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What to Do When Stranded in Switzerland?

In this Life’s a Journey essay, how to take a swim, make new friends — and truly relax for the first time since departure


spinner image artwork showing a figure swimming in a river under an archway with a Swiss village in the background
Illustration by Chris Lyons

As happens with hectic travel plans, things rarely go as planned. But blunders can lead to opportunity — as long as you go with the flow.

I learned this lesson firsthand in the summer of 2019, when my fiancée (now wife) and I planned a whirlwind trip to Switzerland to visit colleagues and help old friends celebrate a wedding anniversary. We would hopscotch across the country by rail on the incomparable SBB, the Schweizerische Bundesbahnen. We’d start in Zurich, bounce up to St. Moritz, head over to Lucerne, then to Geneva, all in just four days.

Ambitious? Yes. But of all the countries to cram in a packed itinerary, Switzerland tops the list. The Swiss are precise, with everything running on time and according to plan, as did our trip — until the last leg, when I left my camera bag with my expensive DSLR on the first of our two late-night trains to Geneva. Worse, I had stashed my passport in that bag.

After I explained my mistake to a nice woman at the SBB’s lost and found in Geneva the next day, she responded cheerfully: “This is Switzerland. It’ll turn up.” Much to my chagrin, it did not, leaving me stressed out and stranded without an ID. So while my fiancée flew home from Geneva the next morning, I hopped aboard another train to Bern, Switzerland’s capital city, to acquire a temporary passport from the U.S. Embassy. There, as I stood in line, I struck up a conversation with a young Swiss-American guy behind me. I explained my situation and told him how annoyed I was about the prospect of waiting at least another day, maybe longer, for my temporary passport. Without hesitation, he told me what he’d do in my shoes: “I’d grab my swim trunks and head to the river. It doesn’t get any nicer here than today.”

After more than a day of wrangling with a perfectly competent but painstakingly unhelpful bureaucracy, I decided he was right. It was time to surrender, and just like that, the headaches went away.

 

Chillin’ in the river

spinner image Ryan Krogh poses with a statue of Albert Einstein outside a building in Switzerland
Writer Ryan Krogh poses next to the Albert Einstein statue outside of the Bern Historical Museum in Bern, Switzerland.
Ryan Krogh

I left the embassy, checked into a hotel, put on a shirt, swim trunks and flip-flops, and walked to the Aare River, which loops around the medieval city in a giant oxbow. Swimming, or just floating down the river, is popular in summer when the weather warms up. The city has constructed public access areas, making this lovely pastime easy for all.

Walking down the riverbank to the water was like making my way into a fairy-tale kingdom, with the steely-blue river flowing next to centuries-old stone walls. Locals were sunning themselves on grassy areas and a few teenagers were wading out to a sandbar. I stashed my shirt and flip flops in a nook and plunged in. The cool, glacial waters were shocking at first — exhilarating — and then they simply felt like a cool breeze on a hot day, welcoming. All the headaches of the past two days dissipated.

I swam out into the current and yielded to the flow, letting the river usher me downstream. Ancient buildings drifted by, as if they were moving, not me. From the bank, an occasional person waved cheerfully. I waved back. Before I knew it, I had washed past the access point where I’d planned to make my exit. It didn’t matter. I just drifted down to the next one, backstroked to where I could stand, then got out; the imposing bridge and building hovering overhead reminded me I was in the middle of a capital city.

Unsure about how to get back to my starting point, I wandered barefoot through the Old City. At first, I felt like a stereotypical boorish American, as my barefoot steps left paw prints on the cobblestones. But no one batted an eye.

“Grüezi,” a woman said to me as I passed by, not knowing I was American.

“Hello,” I said awkwardly, but with a genuine smile on my face.

 

Three for dinner

Cleansed of my stress, I now saw my travel headache as an opportunity. And dining by myself that evening at a restaurant recommended to me by a fellow swimmer I’d met on the river turned into a pleasant chance encounter. When I sat down at a table on the patio, an older married couple asked me if I was waiting for someone.

“No, my wife left me here,” I said jokingly before explaining the situation.

The couple demanded I join them, and the wife insisted on ordering for me, making sure I tried the best dishes, including raclette — potatoes covered in mounds of melted cheese. The husband ordered a bottle of Swiss wine. The two were clearly determined to make up for my forced detour. Switzerland had inconvenienced me, and they were going to make sure I left with a good impression. Unbeknownst to them, I was now thoroughly enjoying my marooning.  

As we ate, these two friendly and chatty souls told me all about climbing in the surrounding mountains in their youth, of how the country had changed, even if to me it seemed frozen in time. Two hours flew by and when I stood up to say good night, they insisted I come back when I had more time.

“And don’t worry, the camera will turn up,” he said assuredly. It’s a sentiment I’d already heard several times from other locals.

After dinner, I walked for what seemed like hours, ambling down narrow old streets and occasionally hopping into a pub for a glass of wine. Since I obviously hadn’t intended to visit Bern, there was nothing I “needed” to see or do. I just wandered, and every right or left turn was filled with possibility.

I stumbled onto the Nydeggbrücke, the city’s arched bridge dating back to 1844. I looked down and, to my surprise, saw brown bears on the riverbank. I had no idea until stumbling onto them that the bear was the city’s much-beloved symbol, so much so that it still manages a 19th-century park where several of them live. It would be like turning a corner in San Francisco and seeing your first-ever glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge — the unexpectedness of it making the revelation that much more electric.

I fell asleep that night caring less about whether my passport came through. I was on vacation at long last.

 

Feeling at home

The next morning, I ordered a coffee and bread with jam, then sat in the Waisenhausplatz, a pedestrian square with tables set up outside adjacent restaurants. I perched there for an hour or more — I had nothing better to do, and it felt intensely serene. I watched couples stroll by. One woman with a dog came over and smiled as her black Labrador sidled up to me for pets. Only later did I realize that Waisenhausplatz translated as Orphanage Plaza, which somehow felt fitting for me.

I thought about sitting there all day to people-watch. Instead, I walked to the Einstein Museum, dedicated to, yes, Albert, who lived in the city for a time. Then, on the recommendation of my previous night’s dining companions, I toured the Swiss Alpine Museum, essentially a scholarly love letter to all things mountain in Switzerland — geographically, culturally and recreationally.

On my second evening of wandering the city I retraced many of my earlier night’s steps, this time intuitively knowing which directions to turn at which intersections. In a single day I’d gone from knowing nothing about this city in which I’d found myself stranded to feeling like it was a home away from home, a place I was glad to be.

But, as with all vacations, it came to an end too quickly. I picked up my temporary passport the next morning and jumped on a train to Zurich for the flight home.

Two years later, I remember those two days in Bern like they were yesterday, whereas the rest of that trip, before the lost passport, is a blur. In our rush to do so much, everything became indistinguishable in memory. Keren and I dined lakeside in Zurich, attended an elaborate dinner party at Badrutt’s Palace Hotel in St. Moritz and cruised through the mountains in a friend’s Porsche. But the only thing I can recall clear as day — still feel, in fact — is the Aare’s cold water shocking my body as I plunged in. Everything I did after is similarly memorable, as if the soak heightened my senses. The reality, I think, is that I slowed down — for two whole days.

Two months after my Bern detour, my camera bag with my camera showed up on my doorstep in Brooklyn, just as every Swiss person assured me it would. My passport was inside, notched through with a hole by the U.S. State Department — deactivated, but imprinted with new meaning. It’s wedged between some books on the shelf next to my desk as I write this, a reminder that not everything goes according to plan, even in Switzerland, and sometimes that’s the best outcome of all. 

 

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