Foreign Reportage

London! Bagdad! Cairo! Singapore! At all those places of the world where danger and intrigue walk hand in hand, there you will find Steve Mitchell on another….dangerous assignment!

So began the heart-pounding lead into “Dangerous Assignment,” the old 1930s radio serial about the adventures of sometime special agent/foreign correspondent Steve Mitchell.

Although I can’t say that any of the diverse foreign based assignments or on-the-spot commissions I have received and undertaken over the years were necessarily dangerous, or ought to have been—with the notable exception of the time I took the cross-Baltic ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn en route to what was supposed to be a fun assignment for “The New York Times” to write about nightlife in the then booming (if still somewhat dicey) post-independent Estonian capital, and wound up inadvertently angering two blotto Russian mafioso by using my press credentials to cut in line in front of them and wound up having to be escorted off the boat by a squadron of tough Estonian crewmen after said gangsters threatened my life—I’ve certainly had my share of excitement as a roving freelancer.

Amongst other things, I have covered an airliner hijacking—the 1977 hijacking of an Aeroflot jet by two desperate Stockholm-bound émigrés in Helsinki (see “My Finland,” the section about my forthcoming memoir about my relationship with the world’s northernmost country for more, under BOOKS). I’ve covered a major maritime disaster—the 1994 sinking of the cruise ship “Estonia” in the Gulf of Finland, when I teamed up with then “Times” Berlin bureau chief Stephen Kinzer to cover that horrible tragedy, in Helsinki and Turku.

I’ve interviewed, hung out with, supped with, tippled and gotten smashed with my share of British and Nordic Cabinet ministers, parliamentarians, generals, movie directors, actors, designers, and It Girls (see JOURNALISM/Style) in settings that ranged from the august to the outré. And, talking about intrigue, I’ve even been asked to spy, or at least go on a palpably dangerous (if lucrative) assignment behind the Iron Curtain (see “My Finland).

Oh yes, I’m forgetting about the time I helped Dutch police take down a major drug smuggling ring when I was just starting off as a self-styled foreign correspondent in The Hague on my first postgraduate trip there all the way back in 1975 when I answered a letter from one Dr. Shouhayeb who had responded to a situations wanted ad I had placed in the local paper for a have-pen-will-travel type, and wound up being sized up for a very different sort of position.

Yes, I suppose you could say I’ve had my share of action in foreign ports. I also know how to say thank you in twenty languages: very helpful, particularly at customs points. And I never, ever, jump a line anymore.

***

OF COURSE, firing off on the scene dispatches about airline hijackings and hanging out with European defense ministers and film stars, et al. is good fun, but what this roving foreign correspondent really likes to do when he has a few months on his hands, a big enough word count, and a simpatico editor is to go deep and take the cameras back, way back, and draw a composite word picture of an entire country, especially one that is undergoing or has recently undergone a significant social, cultural, and/or political change.

I’ve only had the time—and the temerity—to take on such a daunting assignment several times in my career, and the result has probably been my best work as a journalist.

First, all the way back in 1976, after I had returned from my first extensive sojourn in Northern Europe, I worked up—on spec—a 4,000 word letter from the Netherlands, where I had recently spent several months hanging out at my grandparents’ old apartment in The Hague, drinking jonge genever and taking notes on that society in transition; originally intended for The New Yorker, I instead decided, on a lark, to submit my much-labored on piece to The New York Times Magazine, back in the days when the Times Magazine was the magazine of record. As best as I could tell, the magazine had not run a major report from Holland in several decades.

As it happened, there was just enough happening in Nederland—including, amongst other things, a bribery scandal involving Prince Bernhard, the royal consort, a fatal train hijacking by South Moluccan militants, and heightened racial tensions as a result of the sudden influx to metropolitan Holland of several hundred thousand Surinamese emigrants anxious to return to the motherland after that former Dutch colony was granted its independence; all things not normally associated with happy, tolerant, peaceable Holland—to warrant the Magazine running such an in-depth report-analysis.

My point? That when all of these un-gezellig developments were taken together, one could say that Holland, i.e., modern, postwar Holland had lost its innocence (or, more precisely, lost it again). The editors agreed. To my surprise and delight—and especially that of my still fluent Dutch speaking mother—the piece was published in the Times Magazine one bright shiny Sunday in August, 1976. That was neat.

So were the calls and letters of praise I received from Dutch readers, surprised and thrilled that the paper of record had saw fit to publish such a long piece about their oft-misunderstood homeland, even if most of what I had written had been of a downbeat nature; and most gratifyingly, that I had gotten it right. I was all of 25. That was certainly a milestone.

Thirty five years later, my little miniature of the Netherlands still holds up pretty well, I think.

What did it lead to? Not much in the short term. Well…I was the guest of honor at a ritzy party at the elegant Netherlands Club in Rockefeller Center, where I wound up having that one cocktail too many, whence I suddenly did a quick stage left via the emergency exit—so quick that no one, including my befuddled date, had any idea where I went—only to upchuck in the stairwell and pass out, not to awaken until 5 A.M. the next morning, whereupon, finding the door to the club barred, I had no choice but to stumble down the fourteen flights of stairs, before catapulting out into the lobby, nearly causing the security guard on duty to have a heart attack. That was certainly a moment, too.

What else? Well…I was asked to write the end of the year report for the 1977 Encyclopedia Americana for The Netherlands. That was kind of neat. I think I got sixty bucks for that, in case you’re interested. “And could you do Luxembourg too?” the editor of the Annual asked me. After all, if I was such an expert on Holland I was bound to know something about Holland’s little neighbor to the south.

Actually, I didn’t. But why not? Whereupon I hastily made an effort to bone up on the latest Luxemburgish developments. Actually there was more happening in the Grand Duchy than I expected, including a spy scandal involving the Soviet embassy. And did you know that Luxemburg, a full-fledged member of NATO, has (or at least had) a 550 man army, including a 100 man band? Well, you do now. (For more see attached…)

Oh yes, for the record, I got thirty dollars for that one. Anyway, my sub-career as an expert on Northen European affairs was off and running.

And so it went.

***

NEARLY twenty years and a myriad dispatches from Northern Europe later, the opportunity to assay another country profile arose when the august Wilson Quarterly asked me to essay a profile of Sweden, a country I had come to know well and was interested in knowing even better; and one which as a result of a not dissimilar combination of social, cultural, and political events and trends, was undergoing the same kind of collective re-examination and reappraisal, in this case of the so-called “Swedish model” and its corollary, Swedish exceptionalism.

“A crisis of confidence,” Jan Guillou, the noted Swedish mystery writer, one of the dozens of Swedes from various walks of life I interviewed during my memorable sojourn in Sverige, which fortunately happened to coincide with the magical Swedish sommar. “You must understand,” Guillou expostulated. “We’re not used to being a second-rate nation. My God, we can’t even make decent tennis players anymore!”

My loving, if critical dissertation on Sweden, “Sweden: After the Fall,” for which I travelled the length and breadth of the country, including an extraordinary trip by wooden steamship across the venerable Gota Canal, before settling in in my own flat in the midst of the Stockholm archipelago (heaven!), was published the following spring to considerable acclaim. At 11, 500 words, it was, by far, the longest piece I had ever written. It also was the longest article the WQ ever ran.

Fifteen years later, I think it still holds up pretty well.

***

Several years later, I undertook another challenging foreign reportage assignment, when I decided to write my first diptych—twin portrait—of Finland and Estonia, two countries with a shared linguistic and cultural background which, after having been separated for fifty years by the invisible Iron Curtain running down the midst of the Gulf of Finland, were now experiencing a new era of cooperation and rapprochement, an extraordinary assignment which included a mind-boggling visit to Paldiski, the post-apocalyptic former base of the Soviet Baltic nuclear fleet, which the Finns were helping their Estonian “cousins” to clean up.

That lengthy dispatch, which was published in the Scandinavian American Review, is also archived here.

This summer I will be taking notes for my next long overdue “letter from Finland,” wherein I look at some of the key recent political and cultural developments that have taken place in the world’s northernmost country, where I have been reporting from, off and on ever since my first visit to Suomi way back in the dark days of “Finlandization.”

Now it seems that the Finns, who had grown increasingly accustomed to their new role as “the Oregon of Europe” (as my friend, the Finnish ad magnate Ami Hasan puts it), are undergoing one of their periodic identity crises—a crisis, which unsurprisingly, also coincides with the most interesting and fructile period in Finnish design and culture since the early 1990s.

Or, in other words, the last time the country experienced an “identity crisis”—which, interestingly, also happens to coincide with Finland’s fascinating campaign to “rebrand” itself.

Watch this space for more.

In the meantime, enjoy! And remember, in all those places where danger and intrigue walk hand in hand, you’ll find Gordon Sander on another dangerous assignment!