What Do Finns Bring Back From Vacation?

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In Scandinavian countries, alcohol is HIGHLY taxed.   Not surprisingly, they are always ready to take advantage of a deal on alcohol.  He says that he’s never seen anything like the Swedes with an open bar.  Yes, I realize that I’m overgeneralizing a bit here.

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Alcohol is not taxed at the same high rate on the cruises and ferries in the Baltic. As a result, Booze cruises are popular and people take advantage of ferries to lower tax countries to buy alcohol. While waiting for our ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn, we saw people disembarking with their souvenirs.

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If you’re travelling in the Nordics and want to drink. You might want to plan ahead and take advantage of the deals from duty-free. The natives do. DSC_0371 DSC_0372 DSC_0373 DSC_0374 DSC_0377

 

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Suomenlinna Fortress – The Russians Came!

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Suomenlinna Fortress is one of the islands in the Baltic Sea that surround Helsinki‘s harbor.  When we told a Finnish gal that we were going there, he said “it a great place to shoot Russians from.”  Historically, there has been more than a little tension between Finland and its close neighbor, Russia.

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In the mid-1700’s, Russia under Peter the Great was rising as a power.  Pete had just built a shiny new capital called St. Petersburg nearby and had his binoculars trained on the west.  Sweden built the Suomenlinna Fortress (christened Sveaborg by the Swedes) with French financial assistance to address the threat Pete posed.

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The second largest or of its type (after Gibraltar), it is a serious fort to counter a serious threat.    When it was built, it was high-tech and a big deal.  It had the world’s largest dry dock, over 5 miles of walls and hundreds of cannons.

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We checked out the museum to learn a little about its history (there are several others on the island, but the weather was so good that we wanted to be outside).  There, about defenses and battles.  In 1808, the Russians came, led by Alexander I, who had colluded with Napoleon, and began bombarding it (see below).

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When no Swedish reinforcements arrived, the Russians took the fortress, occupied it, and called it Viapori.  The Finnish war ended with the Treaty of Fredrikshamn under which Sweden ceded Finland to the Russian Empire in 1809.  Part of the reason Finland is an independent nation today is because it became an autonomous grand duchy within the empire.

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The Russians expanded the fortress, building extra barracks, a bigger dockyard and extra fortifications.   The English and French tried unsuccessfully to take the fort during the Crimean War.  Unfortunately, they only succeeded in damaging it.  Fortunately, the damage was repaired after the war.  In the build-up to World War I, the Russians used it as part of its defenses to designed to safeguard the capital, St. Petersburg.

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Following the Russian Revolution in 1917, Suomenlinna became part of an independent Finland.  Later during and after the Finnish Civil War, the island held a prison camp.  The island’s museum has artifacts from, paintings and photos of all these events.

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Today, Helsinki’s Suomenlinna Fortress is more than just one of the largest maritime fortresses and a UNESCO World Heritage site.  It’s a cool place to hang out.  It’s only a fifteen minute ferry-boat ride from the center of Helsinki.

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We wandered around the grounds and scampered on the rocks, enjoying the sun, picnicking and taking pictures.  While taking this one, I slid on the slick rock and fell into the Baltic (thank goodness the camera didn’t go under.  He sat there and laughed at me trying unsuccessfully to scamper out on the algae covered rocks.  Unfortunately for me, he wasn’t the only one.  Suomenlinna is the place to hang on a nice summer day.  We saw Finns lazing on the rocks and picnicking in sunny fields.

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The island is home to 850 residents, who have a pretty cool little town.  There’s a nice brewery, a bar, nice cafes, and a general store.  Many of the residents are artists who sell their wares on the island.  I bought a beautiful pair of earrings that were way cooler than their relatively inexpensive price tag.  The island is especially relaxing because there are barely any cars on the island, although I hear that people used to be able to get to Helsinki via snowmobile in winter.

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We explored the ancient fortress walls and tunnels, checked out the rusty cannons and peered through the gun holes.  There’s a submarine from the cold war to tour and the museum.  The island also houses military barracks.

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How To Board A Car Ferry

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At Vaxholm (in Sweden), we spent an hour picnicking and watching cars embark and disembark from the ferry boats that connect the islands in the Archipelago.  We listened to the waves in the Baltic Sea and watched the process.  This is what we first saw.  The ferry pulls up and docks.  You can see that the gates are just opening and all of the 4 lane lights are red.

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Cars line up on the street (which is a dead-end into the sea) well ahead of the departure time.  We didn’t see a ferry schedule and I’m not sure whether they allow reservations, but there are only so many ferries and only so much space on each ferry.  I would hate to not show up early enough to get a spot.  Plus, you wouldn’t want to miss it.

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They didn’t buy the tickets while waiting in line.  I’m not sure how they sell tickets, whether they are available online ahead of time or someone comes around during the ride to sell them during the ride.  Once the gates are open, the light for lane 4 comes on and cars drive one by one onto the ferry.

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Once the first row is full, they start loading up another row.  In the photo above, you can see a full row.  You can also see the green light has come on for row B to begin loading that row.
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The loading process was very efficient and went quickly.  Once the cars were on, they closed the gate and lowered the bar.  Immediately after, the boat disembarked.

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Not long after that, another boat arrived.

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When boats disembarked, we were sometimes surprised by what came off.  Speeding off the ferry on bicycles looked like fun.  The vehicles exited in an orderly manner.  In the lower photo on the left, you can see they have a sign with a signal that tells which row can exit.

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Can you imagine taking a bus on a Ferry.  They disembarked so quickly that I think the passengers must have traveled inside the bus.  Plus, it didn’t look as though the boat had a passenger cabin.

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Get Away From The Grind On Grinda

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Grinda is a smaller, traffic-free island in Stockholm’s archipelago (a little over an hour from Stockholm).  We got there by taking a ferry from Vauxholm.  At just over a mile long, it’s not huge but that’s part of the attraction.  It’s small enough to be car free.  I love cities, but some of the most relaxing trips we’ve had have been to car-free destinations (ZermattSaas-Fee, MegeveLes Baux de ProvenceAix-en-ProvenceVenceSt. Paul-de-VenceEze, Les Baux de ProvenceCourmayeurAvignonGimmelwaldGruyeres).  I don’t know whether it is the lack of noise so you can hear the birds or just being able to walk in peace, but somehow without cars stress seems to melt away. It’s idyllic.

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The tomography reminded me of Maine‘s coast.  Like Maine, there’s plenty of wilderness.  Grinda has nature reserve.

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Although there are several gorgeous swimming beaches, we rented a sauna.  When we started to melt, we jumped off the dock out front into the Baltic Sea (Östersjön in Swedish).  I was expecting it to be salty like the Atlantic Ocean; it wasn’t.  The Baltic is brackish and not very salty.  It’s not warm either, but that’s no surprise.  We listened to the waves lap against the coastline.  It made for a wonderfully relaxing and peaceful afternoon.

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The trip there takes just over an hour from Stockholm on the Cinderella boats.  If you happen to go, the welcome center/commerce cabin (near the ferry dock) rents rooms at the hostel, cabins, campsites, saunas, kayaks and fun thinks like lawn games and kites.  Since Sweden would probably cease functioning without coffee, they also have it there.

DSC_0115DSC_0156Grinda has a general store that sells the necessities, candy and fancy homemade baked goods.  Come to think of it, those are actually necessities on vacation.  There’s a harbor side restaurant with a deck near the marina.

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It’s hard to tell from the picture below, but the tables were crowded.  The food and drink there was surprisingly cosmopolitan.

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Walking around the island, we saw sheep and cows.   They went to town on the grass and didn’t seem to care that you could get fancy cocktails and smoked salmon just up the road.

DSC_0151Serene, rustic and uber-chill, this is a place where you can’t help but relax.  My only regret is that we didn’t stay the night.  I’m sure the stars there are amazing.

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I’m On A Boat! Our Hotel Boat In Stockholm

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He travels a lot for work so he appreciates hotel amenities.  I really don’t care too much about my accommodations as long as they are clean and centrally located.  I’m so cheap that I’m bad.  Very, very bad.  I’ve stuck him in all kinds of hovels.  Stockholm isn’t a cheap city, luckily there are some great places that are easy on the budget, centrally located, have great views (see above and below), have a great on site pub and provide a unique experience.  You can stay on boat hotels in the Södermalm neighborhood (both on the Riddarfjärden and the Stadsgardsleden sides of the link to Gamala Stan).

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They had bikes you could borrow and cool lounges, but the best part was the amazing view from the seats (some of which were in lifeboats) on the upper deck.  We sat there taking in the views, enjoying the sunset and singing The Lonely Island‘s (with T-Pain) “I’m On A Boat” from the movie Stepbrothers.

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I give mad props to people in the Navy who live like this on a long-term basis.  The room was tiny, but had everything we needed.  We even had our own bathroom (It is something that he appreciates, but I have no problem foregoing.  Just ask him about the hovel I stuck us in when we visited Dublin).

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We had some new experiences in the bathroom.  I’d never showered in a place like this.  It was tight (so tight that you can see my toes standing on the toilet lid), but workable.  Everything fit in there like a masterful game of Tetris.  It was impressive and surprisingly easy to use.

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The best part of the room itself was the view from our porthole.  Amazing!

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Our Date On The Island of Långholmen in Stockholm, Sweden

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We visited Stockholm March of last year (when I made the Queen of Sweden smile and met Camilla Parker-Bowles at the Vasa Museum).  Some places March means spring, it doesn’t in Sweden.  We decided we had to go back to enjoy the city and the nearby archipelago in summer. We chose wisely.  It was a fantastic trip.  We stayed in the Södermalm neighborhood in a boat on the Riddarfjärden, a bay of Lake Mälaren in central Stockholm.  We spent a pleasant afternoon and evening picnicking and walking around the island of  Långholmen.

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Långholmen, the long island, was rocky and barren until 18th century prison inmates covered the island with mud dredged from the surrounding waterways.  It undoubtably made the waterways deeper and more easily navigable for larger vessels.  It also had the effect of providing fertile soil.  When things start growing, leaves drop, providing more organic matter for plants.  Before long, the island was lush retreat.  Trade and merchant ships introduced of exotic seeds, making its vegetation unique.  As a result, it is a popular place for walks, picnics and a cold dip in the lake.

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We trekked around the island passing a few people walking their dogs, people singing with guitars, a group of teenagers escaping their families apartments, boatbuilders, several rabbits and even a handful of kayakers.  We enjoyed this view of Kungsholmen (complete with a beach bar) on our picnic.  It was so peaceful.

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At the Stockholm Water Festival in 1993, a JAS 39 Gripen fighter aircraft crashed on Långholmen. It caught fire but the pilot ejected successfully.  Thankfully, no one was killed and only one injury in the large crowd of spectators.  We happened upon Thomas Qvarsebo‘s stainless steel sculpture commemorating the incident.  It is paper plane with its nose drilled into the ground.  It was so striking that I took a picture and looked up what it was later.

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Boats are everywhere.  Although the Swede’s love worshipping the sun, the climate requires a cabin.  The classic wooden boats looked like a great way to experience the country.  If someone’s rented one for a day, I’d love to hear about it.

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The walk from Södermalm along the Riddarfjärden was fascinating.  Many of the larger boats were homes or hotels!  By the way, the former Långholmen Prison is now a hotel and hostel, complete with a restaurant and pub.  If we hadn’t found unique boat accommodations, we probably would have stayed there.

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We had great views of the city towards Stadhuset and Gamla Stan.  This is the
giant Västerbron bridge that links Södermalm to Kungsholmen.

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We Stormed The Kastell – Vaxholms Kastell Fortress

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For centuries, Vaxholm Fortress (Vaxholms Kastell) guarded a crucial entry route into Stockholm’s harbor.    King Gustav Vasa (yep, the same one who commissioned that famous ship) built a fortress here and filled in other waterways to ensure that this channel was the only way into and out of Stockholm.  He had good reason to strengthen his defenses.  In 1612, Christian IV of Denmark tried to invade.  Czar Peter the Great of Russia tried to invade in 1719.

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In the mid 19th century, they upgraded, well sort of.  Sweden tore down the old defenses and built a giant new granite fortress there.  Unfortunately for them, the technology of warfare advanced between the time the new fortress was designed and when it was completed some 30 years later.  In its first test, a shell (instead of the old technology of cannonballs) tore a hole in the wall.  The fortresses high guns couldn’t really reach the new style of lower design boats.  Oops.

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Since it couldn’t really serve as a bastion of defense, Vaxholm Fortress was used as a prison.  I don’t think I would have liked to be incarcerated here.  The citadel seemed a little cold and wet.  The uniform didn’t look particularly warm either.  Can you imagine spending a Swedish winter like that?

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In addition to covering pre-20th century history, the museum contains exhibits on its more recent uses.  During World War II, Sweden remained neutral but heightened its military preparedness by strengthening its defenses and drafting conscripts.  The Swedes placed mines in the nearby Sea of Åland.   Polish ORP RyśORP Żbik, and ORP Sęp submarine crews were detained in Vaxholm’s Citadel.

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The end of the Second World War in 1945 signaled the beginning of “Cold War.” Swedish military was  on high alert.  The USSR was as close as nearby Estonia and the Russians had come sniffing their way before.  The archipelago became important because it was a gateway into the country.   Vaxholm’s Kastell Fortress monitored the area.  The military stopped occupying it in 1993 and in 2000, the absence of an external enemy meant all stationary batteries were deactivated in Sweden.  Today, its museum has artifacts thoroughout its history, from royal times to the mines and radar.  The incredible setting makes it all the more interesting and it’s well worth a visit.

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One of the coolest things about it today is that in addition to functioning as a park, it contains a hotel.  The best part is that nothing is closed.  If you stay, you can wander around, picnic, sit on the ramparts with drink, enjoy the quiet and watch boats go by.  Since the rooms have no radio, TV, or internet, you might not have much else to do.

Stockholm’s Archipelago

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Archipelago – ar·chi·pel·a·go. noun \ˌär-kə-ˈpe-lə-ˌgō,

  1. An expanse of water with many scattered islands
  2. group of islands

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There aren’t that many true archipelagos; Stockholm’s archipelago is the real deal.  It has more than 30,000 islands!  I guess it’s not all the surprising.  Stockholm itself is made up of 14 islands that are connected by 50 bridges on Lake Mälaren and the Baltic Sea.  It’s definitely a maritime city.  When we visited in March, I took a boat tour of the area, but it was too cold to really enjoy the outer islands in the Baltic.

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For Stockholm’s residents, the archipelago is a easy escape and their holiday retreat.  There’s an island for everyone.  Partiers, those looking for peace and quiet, sunbathers, woodsy hikers, campers, B&Bers, luxury hotel lovers…there’s an island for everyone. The archipelago is easily accessible via ferry.  There are two main ferry companies.  One with larger, faster boats (Cinderella Båtarna), the other (Waxholmsbolaget) with charming smaller boats that make it feel less like a commute and more like a pleasure cruise.

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We took the Waxholmsbolaget boat to Vaxholm.  The journey was half the fun.  The boats are adorable with wood interiors and brass details.  It’s the perfect place for a picnic.  We sat outside and watched the hustle and bustle recede.  I was worried about not hearing our stop.  The boat docks, people disembark and it pulls away with remarkable speed.  I shouldn’t have been, locals (who all speak great English) volunteered to let us know when we got close.

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The Cinderella boat back was larger and a bit faster, but didn’t have quite the charm.  My advice, take either one.  You can’t go wrong.

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Stockholm’s archipelago is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  It consists of 20,000-50,000 islands off the coast of Sweden that offer a buffer to the Baltic Sea.  “Skärgården,” as the area is known to the Swedes, was formed by glaciers that carved out and deposited granite that protrudes from the water.  As a result, it is full of reefs and shallows The islands get progressively less rocky, sandier and smaller with fewer trees the further you get from Stockholm.

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Vaxholm  is an idyllic archipelago town with well-preserved wooden villas from the turn of the 19th century.  Everything about it says cottage cute. It has nice restaurants (especially if you like fresh fish), a wonderful bakery, charming cafés, and way cooler shopping than your average resort town.  I wanted to decorate with and wear things from just about every shop.

DSC_0234DSC_0247DSC_0232Although you can rent bikes, we spent an afternoon doing a big walking tour of the area.  There are plenty of trails, sidewalks and quiet streets.  We tried to get away from the business district to get a look at how people live there.  Even without the cute shops, restaurants and hotels, it was very picturesque.  I loved the brightly colored houses and cute gardens.  We saw backyard meals, people walking their dogs, mowing their lawns and cleaning out their garages.

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The have a decent sized marina and with the essential nearby farm stand and ice-cream stand.  Across the narrow strait is the historic Vaxholm Fortress.  From the shore, you can see several small islands with adorable but solitary houses and a dock.  Vauxholm is the last easily accessible place in the archipelago by car from Stockholm and is even accessible by bus.  In fact, it is the most populated archipelago town and people live there year-round.  Tiger Wood’s ex-wife Elin Nordegren grew up there.  Don’t worry through, there’s no hustle and bustle, it’s perfectly tranquil.

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Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself in Evian

 

We live on a lake, surrounded by France.  There is a dividing line down the center of the lake separating the French and Swiss parts.* One of the French towns on the lake is Evian. Yep,that’s right, like the water. I went there with Hokie (and some other fine folks who haven’t yet declared their names for this blog).

Nice views from the boat to Evian
It’s cute
Proof we really are in France
The mean streets of Evian

Evian is small, cute, but small.  People had told us that there wasn’t much there, but we wanted to try to go to France by boat and thought what the heck. It has a small shopping district where souvenirs are cheaper than in Switzerland. The Evian “experience”** is located there. It was a bit “bare bones” and could use some marketing help with the exhibits. I suggest an Evian fountain. If you are there, stop in anyway. It’s free.

The Evian “experience”

We walked along the street, stopped for crêpes and checked our watches. The next boat didn’t leave for over another hour. What to do? I had 5 Euros on me, so we went to the Casino.

The Casino
When you play penny slots, it is amazing how long 5 Euro can last. We took turns picking machines and enjoyed ourselves. It was entertaining to see the smokers confined in little plexiglass cages to do their smoking. Sorry, I couldn’t take any pictures inside.
The Casino up close

I had a bottle of wine in my purse (don’t judge) because people picnicked on the boat ride over. You can see it below. Unfortunately, I was also carrying a bottle of Evian, in Evian. This was a big no-no. I couldn’t enter the casino with my bottle of Evian and had to check it!
 
My purse as I took it in 
The bottle of Evian I checked with the receipt for checking it.

The funniest part is that they serve free Evian everywhere in the casino!

Chillaxin in the park

*This line in the lake between France and Switzerland is figural not literal. Please do not go looking to take a picture of it.  You will look like an idiot.

**Evian also has a spa. 

 

Go Jump Off A Bridge

Do you remember when your mom said “if your friends jumped off a bridge would you do it to”?  Here, the answer is yes. Okay, so I guess technically this is not allowed. From the looks of it, that wasn’t stopping anyone.
There is a decent current so you can float way down the river in a boat. If you tread water, you’ll be carried along.  Very refreshing.  Very good time.
P.S. If you come visit, please bring us an inflatable boat