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.
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.