A ‘reluctant traveler’ finds her wings

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published March 13, 2018

 Grosse Pointe Farms author Nancy Yuktonis Solak — holding a copy of her new book, “Welcome to Here: A Reluctant Traveler Goes to China” — will be discussing the book and sharing photos during a library presentation March 22.

Grosse Pointe Farms author Nancy Yuktonis Solak — holding a copy of her new book, “Welcome to Here: A Reluctant Traveler Goes to China” — will be discussing the book and sharing photos during a library presentation March 22.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

GROSSE POINTE PARK — As she acknowledges in the name of her website, author Nancy Yuktonis Solak, of Grosse Pointe Farms, is a “reluctant traveler.” A lifelong battle with anxiety and panic attacks once rendered even the shortest journeys almost impossible.

But love for her family pushed Solak, 70, to do something that would have been unthinkable at one point in her life: visit China.

“There was a time that I could not walk to the corner of my street without having a panic attack, so to be able to travel to China was incredible,” said Solak, who speaks openly about her anxiety because she wants to “get rid of the stigma” associated with conditions like anxiety and depression.

Her journey to the other side of the world — not once, but three times — is documented in her latest book, “Welcome to Here: A Reluctant Traveler Goes to China.” She’ll be discussing her experiences and showing slides from the trip during a free presentation at 7:30 p.m. March 22 at the Ewald Branch of the Grosse Pointe Public Library in Grosse Pointe Park.

Solak — who credits a combination of medication and cognitive therapy with enabling her to travel — took her first trip abroad with her husband, Richard — the retired Grosse Pointe Farms city manager — when the couple celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary with a vacation to Europe in 1997. Since then, their journeys have included a number of trips to Italy, where they now have an apartment.

Nancy Solak — who, as a certified Amherst Writers & Artists method instructor, leads writing workshops at Services for Older Citizens — wrote her first travel memoir, “A Footpath in Umbria,” in 2011, chronicling her experience of living in the Italian countryside with her husband for nearly a year. She has also served as a magazine editor and has written dozens of published articles and short stories.

Solak and her husband first went to China in 2001, while their son, Matthew, was a student. In 2003, the couple and several other family members — including Chelsea, Matthew’s sister — went to China for Matthew Solak’s wedding to Haiyan Yang, a Beijing native.

In an email interview, Solak’s son, Matthew, 44, said that it “meant the world” to have his mother visit him in China when he was a student. He and his wife now live in Parker, Colorado — about 20 miles south of Denver — with their 11-year-old daughter, Stella. After years of studying Chinese language and culture, Matthew Solak now shares that knowledge as a high school teacher.

“China is such a different place, and for her to take the risk and be willing to go on this adventure was great,” he said. “I was young and didn’t really pay much attention to her reluctance to travel and just wanted my family to experience the ‘real’ China that I had been experiencing during my year abroad. I think that is why I blindly led them to (a) very authentic Chinese breakfast place that first morning, which shocked my mother. My ignorance, or indifference, to her anxiety provided us with some of the best stories and memories that we still share and laugh about today. It also forced my mother to experience things that she would never have experienced otherwise.”

That included Nancy Solak joining Haiyan’s mother and dozens of Chinese women in a session of aerobics outdoors in the evening, when the hot, humid summer temperatures cooled slightly.

Nancy Solak fell in love with Haiyan and her family, and despite the language and cultural differences, found commonality with the people she and her family encountered as they traversed China.

“It’s the politicians that are crazy,” she said. “Regular people are so lovely and giving and friendly.”

Matthew and Haiyan got married in Beijing on Oct. 2, 2003, during China’s National Day of the People’s Republic of China holiday, a weeklong celebration during which schools and offices are closed.

“The weather during that time is the best,” Matthew Solak said. “Crisp and cool, with unusually bright, clear blue skies — that’s autumn in Beijing. We chose autumn because it was our favorite time of year in Beijing.”

In 2015, Nancy and Richard Solak traveled with Matthew again to China, but this time, as part of an exchange program with Matthew Solak’s Colorado students. The Solaks spent five weeks in China for this trip, with their first and last weeks spent with Haiyan Solak’s family. Matthew taught English to junior high school Chinese students, as did his parents.

“They were just as crazy as middle schoolers here,” Nancy Solak recalled with a grin. “They were full of energy and life, and they were a lot of fun.”

Priscilla Burns, a librarian with the Grosse Pointe Public Library system, said Solak’s presentation should be engaging and informative.

“Nancy is a wonderful writer,” Burns said. “She’s been a writer for a long time. … I’m excited about the program. The photos should be great. Her experiences should be fascinating.”

She said Solak’s unique spin on the travel book genre might inspire others who wouldn’t normally venture so far from home.

“I think it would definitely be helpful for people who are reluctant to travel,” Burns said. “Nancy was able to overcome her fears of travel, and has some good tips for making it go well. And I think she’s honest about some of the negative aspects of traveling.”

Solak said she has learned from experience to pace herself when she travels.

“I can still go out, but that doesn’t mean I have to do everything that’s on the agenda,” she said. “Now I know what my limits are. I (give) myself permission to step back.”

And in doing so, she has made significant strides forward as an individual and as an advocate for others who struggle with anxiety and panic attacks.

“I’m so proud of my mom for taking the risks she has taken — not only in traveling, but in her writing about it in an honest and true way,” Matthew Solak said. “She has her own unique voice, which comes out in her writing. I hear her voice when I’m reading her words. She owns who she is, and that is something that is inspirational. Although she is a ‘reluctant traveler,’ she has traveled all over the world and done so much with her life. She is a remarkable and brave woman.”

Nancy Solak’s library talk is free, but reservations are needed and can be made by visiting the library’s online calendar at www.gp.lib.mi.us. Copies of her book will be available for purchase at the event. For more information, call the Ewald Branch at (313) 821-8830. For more about Solak, visit her website, www.areluctanttraveler.net.