How Travel Shows Help Me Cope With My Chronic Illness

One woman shares how 'Somebody Feed Phil' and 'Parts Unknown' allow her to see the world from the safety of her bed.

Everyday Health Archive
anthony bourdian and philip Rosenthal in stills from their travel shows
Left: Anthony Bourdain in an episode of "Parts Unknown." Right: Philip Rosenthal in an episode of "Somebody Feed Phil."CNN; Netflix

A month before I was supposed to leave for a summer study abroad program in London, my body had other plans. In the weeks leading up to my trip, I had an eczema flare, sprained a ligament in my knee, and developed a complicated urinary tract infection (UTI) that landed me on intravenous antibiotics because of an intolerance to most antibiotics.

A year prior I was diagnosed with mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS), a chronic illness that makes me react to certain foods, environmental factors, and stressors like I’m allergic to them. Hives, anaphylaxis, diarrhea, and cardiovascular and respiratory issues are common with MCAS. Doctors also confirmed that I had irritable bowel syndrome and a joint hypermobility spectrum disorder — which is often comorbid with MCAS.

With each diagnosis came a new sense of responsibility about my body. I had to protect myself from the dangers lurking in the outdoors, on restaurant food plates, or even in a friend’s fridge, and I always carried an EpiPen and inhaler in case of an emergency.

I also learned that managing chronic illnesses is a full-time job. Along with doctors' appointments I had weekly physical therapy appointments to keep my chronic pain from my joint hypermobility at bay.

Living with chronic illnesses makes traveling hard, but I was determined to prove everyone (and myself) wrong. After all, if I could make it through finals from a hospital bed with that UTI, surely I could survive a month studying in London.

And for the first week and a half in London, things were perfect. I found places near my campus where I could eat without having anaphylaxis or a mast cell–related stomach reaction. Besides having a bout of nausea on the London Eye and sometimes using a cane for my injured knee, I was okay. I heard a professor lecture on the history of the BBC. I saw two West End shows, and sipped afternoon tea like a local.

But my fairy tale vacation did not last for long. Constant walking caused my back to twinge and I would end most days in severe back pain. I was also having issues with my heart rate and often felt like I was going to pass out. Because I was unable to fully participate in the program or interact with my peers, I decided to go home and rest, where I could be close to my medical team.

After a particularly bad day of back pain, I sat down with the directors and told them what was going on. I was crying, and one of them handed me a tissue. “I want to stay, but I know I won’t have the full experience here with the amount of pain I am in,” I said. I remember shaking, exhausted from the pain and the thinking it took to make the decision to leave.

The directors understood and helped me coordinate with my study abroad office at my university so I wouldn’t be penalized for leaving early because of my health. A day later, I bought my plane ticket home.

Travel Shows Offered Me a New Way to Explore the World

When I left London, I felt like I let down my doctors who had confidence in me thriving abroad, but more importantly, I felt like I failed myself.

With all of my medical limitations, I didn’t think I would ever be the traveler I aspired to be. I would never get to eat pizza in Italy, or travel to other parts of the Middle East, or Tokyo — places I had always dreamed of visiting.

But then I remembered all of the travel shows my dad and I used to watch after school when I was a kid. Shows like Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations helped us forge a bond and a shared love of exploration. My parents would take me to our local Ethiopian or Indian restaurant, where they’d encourage me to try new foods. It was a great way for me to explore different places and learn about the world.

So instead of continuing to feel sorry for myself and my current medical limitations, I turned on the TV and took comfort in shows like Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and the Netflix Original Somebody Feed Phil. The shows offered me a way to look out into the world beyond medication, physical therapy, and pain, to learn about different cultures and ways of eating. For me, Somebody Feed Phil and Parts Unknown are my way out.

Below are four ways travel shows taught me how to thrive with a chronic illness.

1. Know Your Limitations

One hot July day, while resting at home because of some bad back pain brought on by my knee flaring, I tuned in to Somebody Feed Phil, a Netflix show starring Phil Rosenthal. In the show, Phil, who is also the creator and writer of the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, eats his way through different cities, alone or with family members and guests. In this particular episode, Rosenthal was in Italy‘s watery city of Venice enjoying gelato and meeting famous butchers and chefs. He tastes some of the best gelato he’s ever had and meets a famous dog from the city, Nani the Wonder Dog.

In order to better understand the role of gondoliers in the city and gain a better respect for their work, Rosenthal hops in a boat for a lesson on paddling Venice’s waterways. The gondolier guides him through the motions of paddling, and together they travel through the streets of Venice at a leisurely pace. Rosenthal looks excited about the new experience. But when the guide leads him to open water near big boats and cruise ships, Rosenthal’s face turns red. “We’re either going to end this now, or I’m going to live on that island with a volleyball,” he says, motioning to a nearby island. He's done with the lesson and can’t push himself any further.

“Push,” the guide says to him. Rosenthal forces a chuckle and a smile, and with great effort, starts paddling again.

Seeing the look on Phil’s face reminded me that everyone tires out when traveling, and that it’s completely okay to rest. My body needs a lot of rest due to my chronic illnesses and I don’t have to feel bad about giving myself the time I need — in regular life or in future travels.

2. Find Ways to Be Creative and Adapt

Rosenthal also has a way of adding a personal touch to many of the episodes of his show. When he travels to his hometown of New York City, he and comedian Judy Gold visit Zabar’s, a gourmet delicatessen on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where you can buy lots of specialty Jewish foods. After filling a shopping cart with foods like bagels and lox, he visits a few other food spots in the city before stopping in to see his mom.

Rosenthal, who often talks on the show about growing up with his mom’s less than satisfactory cooking — and poked fun at it in episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond — confirms that his mom does make one dish very well: matzah ball soup. Which, as it happens, is what the family is having for dinner that night.

Because of my mast cell activation syndrome, I can’t eat many of the classic Jewish foods I grew up enjoying. But seeing all of those culinary delights on the show made me hungry.

So I got a special cookbook that has allergen-free and anti-inflammatory traditional Jewish recipes, called The New Yiddish Kitchen by Simone Miller and Jennifer Robins. With a few tweaks to the ingredients, I was able to enjoy traditional Jewish food without irritating my condition. For example, the recipe for traditional Jewish bagels calls for cassava flour instead of regular wheat flour. There’s also a recipe for rugelach in the book that uses gluten-free flour instead of white flour.

In making my own versions of these family favorites, I’m able to find new ways to enjoy the things I loved growing up.

3. Practice Living in the Moment

When I’m waiting for new episodes of Somebody Feed Phil, I turn on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. The show always has a way of bringing me out my chronic illness–induced sadness. Watching Bourdain interact with people is a good reminder for me to live in the moment.

In one episode, Bourdain goes to Cologne, Germany, where he spends time tasting traditional dishes like currywurst and exploring whether or not the city has changed in recent years. He talks with locals about current events and learns about the large Turkish community in Germany from a woman named Melek Yaprak, whose grandparents immigrated from Istanbul.

Bourdain also drinks German beer with locals and learns about an annual festival called Carnival that the town hosts.

Watching Bourdain interact with the people he encounters and take a genuine interest in their lives reminded me about the importance of living in the moment and getting out of myself. It reminds me that life is what I make of it and that I can learn so much from the people around me, whether it’s friends and family, Uber drivers, or the employee bagging my groceries at the store. I find myself wanting to be more of an active listener like Bourdain — to talk less about myself and my health and to just be there with the people in my life.

4. Remember That Nothing Is Permanent

Bourdain has a knack for creating a realistic but intense mood in many episodes of Parts Unknown. Things take a more somber tone in an episode where he visits London, shortly after the Brexit vote. Bourdain talks with locals about the then-recent referendum and the tension in the country over staying in or leaving the European Union. After a night of heavy drinking, he has breakfast with celebrity chef Nigella Lawson. She makes him a dish called eggs in purgatory, with eggs poached in tomato sauce and crusty, greasy bread. The two talk about the reality of how the vote happened and Bourdain finds a parallel between his hangover and how some Britains felt after Brexit.

“I was feeling shame and regret, and mourning,” Bourdain says. “You’re not the only one,” Lawson says back with a sad chuckle, as she starts to heat up a pan.

I related to this episode because I felt emotionally hungover and disappointed when I came home from London. Just like some Londoners after Brexit, I have to remember that things may not turn out the way I want them to, but it’s not the end of the world. Happiness can manifest in many ways. After Bourdain has his breakfast, he says, “There’s light and hope in the world again.” Good food and company can help soothe even the worst hangovers.

Sometimes the simplest things can soothe chronic illness flares. Somebody Feed Phil and No Reservations have helped me realize that no flare is forever. I can go anywhere I want, and I can do it safely from my bed. Well, at least for now.