Sarah Michelle Gellar on Why Travel Is Essential for Having Empathy

“To understand is to experience — that’s where empathy comes from.”

Sarah Michelle Gellar
Photo: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

"This is the longest I've ever not been home," actress Sarah Michelle Gellar tells me over the phone, referring to New York City, which, in ordinary circumstances, she visited twice a month. Though Gellar has lived in Los Angeles for over 20 years, there's a longing in her voice for the city where she grew up.

"I've never been away from my city this long, and my city is struggling and hurting," she adds. In fact, travel — and not just to New York — is one thing the actress misses most from pre-pandemic times — that and hugging, she admits.

"[Travel is important] because otherwise we live in our bubble, and we don't know what the rest of the world looks like" the mom of two says. "To really have empathy and compassion, you need to know how other people live. And you need to have respect for different cultures… To understand is to experience — that's where empathy comes from. It's understanding that everybody has different traditions, and just because they're different doesn't mean they're wrong."

It's precisely this deep love for travel that made Gellar the perfect fit for a recent partnership with Travelocity. The actress, best known for starring in the supernatural drama Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the online travel agency plan to host a live Zoom cooking demo, in which Gellar will guide attendees step by step in creating two travel-themed Thanksgiving dishes while also sharing her favorite holiday travel memories. One in five Americans say they're planning virtual holiday celebrations this year, and though families won't be gathering around the table like in years past, Travelocity and Gellar hope to still give folks a way to make memories together.

Of the collaboration, Gellar says, "In my house, we are Amazing Race fanatics — it opens up great conversations in our family about culture and how to be respectful when you're in a foreign place. The roaming gnomes are also always such a big deal, so now there's a gnome visiting our house. I told the kids that unfortunately the elves may not be able to come for quarantine, but the Travelocity gnome is here, and it's going to be watching. And if all goes well, then as soon as quarantine is over, the Travelocity gnome is going to tell Santa how good we were, and we can go on trips. It has become the ultimate tool in my house. All families need a gnome."

As for how Gellar and her family plan to celebrate the holiday this year, she says, "We plan on celebrating safely — because if we get through it safely, we'll have time to go places and see those loved ones."

She adds, "A lot of it is reminding our children how fortunate we still are. I want my kids to understand that even though this might not be normally what it looks like, the magic comes from within. So, yes, Thanksgiving may look different. It might not [involve] travel, it might not be a table of 15 people, it might just be the four of us. But that's okay, too."

And in a year that has thrown a seemingly endless stream of curveballs, Gellar has learned to adapt, recreate, and get creative. "We can have Thanksgiving in February — there's no rule against it," she says. "My son always says, 'Why can't we have turkey and mashed potatoes once a month? Why is it only once a year?' He's right. It's what we make of it. Why can't we recreate? We recreate memories all the time. We have reunions. Why can't Thanksgiving just be one of those moments, too? I'd rather be safe this year and have many, many more to come with my loved ones."

There are a few rituals, however, that simply can't be replicated. For Gellar, that's the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, a tradition she's enjoyed since she was a young girl. "I used to watch them blow up the balloons the night before and bring hot chocolate. And I've gotten my kids into it. So, watching a different Thanksgiving Day parade this year is going to be hard."

But she's finding the bright spots in this dark, unprecedented time. "I think we're very lucky in the sense that this has happened in a time when we can all be so connected technologically. Prior to 2020, it was so many texts to my friends that I don't see all the time, but now, we're making the effort to actually FaceTime and have Zoom parties. I hope that never goes away. I like seeing faces."

Like many, she's also taking this time to slow down. "I have so much to be grateful for — my kids, my family. And slowing down — it's something that they tell you all the time, but until it happens, you don't know how to listen to it," she says, describing her days now as filled with playing board games, reading together, picking up different hobbies, and getting in bed and watching shows, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

On watching the show with her kids, Gellar says, "It's funny to see. My daughter is enthralled with love stories — she wants Angel, then she wants Riley. And my son is like when's the next demon coming? It's been fun to watch, and also just to remember it. I don't think I watched them because I was living them, so to be able to realize the impact it has in the culture and how relevant it still is — as an artist, you hope to do something that stands the test of time, and to see how relevant that show still is today is really spectacular."

Although it has been 17 years since the last Buffy episode aired, the series still resonates with viewers today, touching on themes like female empowerment and standing up to bullies.

These days, though, Gellar has shifted from playing the role of vampire slayer to chef, teacher, parent, referee, tech support, and the list goes on.

"It's hard — there have definitely been ups and downs," she says. "The ups are the quality time you get to spend with the people in your immediate family that you wouldn't normally get. You always get those reminders that life moves quickly, and to appreciate the small moments. I know I'm guilty of being one of those people who was always on the go and busy, and having this time has been incredible. But that the same time, it's frustrating. You're riding a lot of people's emotions — somebody has an up day and the next person has a down day."

Her biggest advice for parents navigating similar situations at home? "None of us have done this before, so all we can do is our best, and understand that we're not going to be perfect." she says. "Guess what? I'm a terrible air-conditioning repairman — I just figured that out before this call. None of us can be everything at once. There's a reason there's a principal, and a gym teacher, and a nurse, because one person can't do all those things. I think it'll make us all much more adaptable come the future."

For now, Gellar has found simple ways to stay inspired and fuel her wanderlust, whether that's by starting her quarantips, just getting dressed in the morning, or even talking about the places they'll go when this is done.

Top of that list is New York, followed by Hawaii and Japan. "My kids are desperate to go to Hawaii — they all want to go surfing. And we want to reschedule our trip to Japan — we were supposed to go during spring break," she says.

In the meantime, she's doing her best to bring travel home, studying different local cuisines and trying different kinds of sushi. They've even utilized all the offerings online, visiting the aquariums and museums virtually. "It's about learning how to appreciate something that we take for granted," she says.

She's tried to instill in her kids the importance of exploring the world since they were young. "People always say, 'you're lucky your kids are such good travelers and sleepers,' but it's not about luck — it's more about parenting," she says. "It's also about making them understand that it's life — there are going to be airport delays. It's part of learning. And it's about making it fun and exciting…If you make it a big deal and seem like you're stressed getting on an airplane, then they feed on that. If you're having fun and you make it fun, it's like, 'well, we're delayed for six hours, who's going to come up with the first game?' And isn't that a perfect metaphor for navigating current life in quarantine?

"Traveling is one of my passions in life," she says. "I know that while we can't do it right now, it's just around the corner. You can use this time to plan that next trip. That also gives us hope — having something to look forward to is really special. So, plan that next trip. It's okay to start thinking about the places you want to go, and the restaurants you want to eat at, because it's going to happen."

Alisha Prakash is Travel + Leisure's senior digital editor. A New Yorker through and through, she's caught in a love affair between big cities and the great outdoors. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @alishaprakash and Twitter at @alishasays.

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