You've bought your plane ticket to Hong Kong, reserved a room, and purchased a guidebook to help you decide what to see, where to eat, and how to tip the cabbie.

But what to do while you're waiting for departure day to arrive?

You could do what we do, whether a foreign trip is on the horizon or not even an option: Take a virtual trip nearby, soaking up the ethnic atmosphere of whatever foreign land we're going to or pining for.

Here's what we mean.

Not long ago, before a trip to western China, we settled into the far end of a pew at the local Chinese Presbyterian Church. We were trying to blend in, although we obviously weren't members and the bulletin said plainly, in English, that the service would be in Cantonese.

After a while, an usher made his way over, knelt beside us and quietly whispered, "Do you know where you are? This is a Chinese church."

We laughed and explained that we were just trying to get in the mood for China. He walked away scratching his head. But later, he took us on a tour of the building and introduced us to some of the immigrants who worship there. They told us about the Chinese cities they had left behind and recommended a nearby place where we could get great dim sum.

This is just the kind of "travel" that chef Joseph Poon recommends for those who take his annual cooking tour to China (

"I always have them take my tour first," says Poon, whose Wok 'n Walk Tour of Philadelphia's Chinatown is as popular with locals as with tourists. "They find out how funny and crazy I am, and they come to my kitchen and eat Chinese things. I tell them about the weird foods people in China eat. Like why they eat alligator - are they crazy?"

Our virtual excursions have introduced us to immigrants and their favorite foods from all over the globe.

Before a trip to Norway, we visited a Nordic history museum and, later, a local Scandinavian grocery.

"You know what's wrong with Norwegian food?" a friend scoffed when we told her of our plans for a traditional dinner of lutefisk, lefse, and a side of potatoes. "It's all white. And it tastes really yucky. And it smells."

She was only partially right. The lutefisk was quite white and terribly fishy-smelling. But the pale lefse and the equally pallid potato recipe that we found on the Internet filled us up pretty well. And we learned not to order the lutefisk once we got to Oslo.

The idea of virtual trips has been adopted by retired friends who travel and by those who can't go as much as they'd like because of cranky backs that rebel at long flights, or other health problems.

They agree you can get a pretty good "foreign" adventure without leaving home, by hitting ethnic cultural festivals, shopping in immigrant neighborhoods, or going to the library for foreign-language films.

For a take-home Slavic or Russian comfort-food experience, there's the Net Cost Market (, an East Coast grocery chain with a store in the Leo Mall in Northeast Philadelphia.

Or for a place to take in Hispanic culture and arts in North Philadelphia, there's the Norris Square Neighborhood Project, a venture started in 1973 to clean up a deteriorating Latino neighborhood (

"We haven't focused so much on travelers, but we do provide an access to the Puerto Rican tradition," says executive director Reed Davaz McGowan, "and recently we've expanded to include other Hispanic cultures."

The project's colorful gardens are reminiscent of places travelers might find in the Caribbean, Mexico, and the Philippines, she says.

In a few months, we'll be heading to Italy, so we have been taking an Italian-language-for-tourists course. We're learning how to roll our Rs (not easy - sometimes our rolls come out more like a sputter). We can order a cappuccino (never in the evening, because it's a morning drink and the waiter will think you're weird if you order it after noonish). And we can tell a shopkeeper we'd like to look at that bracciale d'oro (gold bracelet), although it's probably too troppo (expensive) for us.

Of course, any idea has its limitations.

Before we went to Japan, a friend told us we should try the shabu-shabu, a hot-pot dish similar to sukiyaki, with thin strips of beef, vegetables, and noodles cooked in hot broth at the table. It's much more interesting than sushi, she said.

So the three of us went to a local shabu-shabu restaurant to familiarize ourselves with the drill. The waiter showed us how to use our chopsticks to dip the beef in the steaming pot, how long to cook the various ingredients, and how to finish with noodles to sop up the broth.

Good thing we practiced on familiar ground. When we got to Tokyo, we found the shabu-shabu restaurants wanted a minimum of $35 to $50 per person - too steep for our budget - and required us to wear something less touristy than T-shirts and walking shoes.

So we settled for sushi and noodles in a little shop on the street - and told ourselves we'd have shabu-shabu when we got home.

Senior Traveler: More Ideas for Pre-Trip Adventures

Don't be shy about asking questions. When people from other countries learn we'll be visiting their native land they are delighted to share ideas and tips. We've even had people give us names of friends and relatives to stop and see on our trip.

Check the bulletin board at the language or history department at a nearby university for ethnic activities where you can talk with students from the country you'll be visiting.

Don't be surprised when the local "foreign" folks you meet before you go want to hear about your trip (and see your photos) when you return. It's a great way to keep the experience alive.


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