Three Walks to Three Boats in Three Countries in Scandinavia

"It’s such a simple thing, but it feels wondrous to be people-watching in a foreign country."

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The truth is my passport had expired last year. But that didn’t really matter when I realized that I’d lost it entirely. I was an hour and a half into searching my apartment—I could’ve sworn I put important documents somewhere safe at the beginning of lockdown in March, 2020—when I remembered that last fall, while I was out for a walk, I had brought my passport to use as ID. I’d been wearing running shorts, and the smooth booklet slipped out of my nylon pocket somewhere in Prospect Park, never to be seen again.

I had been meaning to replace it, but days turned into weeks turned into months—as they did so easily last year—until I’d forgotten entirely that it was a goner. What need did I have to remember a lost passport? Who could imagine traveling?

But now I was in the middle of my apartment—my desk thoroughly searched, books pulled off of shelves, and both sock drawers upended—when I did finally remember.

An opportunity had come up. A trip to Scandinavia—Finland, then Sweden, then Norway. The flight was in a few days. Even in normal times getting a passport on such short notice would be difficult. But now?

Still, I had to try.

In the end I ended up taking a train, a bus, and a boat, and spending far too much time in a federal building in Boston, Massachusetts. But I was issued a new passport. I’d be making the flight. My first time leaving the country since the pandemic began. My first time going for a walk overseas in… who knows how long.


HELSINKI, FINLAND

The walk from the hotel to the dock was easy, despite my jet lag (remember jet lag?). I’d been told by a bartender—the same bartender who taught me to say, “Kiitos,” which is Finnish for “Thank You”—that there was an inexpensive ferry that would take me out to Suomenlinna, a “sea-fortress” built in the 18th-century.

It should come as no surprise that I’m a big fan of the phrase “sea-fortress.”

The ride out was smooth. I bought the wrong ticket, but it didn’t matter because nobody checked. I stood at the bow of the boat—the clean ocean air of the Baltic Sea filling my lungs—and soon the large, castle-like walls of Suomenlinna came into view.

After I disembarked I explored the grounds. There were restaurants and cafes sprinkled throughout the historic fortress, but I avoided them in an attempt to save money. Eventually, though, after examining some naval guns, a Finnish man in a shed beckoned me over and offered me a small glass of Jaloviina.

“Finnish brandy,” he said. “Well, kind of brandy.”

The liquor was strong—but the overcast day had turned cold so I welcomed the warmth and gladly paid the man. He poured some more into a plastic cup and handed it to me, allowing me to sip as I continued to walk the 8 islands upon which Suomenlinna is built.

In the middle of a courtyard, I came across a large memorial. A burial monument. The stone grave taking the shape of a Viking longship, with a sword, a shield, and a Corinthian helmet resting on top.

A little research teaches me that this is the resting place of Augustin Ehrensvärd, a Swedish military officer who designed the fortress. In return, Gustav III, King of Sweden, designed Ehrensvärd’s grave. Not a bad deal.

By then the overcast day had given way to a chilly evening. I boarded the ferry back to Helsinki, staying above deck despite the cold. On the mainland, at the direction of a friend, I sought out a bowl of Lohikeitto, a traditional Finnish salmon soup. It finished the job that the Jaloviina had started, warming my entire body from within.


STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN

By the time I arrive in Stockholm I’ve shaken off the jet lag. I’ll be spending five days in the capital of Sweden, but on Saturday I take time to stroll Strandvägen, a boat-lined boulevard at the heart of the city.

It’s a simple thing, but it feels wondrous to be people-watching in a foreign country. So many unfamiliar faces hurrying about their day. So many strangers simply walking by. After a year of staying relatively still, it’s miraculous to be so far from home.

[Editor’s note: While in Stockholm I also witnessed this absolutely adorable scene, albeit not on Strandvägen.]

After I walk the length of Strandvägen and back again, I buy a ticket for a boat tour of the Stockholm Archipelago, the second largest archipelago in the Baltic Sea. I sip on a pear cider and stand at the stern of the boat as as we leave the dock. The tour guide shouts facts over a loudspeaker, but the engine makes them hard to hear. It doesn’t bother me, though. I’m more interested in taking in the beauty of the shoreline and soaking up the sun.

About an hour into our tour, marveling at the natural beauty of the archipelagos—not to mention the numerous vacation homes built on the islands and the other vessels out on the water—we come across Vaxholm Fortress.

The boat docks at Vaxholm and I disembark, exploring the small town and taking time to stop in a bookshop. (It is worth noting that Finland, Sweden, and Norway are all teeming with beautiful bookstores.)

I order lunch at a small bakery—salmon on bread with a cold beer. I eat outside and watch as small birds do their best to steal food away from the tourists. It’s a beautiful day, so I decide to skip the fortress and get on a boat headed back to Stockholm. I want to be out on the water.

Later that day I meet up with Chelsea Summers, an American author who is now an ex-pat in Sweden. We catch up as we walk through Historiska museet, surrounded by skulls and swords and relics of Catholic saints. But our walk is cut short. My next destination is Oslo, Norway, and an alert has gone out. Norway will no longer be accepting American proof of vaccination. European proof or bust. The least I can do is get a COVID test and hope the extra documentation might get me over the border. Chelsea walks me to a clinic that does testing and we hug goodbye.


OSLO, NORWAY

The border patrol officer lets me into Norway, but only after I promise to leave the next day, showing him my departure ticket for the seventh time.

“One day only, yes?”

“One day only.”

Norway had closed its borders to Americans the day before, but I could see in the officer’s eyes that sending me back to Sweden would cause him more headache then simply trusting me to make my plane out of the country the next day.

With 24 hours to kill I take a taxi into Oslo, and then walk down to the piers at Aker Brygge. After strolling the promenade and taking in the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art—where I pause for a moment to dip my toes in the water—I book an Oslo Fjord tour.

The boat is an actual tall ship named Helena, though the sails will stay firmly secured as we motor out of the harbor.

The tour is sold out, so I sit at a table of strangers while eating my lunch of shrimp, bread, and chili sauce. Around me I hear people speaking Norwegian, of course, but also German, and English, and numerous languages I don’t recognize. One family laughs as they try to get their grandmother to swear in Farsi. A feeling of gratitude washes over me again, the beauty of being surrounded by people I don’t know.

After two hours the tour is over and I disembark. Strolling away from the piers I find a park filled with flowers. The next morning I will wake up early and make good on my promise to the border patrol agent, getting on a plane headed back to the United States—chasing the sun west across the Atlantic.

But for now I walk around a nameless park in Oslo and take in the beauty of Norway’s flowers. Relishing that simple, serene magic of being somewhere I’ve never been before.