them out (which finally happens a few days later after being holed up in a hilltop hotel).

Though little of Beirut is actually shown, and you’d be hard-pressed to find much footage that the Beirut Tourism Office would want to include in a promotional video, I think what makes this episode so great is the fact that the events that occurred while they were there forced them to drop their normal formula and create a true travel narrative, with all the drama, uncertainty and realism that occurs when experiencing the real world.

Forget state-sponsored guides and flashy dinners, for once Tony was able to get a rare, honest look at a culture, for better and for worse. He saw life how the Lebanese see life, and he saw the Lebanese living life under extreme duress, and all the good and bad that that can elicit.

Too often, travel shows tend to gloss over the ugly and highlight the pretty, creating the sort of packageable, palatable look at a culture that often results in a bland,  forgettable experience (just the opposite of what a a travel show should be doing in my opinion). To me, I’d rather see both sides; it’s more interesting because if’s honest: Beauty is truth, truth beauty.

The best part of the show is Tony’s “Empire Strikes Back”-ish reflection on his travels since he began the show, and what, if anything, he’s learned. I’d like to think that his thoughts were the result of the traumatic experience he just had, and I hope that his doom and gloom has since been proven wrong and that it’s his third-from-last, and not the second-to-last paragraph that has since been proven true as his travels have continued. Here are his parting words:

In the few years since I’ve started to travel this world, I’ve found myself changing. The cramped cynical worldview of a man who’d only seen life through the narrow prism of the restaurant kitchen had altered. I’d been so many places, I’d met so many people from wildly divergent backgrounds, countries, and cultures.

Everywhere I’d been, I’d been, as in Beruit, treated so well. I’d been the recipient of so many random acts of kindness from strangers and I’d begun to think that no matter where I went or who I sat down with, that food and a few drinks seemed always to bring people together. That this planet was filled with basically good and decent people doing the best they could, if frequently under difficult circumstances. That the human animal was perhaps a better and nicer species than I had once thought.

I’d begun to believe that the dinner table was the great leveler, where people from opposite sides of the world could always sit down and talk and eat and drink and if not solve all the worlds problems, at least find, for a time, common ground.

Now, I’m not so sure. Maybe the world’s not like that at all. Maybe in the real world?—?the one without cameras and happy food and travel shows?—?everybody, the good and the bad together, are all crushed under some terrible wheel.

I hope, I really hope, that I’m wrong about that.

© 2022