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It's Our Turn: Global travel and a lingering guilt

Artists swept writer Karen Tolkkinen (right, with eye patch) and her friends under a balcony in the Soviet Union in 1991, hoping for western currency. (Contributed)

Recently I met some travelers from Columbia. They were women in their 20s and instantly they swept me up into that vibe I once knew, that friendly openness that marks the merry band of global travelers.

Meeting them brought me back to a time of suitcases and unwashed socks, of passports and currency exchange offices and train schedules, of sunlight at new angles and mornings tinged with the excitement of new sights.

It's been many years since I've been in another country.

But once upon a time, that's who I was. At 15, I saved enough money cleaning offices to fly to Finland for three weeks. At 18, I went back for a year. I've been to Sweden, Norway, and Russia when it was still the Soviet Union, plus Canada, Mexico, China and the airport in Tokyo just long enough to use my most polite college Japanese.

Each trip was memorable, but as I write this, the Russia trips (I made two) stand out the most.

In 1991, Russians were keen for western money. One day in Leningrad — now St. Petersburg — artists corralled my friends and me into an area under a balcony and began sketching our faces. Two artists started sketching me, each hurrying to finish first and sell me his version of my face. Somewhat dazed, I picked the one I liked best and handed him about $5 in Finnish currency.

It was a fairly decent likeness. It captured my wispy hair, the eye patch I was wearing for an infection, my still-forming adult face.

In the same city, I was leaving a church service when a strange man approached me on the steps. In broken English, he asked if I was an American, and when I said I was, he pleaded with me to invite him to the United States.

"The only way I get visa is someone in America invite me," he explained. He was thin, perhaps in his 30s or 40s, and his intensity scared me a little.

"What do you want to do in America?" I asked, stalling for time.

"Oh!" he said, taking in a deep breath. "I want to walk and see the sky and breathe the air and know that I am in America!"

Humbled, uncertain, I took his name and address. I promised to see if there was something my family could do, knowing that it would probably not happen. My family saw everyone outside our church as worldly, as untrustworthy, and they would not be eager to invite a strange Russian man to visit.

It turned out as I thought. Once back at school in Finland, I contacted my mom about inviting him. She strongly discouraged this.

"We don't know him," she said. "We don't know his motive or what he would want from us."

So I threw away the man's name and address. I tried not to think of him still in Leningrad, waiting, hoping, not knowing that his chance to reach our shores was disintegrating in a landfill.

Life lessons will find you no matter where you are, whether you never leave your hometown for a minute or whether your passport is filled with stamps from exotic ports.

But stepping into a foreign country teaches you something you will never find on your native turf. An appreciation for your own land, for sure, and also about connection, how each of us in this vast and tiny globe of ours are tied together, whether we know it or not.

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"It's Our Turn" is a weekly column that rotates among members of the Echo Press editorial staff.