3. Voice Mail World Tour

I finished work in Finland on a Friday and was to start work at my new gig the following Monday.  I turned up that September morning in 1991 to a squat and outrageously ugly building in an unremarkable industrial park just off one of the exits of the Long Island Expressway, which I took to be a bad sign.  The traffic was extremely light which I took to be a good sign.  The building was dark and the front door was locked.  I took this to be a bad sign.  Three years in Finland made me forget that the first Monday of September is Labor Day, a national holiday in America.

I came back the next morning, and found the lights on and a receptionist at the front entrance.  I took this to be a good sign.  I waited for about an hour in the lobby before anyone came to greet me.  I took this to be a bad sign.  This scrappy little company was in the business of selling voice mail systems.  These weren’t your garden variety voice mail systems. These were really, really big voice mail systems.  They were the mainframes of the then booming voice mail industry — ones that could answer the phone and take messages for the residents of an entire city, or, in some cases, even for a whole country.

That's me in the middle, pausing for a picture on a Sao Paolo street during my "voice mail world tour."

For the next few years from my home base on Long Island, my job was to convince telephone companies all over the world to install our systems in their networks, and give voice mailboxes away for free.   I breezily skipped from week to week between places like Stockholm, Singapore and Santiago; Madrid, Manila and Mexico City; Jerusalem, Jakarta and Rio de Janeiro, and seemingly everywhere in between.

Americans often get teased when they travel overseas, especially by Europeans, for their lack of geographic knowledge.  This teasing is usually entirely justified.  In high school, one of my friends was surprised to learn that there was a body of water separating England from France. Another once asked what language was spoken in France.  My own knowledge would likely not have been much better except that I looked at those maps in the airline magazines to figure out where I was headed.

This prepared me well for Lucas, a Belgian guy with one of those “I’m so European and you’re so not” attitudes. He was friends with some of my friends and we were at a restaurant in New York City.  He was annoyed that too many people he’d met in America had never heard of his country.

I asked what had become somewhat of a standard question in these situations.

“Lucas, do you know where Andorra is?”

“Andorra?  Vat iz diz?” he replied with his superior European accent.

Success again!  Remarkably, it turns out that many Europeans have never heard of Andorra, which happens to be a country in Europe.  (It’s a tiny country, in the Pyrenee mountains between Spain and France, and they do have voice mail there.)

In the unlikely event that Andorra hadn’t managed to stump him, I was prepared to ask Lucas where Idaho is, and then remind him that since Idaho is seven times bigger than Belgium, it’s seven times worse for him not to know where Idaho is than for an American not to know where Belgium is.  So to all you geographically challenged Americans, just remember where Andorra and Idaho are, and you’ll be prepared for the likes of Lucas.

With my constant travel to the various near and far flung corners of the globe, I came to view virtually all the countries I had been to as mere flavors of fundamentally the same thing.  In the winter of 1993 I was given the assignment to take my first marketing trip to mainland China. I still hadn’t been to Asia, but I felt ready. Surely, it couldn’t be any different from the other places I’d seen.

 

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2. Suomi

I lost no time in applying to the Work in Scandinavia program, and after a short while, I was offered a three-month summer internship working for the Posts and Telecommunications Bureau of the Government of Finland. This was not exactly what I had in mind.

I wasn’t even sure if Finland was actually in Scandinavia. I had a vague notion that Finland was to the right of Sweden, but when I checked my map of Europe, all I saw was some place called Suomi.  I soon learned that Suomi was the Finnish word for Finland.  This seemed odd.  In English, we of course call it Finland.  The French call it Finlande.  In Spain it’s Finlandia.  The Germans refer to it as Finnland.  Even the Chinese go along with the general scheme, calling it Fenlan in Mandarin.  The Finns’ very own next door neighbors on their left border, the Swedes, simply call it Finland.  The Russians on their right border just put a Russian accent on it: Finlyandiya.  But to the Finns themselves, it’s Suomi.  This was going to be a strange place indeed.

Just as the Finns came up with their own name for their country, they seemed to have also decided that it would be part of Scandinavia. But they were sort of the stepchild of Scandinavia, the wannabe, not the real thing. Even though I really had my heart set on Sweden, I would have been okay with those other Scandinavian countries: Norway and Denmark.  I had met people from those countries too, and they seemed just as cool as the Swedes. But I hadn’t ever met anyone from Finland. For all I knew it was an unfriendly country that frowned on naked breasts, if you can imagine such a thing.

The Posts and Telecommunication Bureau of the Government of Finland was essentially the Finnish telephone company, and that also didn’t quite capture my imagination. I was starting to have second thoughts about the whole thing, but time was growing short. At the very least, Sweden was right next door and I’d be able to go there on weekends. I accepted the offer.

The internship in Helsinki turned out to be much better than I had expected. I arrived in July of 1988 and easily fell in with a group of friends there from all over the world.  We were fortunate to experience what for Finland was an unusually long and warm summer. Finland’s summer seemed no less reasonable than the summers I spent growing up on New York’s Long Island.  Being so far north, Finland doesn’t have a lot of poolside sundecks, but they do have a lot of saunas.  In fact, the sauna was invented in Finland, and naked breasts were not only permitted, but encouraged in the sauna.

Career-wise, things seemed to be going pretty well too. Finland was working hard to modernize their national telephone system, and since America was seen at that time to have one of the most modern, and one of the few competitive telecom markets in the world, I was viewed at age 22 as something of an international telecommunications expert. Of course my only real credential was that I had operated American telephones, had been sent and occasionally even paid telephone bills. This was apparently good enough for them. At the end of the summer, the Posts and Telecommunication Bureau of the Government of Finland offered me a real job and again I accepted.

I spent the next three years trying to learn to speak Finnish – a feat that can’t really be accomplished unless you were born in Finland – and traveling whenever I could. Finland was an excellent base from which to explore, on weekends and during vacations, the rest of Scandinavia to the west, as well as the Soviet Union – as it was called in those days – to the east.

My family had one connection in Finland, an elderly fisherman named Masa living in a remote town not far from the Russian border with whom my father had many years prior established an unlikely friendship. One weekend, I decided to go visit him.  My half-Finnish half-Australian co-worker, Tomi, tagged along as a translator.

Hamina is a small coastal town a few hours drive from Helsinki.  Masa had made his life in that town, and wanted to make sure that we saw everything there was to see there.  This took about seventy five minutes. After that, Masa and his wife Enni had put together an elaborate dinner for us with his family at their lovely home. During dinner, Masa told us that he had lately become the master of ceremonies aboard a cruise ship that makes a 24 hour round trip each weekend from Hamina to the small town of Vyborg just past the border in Russia, and asked if Tomi and I would like to join the following evening.

“That sounds like fun, Masa, but I left my passport in Helsinki,” I said, “and somehow I don’t think I can go to the USSR without my passport.”

Tomi translated, adding that he didn’t have his passport with him either. I thought that would be that, but Masa said something to Tomi that made his eyes bug out.  I braced myself for the translation.

“Masa said it doesn’t matter. He’s friends with the Hamina police who handle border control here and he’ll vouch for us.”

“I’m not so worried about his Finnish friends. What do we do when we get to Russia?” I said.

“Oh, not to worry. Just stay on the boat when it arrives in Vyborg. The fun part of the trip is the cruise, not the few hours in Russia,” the translation came back.

Still, I worried.

Despite my continued protests, we found ourselves the following evening aboard ship and departing the Hamina harbor.  The partying began immediately, and it quickly became evident that the focus of this trip had little to do with Russia.  It was merely a means for the Finns, who are used to paying hefty taxes on booze, to get liquored up for half what it would cost in Finland.

Fourteen hours and more than a few drinks and a few winks of sleep later, the boat was in the harbor in Vyborg and the Finns were filing off waiting to enter the Soviet Union.

“Come on, let’s go,” Masa said. “Let’s have a look at Russia.”

“But I thought we were supposed to stay on the boat here in Russia?  Remember, we don’t have our passports,” I protested.

“Don’t worry, these guys are my friends too. Just show them any kind of ID.”

I was bleary eyed and in somewhat of a daze, otherwise I might have been nervous presenting my expired New York State driver’s license to the Soviet border control guard.  Remarkably, he not only let me in, he smiled and said to me in English, “Thank you.”  He did the same for Tomi when he presented his expired student ID card.

Tomi and I showing off our "CCCP" internal travel documents, hoping this wouldn't be the first day of the rest of our lives.

I did wonder for a moment if I had just begun the first day of my new life. But the thought quickly passed and before we knew it, we were back in Finland with the story of a lifetime. It didn’t seem all that dangerous at the time, presumably because I was young and stupid.

Even though Finland had offered me some unique opportunities, there was one negative that was inescapable. That first “reasonable summer” turned out to be an anomaly.  Finland was in the midst of a heat wave, and was having the warmest summer of the past century.

As soon as I signed on for that permanent position, winter set in quickly.  September was already freezing.  December was even colder and also dark.  In Helsinki in December, the sun peeks over the horizon, moves laterally for a few hours then sets, presumably because it doesn’t like what it sees.  Spring is nice because the days are brighter again, but it’s still freezing.  Finally summer came, but it was a normal Finnish summer, which meant it was chilly.  Then it was winter again.  People joked that Finland only had two seasons: winter and July.  But it wasn’t funny, and after three years of this, the weather took its toll on me.

I was looking forward to finding a new home-base from which to further my travels, one in a warmer climate. When relocating from Finland, “warmer climate” is one of the simplest objectives to achieve.  An opportunity arose to work for a company that had sold us the voice mail systems we deployed in Finland.  The company was based on Long Island, about a half hour from where I grew up. Long Island wasn’t exactly what I had been looking for, as I wanted to continue exploring the world.  There was the allure of that Long Island weather, which compared to Finland made it practically a tropical paradise.  The position was in international marketing, which meant that I’d have plenty of opportunities to continue exploring the globe.  So I packed my bags and headed home.

 

1. In the Beginning

The journey that led me to China started a long time ago. The year was 1988 and I had just graduated from Tufts University with a degree in Electrical Engineering. Many of my classmates thought I should have taken a job with one of the defense contractors along the Route 128 high tech corridor in the Boston area. That’s what they were all doing, but somehow that didn’t appeal to me. Maybe it was because I had spent my junior year abroad that I felt sure the world had more to offer me than a cubicle in some big corporate entity.

One day, a few months before graduation, I was on my way to class. As I entered the lobby of Anderson Hall – the old semi-stately red brick building where most of my engineering classes were held, the answer to the question of what to do next with my life was written out on a poster in bold letters:

Work in Scandinavia!

I had managed to travel considerably both during my junior year abroad and in years prior, but had never made it to any of the Scandinavian countries. This wasn’t due to lack of interest. In fact, I had been keeping a list of places I wanted to visit, and the more I traveled, the more the list grew.  Scandinavia had been on the list ever since I started backpacking my way across Europe from my base as an exchange student in England.  But it wasn’t until my backpacking tour reached the far flung destinations of New Zealand, Australia and a variety of Pacific islands that Scandinavia managed to climb to the pinnacle of my list.  Scandinavia does not have a large population, with the three primary countries of Scandinavia (Sweden, Norway and Denmark) today having fewer people combined than Shanghai, but I bumped into Scandinavians everywhere.  There was that incident in Australia that made my mind up for sure that I needed to visit these people on their own turf.

It was a warm sunny morning and I was staying at a youth hostel in Sydney, the kind where you sleep in a large dormitory type room with as many as 20 beds.  The accommodations weren’t luxurious, but I was a poor student and for $10 a night I wasn’t complaining.  This hostel was unique in that it had a swimming pool, a rare and welcome amenity for a traveling student.

My plan was to take a quick swim, then go out and explore the city. When I got to the pool, there were four people there, three of whom were stunning and blonde and sun-tanning topless on the pool deck. And they were women, I should add, if that wasn’t already apparent from the ‘e’ at the end of blonde. (Blonde is one of very few adjectives in English that conveys gender, but  I’m getting off track by discussing grammar.)  I got to talking to these ladies, and not only were they beautiful, half-naked and my age, but they were also friendly! Where I was from, even fully dressed women were nowhere near this friendly. And they were all from Sweden (at least the three topless ones were, I now have very little recollection of the fourth).

A friend sent me this postcard, which served to confirm my views about Sweden.

That was it! I had to get to Sweden, or at least somewhere in Scandinavia. Like Steve Martin’s character in The Jerk, I had found my special purpose in life.

While not all of the Scandinavians that I bumped into on my travels were as ideal (or as naked) as the sun-tanned blondes in Sydney, nearly all, both male and female, were friendly, intelligent, easy going and good looking.

“You’re doing what?” said Sternberg, one of the guys in my engineering classes. “I’ve got this great offer here from General Dynamics. I’ll be making more than 30K a year.”

That seemed like a lot to me at the time, but it didn’t sway me. The poster in Anderson Hall that day sealed my fate. The defense industry would have to wait.