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.