Travel and I do Not Mix: a Primer on Classical Conditioning

When I was in my 20’s, I didn’t have much money and therefore couldn’t afford to see most of the world. I’d never been a huge fan of traveling anyway: delayed flights, uncomfortable hotel beds, American Express Travelers Checks, the depression that sets in when you get home and have to back to work. Nothing there for me to get all that excited about. I did go to London (got too drunk and couldn’t find my hostel until the next morning) and Paris (sat at Jim Morrison’s grave with my face in my hands while my two friends bitched incessantly about how they hated French people), and neither experience was all that fulfilling. I didn’t realize it at the time but I quickly equated travel with annoyance.

When I was in my 30’s, I took a trip to Aruba with my girlfriend. We didn’t have a very good time together, fought a lot and actually broke up on the day we returned. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, just a bad match that peaked in its badness while we were away. So I went from associating travel with lost luggage and hassles to intense conflict and break-ups. Classical conditioning can sometimes be very primitive and not make all that much sense, but that’s how it manifested itself in me.

Unfortunately, my next girlfriend and the most influential person in my life bore the brunt of my aversion to travel. For years I resisted taking trips with her, not entirely clear to either of us why it was so unappealing to me. It was simply something I didn’t want to do, not fully aware of the connections in my brain that told me I’d have either a horrible time and/or lose her upon return. Patient but understandably frustrated, she privately planned trips that would never occur.

Fortunately for her, she has moved on to better things. And it is only now I realize I’m holding myself back from living as full a life as possible, simply by way of associations that aren’t necessary or productive. So in an attempt to break these patterns I’m getting back on the plane and heading to Oktoberfest. And as lame and ungrateful as this is going to sound, I’m not looking forward to it. My mind is wrapped around the idea of crowded plane terminals, gruff Customs’ officers and guilt at not having been able to pull my shit together when it could have really benefited someone other than myself. Meanwhile, my friends and travel buddies can’t even contain their glee when they think of the giant beer steins. This is why psychologists always fall back on the premise that it’s not what happens to you that dictates how you feel, it’s your perception of what occurs that determines your mood.

It would be a stretch to call this trip “therapy” for me in the truest sense (and probably an insult to those who truly need professional help), although there is a potential therapeutic component at play here. Human nature is to over-generalize bad experiences, and the treatment for that is to immerse yourself in the situation to see it for what it truly is. My brain isn’t working correctly when it calculates that vacations are inherently bad; this is an obviously false assertion that is based simply on my past. People spend an entire year (sometimes much more), planning with excitement a trip away from home, assuming they are fortunate enough to be able to afford it. It’s very often the best week of the year for people and I want to be like them. As of this writing, I haven’t left the city of New York for more than a long weekend in over five years. If I can’t break the negative thought patterns at one of the largest parties in the world, I’m probably a lost cause.

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15 Responses to “Travel and I do Not Mix: a Primer on Classical Conditioning”

  1. BL1Y says:

    Have you considered the opposite conclusion? Perhaps you have the correct take on travel, and other people over value it?

    Like you, I generally hate travel, the lines to check in at the airport, anxiety over whether you’ll make your flight because the only person checking bags at your airline is currently helping a non-English speaking couple from Eastern Europe buy tickets somewhere, flight delays, anxiety over whether you’ll make your connecting flight because you landed a little land and the airline doesn’t have the good sense to check who has a connecting flight and let them off the plane first while asking everyone else to remain seated, waiting at baggage claim, transportation to and from the airport, trying to find your way around a strange city, learning you don’t have internet access, needing an hour of research to plan every meal, and of worst of all, dealing with customs officers who don’t speak English. English! English mother fucker, do you speak it?! Christ, even JFK, a Berliner, spoke English!

    I like the idea of a staycation. Save up some money, take some time off of work, and just do whatever you want. Eat out and order two desserts, go to movies in the afternoon, find a bar that serves a flight of 12 wine samples (there’s one near your office, but I can’t remember the name). Some people enjoy the thrill of getting to brag to other people about the places they’ve been to, but I think vacations should be about relaxing, and there’s no easier place to do that than where your home is.

  2. Tracie says:

    I hope you have an awesome time, Rob. It sucks that you have such a bad association with travel and have had some crappy experiences. Travel is, indeed, hard. It can be exhausting and expensive and horrible in a million unique ways that you don’t realize until you’re trying to find the remedy for embarrassing personal health issues using pantomime and Pictionary. So here’s hoping that you don’t get the shits in Germany, eh?
    Save travels!

  3. Kevin says:

    I hope you have a fn awesome time. Good luck.

  4. Pete says:

    Write this one down, although you don’t need to worry, most Germans speak English anyway: “Ich habe Durchfall. Haben Sie Peptol Bismol?”

    I don’t travel well (motion sickness), but I’ve found it rewarding once I get there, if only for the opportunity to step out of my life for a short while and get some perspective on the few things that actually matter. It’s nice to clear your head of all the daily noise.

  5. Rhett says:


    This post brings back a foggy memory of something else I think you’ve written. I could be wrong, but it was the concept of “Accidental Happiness” you brought up in a different topic…something along the lines of women planning their weddings since the age of ten.

    Anyway, I think about that concept frequently, and in describing it (again, I could be wrong) I think you may have even used travel as an example of how EASY it is to encounter accidental happiness. That notion has stuck with me and has proven itself true every time I travel away from home. For me the beauty in travel is the opportunity to find a new or different culture, try their foods, learn something about their history, and go someplace I’ve never been that’s exciting and new. That is only possible because I’m not really able to develop any expectations about what will or will not be awesome about the trip. Everything is new, and 90% of the time it’s fun, exciting, and enriching. And in turn, makes me happy.

    You’re right though, travel is a luxury, and if you can afford it, you just have to do it. Even if it’s only once in a while. You gotta get out of Dodge sometimes.

    All those things that fill you with anxiety…security lines, hotel rooms, etc., I find helpful to think of them as just stepping stones to something awesome…a means to an end. And I also see them as opportunities to appreciate what you did leave behind…nothing makes you appreciate that $1,500 mattress at home like the rock you slept on in the shitty hotel 1,000 miles away!

    The two best times of every vacation are the first and last day for me. The first because it seems like the vacation won’t end, and possibilities are endless. And the last because I’ve had a lot of unexpected hapiness and can now look forward to the comforts and stable things I’ve built for myself back home.

    I see travel as a win/win. I hope you enjoy the hell out of Germany. Please have a liter or two for us!

  6. Stephanie says:

    Remember, if you’re expecting the trip to be awful, you will be more likely to notice the awful things and discount the good things. Every time you find yourself having fun, or something goes well, or even if it turns out better than expected, make a note of it. Then the next time you consider a holiday you’ll remember all the great things about it, instead of just the screaming kid next to you on the flight.

  7. Donika says:

    Reading this made me super happy for you.

  8. Celestine says:

    As someone who has been fortunate enough to travel a fair amount, I can say with certainty that there is good and bad traveling. I’ve been lucky flying to and from Europe the last 2 times, the planes were basically empty and didn’t have to share a row with anyone. Also, whenever I’ve traveled, I’ve not been the person paying for said trip, so the quality of places we stayed and visited was way higher than that if I had gone alone. I’ve seen some amazing things and had good times. I’ve also had some really shitty experiences as well, largely because I’ve been travelling with family, and sooner or later, spending that much time with one’s relatives is sure to make anyone want to either start drinking heavily or consider killing them and leaving their bodies in a foreign land.

    But at least you’ll be in in Deutschland and drinking. The language barrier shouldn’t be a problem (don’t know if you speak German) but most of them speak better English than we do. And you’ll be drinking with friends. Just try to laugh at things, and you’ll make it through. If you’re having trouble, get one of your friends really drunk and make him try on a pair of Lederhosen. That shit’s always funny.

    I can always give you some great German phrases to practice using on the locals as well:

    Ich habe eine Grosse Pimmel.
    Halt die Klappe du Schlampe.
    Ich grübelte, lassen Sie mich allein.
    Komm zurück zu meinem Hotel.

    That should get you through nicely.

  9. Adam says:

    An outstanding choice of travel destinations there, Dr. Rob. I took my first major tourist adventure to Germany back in May, and spent a few days in Munich, and loved every second of it. Oktoberfest is going to be amazing, and I’m jealous. Be sure to leave some space in your luggage for a crate of Augustiner to bring back with you (I’d rather pay 80 cents a bottle at a store than 3.50 at the airport). I don’t know how much time you’ll have, but if you can, make a trip out to Dachau. It’s accessible on the S-bahn, and you’re really not allowed to go to Germany without visiting a concentration camp memorial.

    Interesting fact: Australia actually has to set up a temporary embassy in Munich during Oktoberfest for the sake of all the idiotic drunken Australian tourists who get drunk and lose their passport and find themselves unable to travel to Berlin to get a new one issued to them.

  10. […] Dr. Rob is on vacation and Attention Crash Radio is pleased to have Donika as a guest host this week. We discuss eating dog, the tragedy of honor killings and being optimistically poor. […]

  11. Wayland says:

    I did read somewhere once that traveling with a possible partner is a good way to see if you are matched well or not. Good stuff Rob. I hope you have a great time.

  12. Rebecca says:

    I hope you have fun in Germany. I lived there for seven years and Oktoberfest was always one of the best experiences for me.

    I’d recommend that you do NOT use the phrases Celestine has suggested, however, unless you want to get punched in the face! 😛

  13. Amber says:

    Have fun doc, and just take a deep breath, customs in the US really isn’t that bad. Now try to go through customs in Canada to get to the US…dear god.

  14. […] I was in Germany, I was basically assured that I had a kidney stone or, more likely, a small to medium-sized rodent […]

  15. Annie says:

    My shrink is taught me about the different cognitive distortions (is it the right name?) during therapy. The goal, according to my shrink, is to be able to identify the “illogical and involuntary” thoughts in order to fight them with “logic”. It makes sense, but I can’t frankly say that I’m mastering that skill. In my case, I have an issue with holidays. My depression hits harder during the holidays because while everyone is happy and celebrating, I have to pretend to be as cheerful as them when in reality I’m not doing so great. I still don’t know how to accomplish such a daunting task.
    “I’d never been a huge fan of traveling anyway: delayed flights, uncomfortable hotel beds, American Express Travelers Checks, the depression that sets in when you get home and have to back to work.”
    If you feel that way, and depression is associated with loss, you sort of enjoyed some aspects of the trip. If you miss the place you visited, is because there was something about the place or the experience that you enjoyed. Maybe you could focus on those positive aspects and try to enjoy it while you are at it.