Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Fifteen Year-old and the Terrorist (Part Two)

This week I am recounting the beginnings of my travel obsession.  The story begins here.  

On Monday, June 5, 1989 “the adventure of my life” began. That’s what I called it in my little blue and white journal. I’d never been good at keeping a journal before, but the characters in my favorite books all kept journals, so I knew it was time to try it. My daily life may not have been journal-worthy, but my trip to Europe was going to be!

Our first stop: Finland where the long summer days and sunny summer nights were so lovely. I was served alcohol, but I didn’t drink it (I am very clear about that in my journal – over and over again). I saw Gone with the Wind in a Finnish bookstore and was delighted to see that the Finns enjoyed my favorite novel, too. The Oulu Library was showing “The Wizard of Oz” that week. The pervasiveness of American pop culture made me feel a little more comfortable as I settled in to a country where the sun just never set.

I had one great failure on my first trip abroad: I didn’t do well with jet lag. I was exhausted. Now, teenagers need as much sleep as toddlers, and I was no exception. And I had never done the trans-Atlantic thing before. In fact, my journey was even more complicated: Dallas to Los Angeles (to meet my grandparents and spend the night). Then Los Angeles to London to Helsinki to Oulu. And I really hardly slept on the plane. I was too excited to be flying Business Class to take advantage of those lovely seats (spoiled me for life, and I’ve never done it since…).

So, by the time we arrived in Finland and set out to explore, all I could think about was taking “just one more little nap.” It took me a week to feel human, and I may have been a little whiney about the whole thing, too. Oh, I hope that’s not true!

Whiney or not, I thoroughly enjoyed Finland. My little journal is full of naïve observations like “they sell Dr. Pepper here” and “today we went to a mall which was really three supermarkets which sold clothes, too!” And, my favorite: “our bedspreads have scenes of San Francisco.”

But my greatest Finnish experience was truly Finnish: a sauna. We were staying in Oulu – a coastal city in Northern Finland. Our hosts took us to a spa on the coast. It was a beautiful place with traditional-looking buildings, forests, tall grasses … quite idyllic. They treated us to a feast and had arranged for folk dancers to entertain us. My fifteen year-old self was quite impressed, “The music was incredible, and the dances were so original. The dancers were dressed in traditional costumes. Each city has its own color (Oulu is forest green) so you can tell where a dancer is from.” My poor, jet-lagged self had trouble staying awake through the long dinner, and I kept fantasizing about just laying down behind the table to sleep through the conversation. I was nodding off over my fish and potatoes. Even the berries and cream – something I loved – failed to wake me up. But then over coffee our hosts suggested that we all take a sauna.

Suddenly, I was wide-awake.

I knew enough to know that generally Europeans got naked to take a sauna. And here I was with a bunch of strangers and my grandparents. And I was supposed to get naked with them? I was terrified. But, the suave and sophisticated traveler that I was… well, I wasn’t going to be the only person not to do it.

We walked through the woods to another little building – a rustic cabin on the beach. It was late at night, but the sky was gorgeous – a perpetual sunset. We went inside where there was a dressing room for each gender and then the sauna itself. I made my way into the ladies room, nervous and excited. I didn’t know anyone at home who had had this kind of adventure, and it was just what I’d hoped – something to spice up my vanilla life. I opened the door to the ladies room. It was a small room lined with benches with pegs on the walls.

Several women were in the room in various stages of undress. I snuck a look as they were undressing. I felt fat and ugly and misshapen. How could I possibly get naked in front of these women? And how could I walk into that sauna where there were naked MEN waiting? I’d never seen a man totally naked before. And certainly no one had ever seen me. And then there were my grandparents… my heart started racing. And I turned around to leave. There was no way I could possibly do this.

And then I saw it. Not far from the door, sitting on one of the benches… a pile of big, fluffy white towels.

In my head, a nude sauna was literally a group of people sitting around totally naked together. I know that sometimes that is the case, but I just couldn’t imagine sitting around in the buff with a bunch of physicists and my grandparents. But then I realized that we didn’t have to sit around naked. We would all be wearing TOWELS.

I muttered a prayer of thanksgiving, grabbed a towel, and stripped down to sweat with the crowd.

Now, when I told my friends this story at home… a few of the details may have changed, and I certainly made it sound like I was fearless. Even in my journal I wrote, “I was hesitant about the sauna, but I’m glad I did it. It was nude, small, and very hot, but lots of fun.”

Two days later, though, nudity would be the last thing on my mind as we headed into the USSR. 

To be continued...

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