It was sometime after midnight on New Year’s Day, somewhere outside of Marrakesh, and I was having a very long, wine-soaked dinner with a fifty-something couple I had known for approximately four hours. They were lavishing me with hugs and cheek-kisses. All I could think was, Are they going to ask me to have a threesome?
It had all started with an impulse plane ticket (on airline miles) to Morocco, a place my friend had recommended after visiting on a work trip. I stashed away money for six full months to afford an Airbnb. Then I flew there—alone—shortly before Christmas, and proceeded to spend December 25 taking blissful solitary baths in a giant, old-fashioned copper tub in my bedroom, no presents (or people I’m related to) in sight.
After a couple of days, I left the city for a cheap little cottage I’d rented in the countryside. That’s where I met the older Egyptian-Italian couple, who lived next door to my rental. When they invited me over for New Year’s, saying no one should be alone for the holiday, I wanted to decline—I’d actually been looking forward to watching Little Women, my fave holiday movie, on my iPad—but I didn’t want to seem rude.
So I ended up eating a nine-course dinner of salt-baked fish, homemade tagliatelle, and panettone with effusive strangers who treated me like their long-lost best friend. For the record: No threesome was ever mentioned. But I did learn a lesson: That when you leave your comfort zone, you might just meet people you’ll want to know forever, in addition to getting a hangover you’ll remember forever.
Growing up, I never looked forward to the holidays. As the only child of divorced parents, I was shuttled between their houses and forced to spend time with step-relatives I barely knew, including the step-grandfather who still couldn’t remember my name ten years after I joined the family. We weren’t religious, so there were no homey traditions like midnight mass or family Christmas caroling. Also my mother is kind of a hilariously bad cook who doesn’t believe in salt and sometimes gives me food poisoning. As soon as I left for college, I considered coming home for the holidays to be optional.
When I was a junior in college studying abroad in Paris, I ate Thanksgiving dinner at the apartment of the French woman who was the local contact for my program. She served an otherworldly turkey stuffed with paté that was better than any bird I’d ever eaten in America.
For Christmas that year, I went to the UK with my then-boyfriend and ended up at a dark and cramped hostel in Inverness, Scotland, where the restaurants were all closed. We eventually found a Chinese place called Charlie Chan’s serving mediocre food that tasted, in our homesickness and hunger, like the best meal we’d ever had.
Once I had a job and my own money, I saved it to afford my solo adventures. It’s actually a great time to travel, because no one from work is emailing you and the airports are empty on Christmas. One year I celebrated with a group of Spanish friends in Barcelona; another I went to Paris alone and decided I wanted to take myself out for steak frites and then binge-watch the first season of Lost. I spent a New Year’s Eve in Tulum with an American pal I’d met doing yoga four days earlier, who lit a paper wish lantern over the sea at midnight. That was five years ago; we’re still friends.
For most people, the holidays are all about obligation—to see people, to buy stuff. But for me, they’ve become the least-obligated part of the year. Instead of stressing about presents for my younger cousins or dinners where I’ll be forced to defend my politics or life choices, I spend time doing exactly what I want to do. I’m single, which is something I’m either fine with or depressed about, depending on the day. But traveling for the holidays lets me celebrate the best part of being unattached, which is the freedom to be intentional with my time. If I can cultivate the perfect holiday on my own terms, I can blaze my own trail in life, right?
It’s not that I don’t have moments of longing—I do. For the perfect family I’ll never have, for the multigenerational snowball fights and Instas of siblings wearing matching pajamas on Christmas Eve. I’m not immune to the movies and marketing that tell us we’re supposed to be joyfully partaking in traditions or making a big show of giving back. (Even Little Women opens with the March family learning to value each other over material things—my holidays will never measure up to that.) I’ve learned to accept that these moments will come, just like I accept that I’ll probably eat too much sugar. And sometimes I do go home to see my parents. After one fight about whose house I’m staying at, I usually remind myself to travel again the next year.
This year I didn’t feel like being alone. So I found a cheap ticket to visit one of my best friends in New Orleans. Later this week we’re going to Mexico together for New Year’s, to sit on the beach and eat guacamole. I’m going to force her to watch Little Women with me.