Twenty countries and counting… counting slowly

HELSINKI

Arriving here Tuesday afternoon added a new airport to what’s already a very long list of those I’ve flown in or out of–and put a new country on what’s a much shorter list of those I’ve visited.

Finland's flag flies in a breeze on the back of a boat in Helsinki's harbor under a partly-cloudy sky.

As of now, that second list includes only 20 of the world’s roughly 200 states outside the U.S. As grouped by continent, they are:

  • North America: Canada, Mexico
  • Europe: Austria, Belgium, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Netherlands, Portugal, Soviet Union, Spain, Switzerland, United Kingdom
  • Asia: China, Israel, Japan

That may not be a complete summary; it’s possible that I’m forgetting some long-ago toe-touch of a visit to a tiny European state like Liechtenstein or Andorra, and I’m not counting Vatican City.

But one thing should be clear from that list: what an inveterate Atlanticist I am, even after factoring in my also holding EU citizenship by way of my grandmother being born in Ireland. The scant representation of the rest of the world leaves me scratching my head a bit.

For instance, how have I not gotten to any part of Central America, despite that being so close to the U.S.? Why has my fondness for Asian megacities only led me to two countries there? What’s up with my failure to cross the Equator?

This list also reflects some missed opportunities. One of my best friends from high school spent a few years living in Sydney (unless it was Melbourne) in the 1990s, but I never looked into using what was already a decent accumulation of frequent-flyer miles to see him. And in the summer of 2001, I passed on a chance to join two friends when they visited a college pal living in Cairo at the time; in my defense, I had no clue how complicated U.S. relations with Mideast countries were about to get.

At least I am now once again adding to this list, even if slowly. After spending so many months confined to the D.C. area through 2020 and 2021–and still remembering how little I traveled anywhere in my post-graduation spell of underemployment–I am not taking that freedom for granted.

(Disclosure: I came to Helsinki to cover the security firm WithSecure’s Sphere conference, which in turn covered my travel costs and those of other journalists attending the event.)

Farewell to a well-traveled passport

The passport I’ve carried for almost 10 years is officially retired now that I’ve put it in the mail with my renewal form, a check, and a photo of me showing a lot more gray hair than the January 2011 shot in my about-to-expire travel document.

The stamps in that worn passport tell an incomplete story of travel on an unprecedented scale for me–something I had no idea would become part of my life when I had no idea that my travel-light job at the Washington Post was in its closing months. Flipping through that passport over the last 11, mostly-grounded months has been one of my ways to remember what Conference Life was like in the Before Times and to think about what it can be like once again as novel-coronavirus vaccination marches on.

Photo of old passport held open to show stamps, with a United Airlines route map in the background

Those stamps show my most frequent arrival and departure airports were Frankfurt and Shanghai (six each), followed by Brussels (five) and Berlin, Munich, and Lisbon (four each), with others from Barcelona, Dublin, Fukuoka, London, Narita, Paris, San Jose del Cabo, Shenzhen, and Zurich.

But those stamps (and the array of security-sticker travel barnacles on the back) only reveal part of my travel timeline because Hong Kong and Israel stamp separate pieces of paper, while Canada no longer stamps U.S. passports at entry ports with electronic kiosks. There are also no stamps from anywhere in Europe since early 2017, when I began using my Irish passport for EU travel; that’s gotten processed electronically every time instead of collecting a little ink.

This collection of travel souvenirs still doesn’t touch what I can see in one of my dad’s passports from the 1960s and 1970s (or those of some of my avgeek friends), but it still represents an enormous leap for me. One of several hundred thousand miles.

Now I get to wait for my new passport to arrive in the mail with strangely-pristine pages–along with the expired passport that I may not be able to consign permanently to a drawer. The Chinese visa in it runs through 2026, so if any future travel will have me going to the People’s Republic, that document will once again come along for the ride.