On Holidays and Travel

His Tiny Little Heart
With all the talk about skyrocketing costs of airplane tickets for Thanksgiving, many people I know have decided to stay home this year and keep it low key. But rather than being upset about it, they seem relieved: A casual Thanksgiving with the immediate family instead of a full-on family reunion and hours spent in airports? The very idea seems to be an instant de-stresser. 

The decision to live far away from friends and family - combined with the expectation that we still ought to be close and get together as frequently as possible - creates an uncomfortable predicament. Though many are reluctant to admit it even to themselves, getting together with loved ones for the holidays often brings more stress than joy, fanning the flames of family conflicts and fostering new resentments. And when it's over? Well, so is the long weekend, and back to work you go. 

But people are not built to function like this - moving from one set of stressors to another, with no sense of relief. A holiday is meant to be a break, a time to relax. Airports and airplanes are not relaxing to most people. Neither are hours spent driving. Despite our society's quest for an ever-better quality of life, it seems that we've unwittingly designed our lives to maximise stress. 

Why bring this up on a blog about bicycles? Because the travel-induced stress of the holidays strikes me as the same type of problem as the stress of commuting long distances to work in a car or via public transportation. There is a great deal of new research coming out about the effects of travel and transportation choices on physical health, mental health, familial and social relationships, and overall quality of life. In retrospect, all of the findings are common sense - which only highlights the fact that society as a whole has been moving away from common sense notions of well-being. For those of us who are trying to get back to those notions, the bicycle has been a great help - not only in the immediate sense, but also in the sense of helping us realise all of this at the most basic and visceral level.


  1. Veloria said,
    "There is a great deal of new research coming out about the effects of travel and transportation choices on physical health, mental health, familial and social relationships, and overall quality of life. In retrospect, all of the findings are common sense - which only highlights the fact that society as a whole has been moving away from common sense notions of well-being."

    I stress out every holiday season due to all the unrealistic expectations of others who won't leave me in peace.

    While not a Scrooge I simply prefer peace and quiet to all the artificial hub bub of the holidays.

  2. That's basically what I was getting at in this post: http://portlandize.com/2011/02/know-your-limits-its-healthy/

    We've found it very healthy for our mental and emotional well-being to limit our expectation of movement and travel - both what we expect of ourselves, and what others expect from us.

    We feel like, for the first time in our lives, the neighborhood we live in is intimately familiar to us, the markings in the sidewalks, the bumps in the road, and the trees that line the streets. We know where puddles form when it rains for days, and we know which streets have broken or bumpy surfaces. The shops and restaurants, the social services, the grocery stores - they are all easily within our mental grasp, because our circle of space has become much, much smaller. I feel like we live in a space we can comprehend, rather than a 30 mile radius where only the giant, glaring billboards and monumental buildings become familiar.

    If nothing else, this helps me feel grounded.

  3. I must totally agree. Years of living 30+ minutes drive out in the country really took a toll on me. For a gallon of milk, a loaf of bread, it was often 20 minutes to the nearest grocery sitting behind the wheel of a car. Every day hours were lost going to work and back, going to the grocery and back, not counting taking the kids to sports etc.

    The city life has been so good to me and the kids. The kids can take themselves out. I actually have neighbors I can talk to. A loaf of bread is a healthy little stroll away. If only I had known before that city life could be so peaceful...

  4. What is the bike in the photo?

  5. Lex - 1978 Francesco Moser. More here.

  6. It all has to do with the ormeta put on honesty in our society.
    "I hate family reunions" or "I hate my family" or "All this hassle is a f%?#@ PITA, and all for nothing but a totally commercial and stupid holiday" or "I hate my suburban life, I wish I had never listened to my family/in-laws and stayed in town".
    You cannot say things like that publicly without commiting social suicide even though you truly believe them.

    So you just shut up and suck it up!

  7. Holidays are a strange thing in Portland, Oregon. So many of my friends moved here from far away and don't have family nearby--out my circles of friends, maybe a quarter of them grew up here, tops. Some of the ones from other places go home over Thanksgiving or Christmas, but many of them don't--especially the ones who moved here specifically to get away from their families! And many of them just can't afford to go back "home" very often, and so lots of my friends have "Orphans' Holiday" parties.

    My family (by which I mean my parents and brothers, my other family is spread out all over the country) lives in a suburb of Portland, so I always go there for Thanksgiving and Christmas. It's really nice to just ride my bicycle to the light rail station and take a mostly-empty train out to the suburbs.

  8. Well said V, and spot on!!!!! I'm glad to know others feel as I do. I've been taking the alternative and staying home on holidays as often as I can --- much to my family's dismay.

    Portlandize, I have to agree with you whole heartedly. Quiet time on a bike in a local area gives me time to unwind, and appreciate everything.

  9. I totally agree.

    As a kid of divorced parents I spent my holidays always going backand forth so everyone got a piece of me. Once I had kids I vowed no more stressful traveling. Although I often make people come to me. I figure if people want to see me- they can come to me. If they don't B and the kids and I will have a great time. luckily we only live 2 hours from both sets of grands so it is more of an Over the River and Through the Woods affair then a lot of stress.

    Although we are going down to the cape. It's my fav place for thanksgiving and once there spending time walking along the beach and seeing friends in P-town for drinks sat night is actually quiet lovely.

  10. I still kinda like to do the big Thanksgiving get-together. And even though my family has all the barely concealed animosities, festive passive-aggressive holiday traditions and ever changing roster of inappropriate Boy-friends/Girl-friends/Roomates/whatever, that anyone could ever ask for, it's still better than trying to stay in touch by E-Mail.

    We just don't have to travel to do it. So it's 5 hours of the "Simpsons" on Thursday and the next 3 1/2 days of running at about half throttle. Lots of hiking gets done, some cycling, baking, maybe hanging out at a cabin I have a key to, etc. We don't go to the sales and avoid "Town", we try to lure some friends over to play cards and help us eat the left-overs and try to catch our breath. It's pretty cool. If the rest of the weeks in the year are wide open in the left lane of life's 8 lane interstate than maybe those few days really are time spent on life's bike-path.

    Now Christmas, that can be an ordeal...


  11. @April: same thing happens in the Bay Area, which also has lots of people with no immediate family in the area. Here there's the added twist that there are lots of international students and recent immigrants who are curious about what these two holidays are all about.

    Myself, I work an office job and like to go to work the Friday after instead of taking a vacation day... no distractions in the workday, lots of seats on the train, etc.

  12. It's certainly true that some of the best holidays I ever had were away from the family with friends. But it's also true that once your parents get older, it seems wrong to not spend the holidays with them. Even if it would be more fun to make alternative plans.

  13. Being english I have no idea what thanksgiving is, but on the subject of stressful commuting I'd point out that you are just as late for work on a bike, plus you arrive sweaty and smelly. Happily, my work has a shower, a great stess remover :)

  14. "you are just as late for work on a bike, plus you arrive sweaty and smelly. "

    Hey speak for yourself : )

    But seriously, it depends on your cycling style and commute. Both in Vienna and Boston, cycling is faster than public transport and I am much less likely to be late if I arrive by bike. I ride a comfortable upright bike for transportation and always arrive presentable in my work clothes. As for showers at work, Bikeyface has a nice post about that today!

  15. @April and Francis - We did the same thing when we lived in Richmond. Lots of VCU/MCV and UofR kids that didn't/could't go home for the holidays. Even though ALL of my family (immediate and extended) live in and around Richmond, I still preferred the low key "orphan" holidays. Once we moved to TN, we started making a habit of traveling to NYC to visit friends for christmas, so that we didn't have to pick a family side to visit, and as a really good excuse for other invites. But now my In-Laws live RIGHT NEXT DOOR (which really isn't too bad, since they tend to feed us), and we aren't in a financial position to run away for the holidays, so family gathering it is. At least we don't have to travel to do the family thing. AND my visiting niece was admiring the Pashley and has asked me to let her ride it tomorrow. :)

  16. Speaking of commuting around Thanksgiving time or during the winter, do you have a suggestion on what kind of brake shoes would work reasonably well on cold or wet rims?

  17. Me too! And the same applies to Xmas... not to put too scroogish a face on it. I agree that the stress and having the glaring spotlight of family expectations focused onto one event is a pain. It used to take me 3 days just to emotionally recover from the experience.

    Now I just stay home instead and enjoy the quiet. I find I have a wonderful time writing and being good to me instead of trying to please everyone else.

    For me the Hallmark expectations do not conform with my reality. I tried for 17 years to make the big family stress-a-thon work, but then I cried 'Uncle!'. Just look at how many movies are done on the subject of family holiday hell, and I'd guess I'm not alone.

    Bah Humbug!

  18. Kool Stop Salmon brake shoes for nasty weather; just remember that if the rims are soaked, it might take a few seconds for the pads to wipe the rims before braking improves. In wet weather its best to brake early and often; just like voting.
    Of course, if you have steel rims all bets are off. Either change to aluminum rims or hub/coaster brakes.

  19. .....if only we could all arrive to holiday family gatherings or work - on our bike. There would be no stress.
    This blog is tops!
    Greetings from Australia

  20. "....
    I sing this song
    To pass the time away
    Driving in my car
    Driving home for Christmas

    It's gonna take some time
    But I'll get there.

    Top to toe in tailbacks
    I got red lights all around
    Soon there'll be a freeway
    Get my feet on holy ground

    classic modern times romance. classic 20th century end of year rite de passage.
    especially lovely when stuck in gloomy weather or grounded on some obscure airport.

    love it. always have, always will. - let's not get rid of this one.

  21. I take a look at the driver next to me
    He's just the same
    Just the same

    He's driving home
    Driving home for Christmas

    With a thousand memories

  22. "Being english I have no idea what thanksgiving is,"

    I'm sure you could ask any other English person and they'd likely be able to explain it to you. Granted, they may get a couple of details wrong, but most know what it is.

  23. We are fortunate to live near family, so holiday stress is minimal. But for the first time ever, my husband has not looked forward to winter, because he has a half hour drive through snow-alley to his new workplace. We are regular commuting cyclists for most of the year, but in Vermont, car culture sometimes is the only way to move around in inclement times. The economy, unfortunately, forced my husband to seek employment outside of our normal bike-commute-asphere. But, I agree wholeheartedly in the concept of living where you work. We used to live that way. I hope in the future we can get back to that.

  24. ps. happy thanksgiving to everyone!

  25. Hmm.

    At risk of sounding like a total contrarian, my family lives all over the world, and we all sincerely like each other and treasure the few times that we have the opportunity to get together, holidays included.

    Also, while it is true that travel, especially long haul travel, isn't the easy romantic adventure that it used to be, in my experience the single most important aspect to drawing the magic out of any type of travel is to approach it with flexibility, patience, tranquility and humor. And if so, even the demeaning hassles that are current in American airports can be taken in stride.

  26. Now that my family is scattered about, my mother discourages us from coming in for the holidays, especially Thanksgiving. Travelling the day before the holiday is practically a textbook definition of pandaemonium and, of course, expensive. Plus, two of my siblings have children, so it's even more difficult and expensive for them to travel.

    Also, like you and some other commenters, I have memories of stress, tension and strife over some of the holidays in which our guest list would have come in handy for the folks at the Census Bureau. When you have twenty or thirty people gathered in a house meant for one family, someone is bound to get on someone else's nerves.

    That said, I'm going to see my parents for Christmas. At least I don't have to go to work the week between Christmas and New Year's, so travel isn't as hectic. (I'm comming home in the middle of that week.) Plus, not all of my siblings and other relatives will be there. Best of all, I'll have some time to ride, albeit on a borrowed cruiser!

    Giles: Try Mathauser (Kool-Stop) salmon-colored pads.

    Happy Thanksgiving to all!

  27. msrw - I hope it's clear that my point was not that people dislike visiting their families for the holidays, but that we've created a societal norm where stressful long-distance travel is part of everyday life on all fronts - from daily commutes to and from work, to holiday trips and vacation. It's a systemic problem that, unfortunately, does impact many family relationships negatively.

  28. Oh and ditto re others' recommendations for Kool-Stops!

  29. I live 3,000 miles away from the family and I'm generally too broke and don't want to deal with going back home for the holidays. I've come to like to the "orphan" Thanksgivings that happen in Portland. There were a few years where Thanksgiving was basically a long bike ride interspersed with different people's orphan feasts.

    Now that I'm with April, I'll be going to her family's Thanksgiving out in the western suburbs. But I'll still catch an orphan Thanksgiving at my old work (the hostel).

    Travelling during the holiday season is too much of a hassle for me to bother with.

  30. as an everyday bicycle commuter i normally have limited exposure to rush hour traffic on the motorway. but when i do, two sensations are equally present: my latent or not so latent frustration and aggression and my impulse strategies to deal with this. music and singing along - plus moderate dancing with break pedal and steering wheel - is always number one (no better place to listen to music than the car anyway!). another is the occasional eye contact and exchanged smile with the drivers left and right. plus normally - not always - i enjoy myself practicing a certain chivalry, giving way to others, exercising patience as there is nothing to gain anyway.
    what strongly materializes in such traffic situations is the "inevitability of the other". in this way the holiday traffic can almost hold as metaphor for what is awaiting us once we have reached our destination. a bunch of individual life lines interwoven for a certain time - with latent or not so latent frustration and aggression as part of the package.
    as on the highway, or on the information superhighway (which the internet was called before it became the internet), or on those annual family gatherings - especially in our individualized world - there is no better way than to take the "inevitability of the other" as the great, sometimes challenging, and always exercising gift that it is. - or in the words of chris rea: i take a look at the driver next to me. he is just the same.

  31. All I'll say on this subject is...one CHOOSES one's friends-if one could choose their family...

    Disabled Cyclist

  32. It always surprises me that people will travel for short long weekend holidays such as thanksgiving at great stress and expense. My parents are a two day drive away, my sister and her kids on the other side of the country, so I do not see them much, nor can I afford to. My mom comes out once a year for 1 or 2 weeks, and every so many years she will pay for me to visit. My dad has yet to come and see me, and I have not seen my sister for over 2 years!
    It does seem a bit silly to go and only get to spend one day with family at $$$. So, holidays are pretty low key, but my husband and I go all out for canadian thanksgiving. His parents insist on coming for Christmas which is actually very stressful and now that they live further away, they expect to stay overnight. Trust me, you wouldn't want to experience their strangeness. His dad gets drunk as if needing to drink to endure an evening with family, sometimes they do not even sit down on the couch because there is cat fluff everywhere...and other oddness.
    Thanksgiving weekend is like 3 days(if you're lucky)! And to travel? Getting to airport, train/bus station, travelling, getting off, waiting, driving to family abode...and then turning around again? And the stress? I am afraid of flying and it is a big production getting me onto a plane. I get anxious even on buses so that is no fun. or even worse driving? Well, I wouldn't mind a road trip within reason actually. I recall overhearing people on the bus talking about driving from Vancouver to Calgary for thanksgiving-two days traveling for one day there! And I can't be the only one with a family full of tension. And the perceived hallmark card pressure of family getting together to eat turkey and umami overdoses must stress people out about being good and visiting family when it ends up being stressful for everyone.
    So many of us do live far away from family and 'home' and north americans move alot.
    Traveling in general is stressful. For me to go to Vancouver it involves buses, ferries and more buses which ends up taking hours-each way. People talk about having ferry lag and being a wreck the next day from a trip into the city. I am not in cars very much anymore and usually find it a bit weird, too fast, a bit nerve wracking.
    I would not want to have to commute hours by car/bus/train every day.

  33. I do really love it that you bring up topics like this one. Cycling can be much more than just sports - and your blog highlights this on a regular basis.


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