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Escape From the Holidays

If the return to “normal” gatherings still feels off, decline the invites and take a trip — alone

A woman walks alone through a market in Marrakech. Getty Images

Here we are again. That time of year when the only topic of conversation among friends and coworkers is where everyone is going for the holidays — what will be on the table, who will be in attendance, will there be a turkey; and if so, who’s cooking it. Small talk usually makes me claustrophobic and crabby, but I love these particular conversations. They offer a window into how the people I think I know really live beyond the backdrop of our friendship. I learn more about the families that my friends grew up in, the ones that have adopted them or that they’ve chosen, the ones they can’t stand.

At a recent dinner, when talk turned to the holidays, a friend said something that’s stuck with me: Her dad, who was not born in America and has few sentimental associations or timely familial obligations, always plans an international trip over Thanksgiving, and spends a weekend or midweek trip exploring a new city.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this roving approach to the holidays ever since. My own family isn’t able to get together this year, and while I’ve been invited to some Thanksgiving dinners by friends, the idea of spending an evening crammed around a table with people I know and love to varying degrees plus the odd stranger still feels a little off. And I suspect I’m not alone. As life continues a slow inch toward normalcy, the holidays are sure to look more and more like they used to — a stark contrast with last year, when solo or very small holiday gatherings were a matter of public safety, not choice. But just because we don’t need to spend the holidays alone doesn’t mean we have to rush back to the hustle and bustle of the Macy’s Parade. Things are still shaken up, and a lot of us (me, for instance) still feel fragile. This could, then, be the perfect year to politely decline the invitations, rain check the family reunions, and do something for ourselves. Why not take a trip?

I’m entranced by the vision of me, a solo traveler, strolling through the streets of a tranquil town or an otherwise-packed city on Thanksgiving, completely alone except for a passing family heading home to eat, or a few other travelers with the same idea. This is the sort of solitude I always dream about when New York feels like it’s closing in, or my brain is too cluttered to do its job.

Staying put because you have nowhere else to go is a terribly lonely feeling. Going somewhere alone by choice, though, can be incredible. It’s been on previous solo trips that I’ve met some of my closest friends, had some of my best meals, gone on some particularly strange and unforgettable dates, and felt surrounded by people. I’ve just never thought to take one of these trips during the holidays. But it makes perfect sense — my friend’s father books most of his air travel for Thanksgiving day when prices drop, and finds himself touching down in a different country by the time most people are sitting down for dinner.

Even if you love spending time with your friends and family, there’s no denying the stress of organizing a holiday dinner. Sure, you still have to do some planning for a successful trip, but you can put the guest lists and tiered cooking times (so that the stuffing is warmed through when the turkey is finished!) aside this year. Instead, take an international trip and put that energy toward finding perfect gelato, platters of excellent tacos, or enormous pans of paella you’ll have to share with a new friend. Even on a domestic trip, if you decide to travel for Thanksgiving, there are so many restaurants doing inventive takes on the classic feast that, with a little planning, you could enjoy a completely different version of Thanksgiving this year: tandoori turkey, mashed garlic yucca, or pumpkin tres leches cake, perhaps? Or if you do crave a traditional spread why not try a plated version just for you, sans the family politics. Traveling during the holidays isn’t just a chance to get away from the holidays. It can also be an opportunity to experience them in an entirely new way.

While I don’t have the time, the resources, or the brainspace to plan an international trip right now, I’m flirting with the idea of thanking my friends for their invitations, and heading out of town. I’m thinking of the sort of trip I can plan in a day, take in a weekend, and arrive to by train or bus or rental car. I’ve started looking for places to stay in the Hudson Valley — one of my very favorite places just two hours north of the city, and one whose substantial queer community always makes me feel a sense of belonging.

I really hope that by next year or the year after, this pandemic will be more fully in the rearview mirror, and I’ll be back at a truly giant table with my parents and cousins and aunts and uncles and old family friends whose names I don’t remember. But until then, the holidays have more to offer than the choice between going to a huge dinner and being deeply alone. I can’t wait to take the train along the river up to my favorite town alone, walk along the main street alone, have an early cocktail at a favorite dive bar alone, and unpack and eat my mini feast, alone — and far from my my Brooklyn home.

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