Vicarious travel, anyone?

With the other foreign students, Rautalampi, Finland 
Undress me in the Temple of Heaven is part travelogue, part memoir, part time travel. A journey worth reading, I highly recommend you get it for your summer reading. Much less sex than Shades, but long after you've forgotten that book, this book will stay with you. It's got beautiful descriptions, heartbreak, love and friendship, but also adventures in Hong Kong and all over China in the pre-internet days when getting lost meant exactly that.

The vertigo-inducing mixture of jetlag, culture shock, lust and adventure fill every page and remind me of the ying-yang pulling between homesickness and the thirst for exotic experience. The author talked about the competitive tone of the travelers, and I remember my own part in this game, complete with my arrogant condescending tone. We one upped each other with:

  • "Oh, they've ONLY been away for a few weeks...try LIVING with a family that doesn't speak English for a year!"
  • Finnish sauna -  Saunas are more common in Finnish homes than bathtubs. (Naked, of course... "when in Helsinki, do as the Finns"..) Q:  How hot was it? 95? (Celcius). A: Well mine was 100C! Q: You ran around in the snow? A: Well I jumped into a lake - that they had to drill a hole through the ice to open up!  (For the record: I took saunas naked - but with women only.Yes, it was hot. And, although some Finns do run in the snow or a frozen lake (yes, still naked) and then back into the sauna, I lived in the center of the city, so we did neither at my host family's apartment - although I have done both when visiting friends.)
  • How cold did it get? My friend was in Gothenburg, Sweden where her face would freeze on the way to school. But in Finland it reached minus 40.... and that is the same in Fahrenheit and Celsius. -40F = -40C. (The author of Undress Me spoke often of the heat - we dealt with the cold)
And on it went. In the book, the author trumps other backpackers because she had been in trouble with the Chinese military police. "Hasn't everyone?" She asked. 

Apparently the author never had kids, as many international journalists don't. When I traveled in the late 1980s I wasn't thinking about having kids. The book reminded me that my adventurous spirit lies dormant in my current life of carpooling. Today, I know with complete certainty, that I wouldn't trade a life with kids for all the tea in China. I can travel vicarious to my heart's content through reading and plan future adventures with and without them.

In the safe is my passport... with plenty of space for a few exotic stamps. And I still have my blue backpack that I got at the store where my Nonny** worked (until she died at 84 years old)- Carey's Luggage and Gifts. My parents' address is still visible! The store is gone, and Nonny died in 1988, but the sharpie hasn't faded and neither have the memories.

** By the way - Nonny traveled to Asia, Europe, Africa and South America long before it was common. She was one of seven kids and she traveled with her siblings once they were all grandparents. She'd even been to Finland about twenty years before I had. I don't know if she took a sauna, but she remembered Finland (and Russia - very rare in Cold War times) as wonderful, beautiful places and she wrote how proud she was of me. My Mom visited China and Russia  in the 1990s. I'm proud that the women who are my role models have had such influences on me.


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