Finn to a Tee: Ambassador Riita Resch of Finland

Like a brisk and bracing breath of fresh Finnish air, Her Excellency Riitta Resch of Finland has a take-charge, no-nonsense mien which is just as effective at the diplomatic roundtable as it is on the driving range.

Amb. Resch 2nd from right, seated. Photo by Pat Dy.

When asked about her favourite pastimes, the inveterate golfer unabashedly admits to spending most of her time off at golf courses. “I travel with my golf bag, it is my ‘family’,” confesses the ambassador. “I play golf around Manila and that takes all day so I really don’t have to worry about my free time very much. I would love to go to movies much more than I do and attend some cultural events, but I’m a little bit lazy in that respect. Golf is really what I do. It’s my priority number two. The first one is work.”

Passion for her profession is just par for the course for Ambassador Resch. “I really like my job and it makes a tremendous difference,” she shares. “I think if you are interested in the job you have then you will be successful, and I’ve been lucky enough in my postings. I’ve always had something to do that means a lot to me, something that I feel is important. Being abroad and representing your own country particularly as an ambassador is such a highlight. This is my first ambassador’s posting so it is the best so far. We’ll see what happens next.”

Envoy Par Excellence

Ambassador Resch began her career climb in business school where she studied foreign trade and marketing. Back then, she just thought of the Foreign Service as a job opportunity that included languages and travelling. But the years in foreign service have opened up many other things too. She has now been very happy in her profession for the past 25 years. “I really haven’t thought of other options than my present profession. I know that there isn’t anything that I’d like to do more than this and that’s why I’m still here,” she declares. “Is is important to make your choices and then live accordingly. It is a waste of life to think that something else is always better. Enjoy what you have!”

Her affection for her posting is in no small part due to the warm reception she has received. “As an ambassador in this country, we feel greatly appreciated. We have access to everybody and everything,” explains the envoy. “Finland had the presidency of the European Union for 6 months last year and then, in particular, I noticed how easy it is to approach the Filipino authorities, senators, politicians, even the President. And when you invite them they usually come. Otherwise our tenure of four years is very short to have any sort of major accomplishments or tangible results. But we try our best.”

At this juncture, the ambassador has been swinging far but true. “I think that the relationship between our two countries is very good but it’s also very remote,” she ponders. “I don’t think that Finland is very well-known in the Philippines and vice versa. It is one of the basic jobs of ambassadors to make our countries better known in our postings. In the case of Finland in the Philippines everybody seems to know about Nokia cell phones and Armi Kuusela, the Ms. Universe winner who married a Filipino businessman and lived here. They have made my job relatively easier. There are only about 100 Finns living here, and there are less than 1,000 Filipinos, most of them married to Finns, living in Finland.”As a small country we are not as well-known as some of the bigger ones, so we try to do a lot of work through the European Union, which is a union of 27 countries and the European Commission. It gives us a much bigger avenue than what we could have individually.”

Ambassador Resch points out the areas in our relationship that could always improve. “More trade between our countries and more investment and more Finnish companies in the Filipino markets would always be welcome,” she shares. “There are a lot of opportunities in this country. The Filipino market is huge, you can sell almost anything and everything here. We are good at planting forests and in the paper and pulp industries. So those are good possibilities for our companies to invest in. Politically I think that President Arroyo’s visit to Finland last September was very important and really helped improve relations and increase awareness.”

Most of the envoy’s previous experience has been related to international organizations like the United Nations. “I love the atmosphere of international negotiations, where you have several countries working together and trying to have some consensus,” she shares. Her first posting consisted of one year in Paris as a trainee at the embassy and also studying French at Le Sorbonne. Then she went to Geneva where she dealt with refugees, human rights, and humanitarian assistance. “I had a really great job in Geneva. Living in Geneva, in a small and very safe town in the middle of Europe, was also very nice. It was easy and very comfortable there. But then at some point I desperately wanted a posting in New York, the cradle of the United Nations. When I got there it  was a dream come true. I still love it,” gushes the ambassador.

New Delhi was her first Asian posting, affording her perspective on this part of the world. “India was very interesting. It’s so huge and so different. It’s not a typically Asian country,” she muses. “The Philippines is even farther away from home but in very many respects it’s like a Western country. We don’t have major problems of getting used to living and adapting to normal life here.” She still has to get the hang of dealing with Manila’s crowds however. “We have a big country with a small number of people, while you have a big country with a lot of people. So what is still a little bit difficult for me is always being surrounded by people.”

Surpassing Handicaps and Hazards

Regardless of differences and challenges, it has been smooth putting for the envoy so far. “Since I don’t have a family to take with me, making decisions is easy. I’m very quick to move around,” she asserts.

The ambassador posits: “Maybe women bring a little bit more passion to our profession. I am sometimes asked how it works in our embassy because all of us are women. I really don’t understand that question because for us it really doesn’t make any difference. We are gender-blind to the extent that my staff, particularly the Finns, don’t pay any attention to whether I’m a woman or a man. My predecessors have all been men and I think that my local staff may have been a little bit surprised about a female ambassador because they were not used to that. Now they are and we are a great team my small Filipino and Finnish staff. I really owe them a lot ” “Sometimes, even in my own country where there is equality of genders, being a woman in this or almost any other profession means you have to work a little bit harder to prove yourself.  That’s probably something we’re demanding of ourselves, too.” “I would not like to think that women and men bring different things. I think that we are still all individuals and bring what we individually can into the profession.”

Finland has, however, been always in the forefront of gender equality.  Finland was the first country in the world to allow universal and equal suffrage a hundred years ago, and the envoy easily upholds that noble legacy. However, even Finland still has work to do to attain full gender equality.

“Diplomacy might not be for everybody though”, the envoy attests. “If you don’t like travelling abroad, moving from one country to another, this is not the right profession for you. I think that in some respects what you maybe have to sacrifice are long term friendships. Because if you are four years in a country you might not even make friends because you know you’ll have to leave them at some point. But again now that we’re so globalized and it’s so easy to move around and be connected, even that’s not such a problem anymore.”

Ambassador Resch only hopes that at the end of her career and at the end of her life she can say that she has had a good life and that if she has regrets it’s for something that she has done and not for something that she hasn’t done. On the envoy’s pending agenda is to be able to do more travelling to different parts of the Philippines. “I’ve been around a little bit. I have now decided to go to Boracay so I don’t have to answer to people that I haven’t been there yet,” she teases. “I just went for a couple of days to Tawi-Tawi and then I’m going to Vigan. So I’m trying to catch up with my travelling a little.”

As a parting shot, Ambassador Resch would like to thank everyone, Filipinos in particular, for making their expat life so pleasant in the Philippines. “I think it’s a great place to live. There are some obstacles and problems like pollution and overpopulation. And at some point rather sooner than later Filipinos have to do something about them too” she contends “I think that if people would do a little bit more to keep their own environment clean it would help the whole country. Environment is not about beautification but leaving the cleanest possible environment to our children.”

Salamat and Mabuhay. They’re unfortunately the only two Filipino words I know.”

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2007

World Pool Champion Mika Immonen: This Finn has Flipped over the Philippines

Finish pool player Mika Immonen at the Mosconi...

Finish pool player Mika Immonen at the Mosconi Cup 2008 in Malta. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mika Immonen is undoubtedly one of the world’s best pool players. Mika was thrust into the game’s highest ranks when he won the World Pool Championship in Cardiff, Wales in 2001 after a perfect week-long pool-playing streak. He was voted MVP at the 2003 Mosconi Cup in Las Vegas and chosen as the European team captain in 2005. At the first ever Philippines Open in 2003, he came in from behind to beat home-town favorite Efren Reyes and emerge as champion.

His many victories include the 1992 Inaugural EuroTour, 1996 Taipei Peace Cup, 2000 Sudden Death 7-ball championship, 2003 Pro Tour Championship, 2003 National Championship, and the 2004 World All Stars Cup.

As it turns out, Mika’s introduction to the cue and table was kind of accidental. “They opened up a pool room just two blocks from my home,” he relates. “And it was conveniently on the way to school. So on the way back I’d be stuck there. We were going to play ice hockey once but it was an exceptionally cold day so we just went to this new place which was warm and cozy and there were a lot of games and a billiard table. At first I didn’t even play billiards that much, like any youngster I was playing video games at that age. And then as soon as I started playing a little bit, I was really fascinated and got hooked easily. I felt like I had natural talent.”

Mika won his first tournament, a small one in Helsinki, when he turned 16 that same year. Alas, no trophy remains as a memento of that fateful triumph. “The winner got a ham because it was Christmas and there are a lot of tournaments in Finland in December,” Mika explains. “But my family is not into ham that much. We prefer turkey. So I sold it. I made over a hundred US dollars at the time selling this huge ham.”

Mika earliest inkling of the Philippines was while following a game played by pool great Earl Strickland. The legendarily temperamental champion was up against a Filipino and was getting really mad and frustrated, even flinging a few memorable vocal barbs. But Mika didn’t get to actually see Stricklands’ nemeses, Efren Reyes and Francisco Bustamante, in the flesh until 1992 when they played the Challenge Cup tournament in Sweden.

Mika Immonen, 2001 WPA World Nine-ball Champio...

Mika Immonen, 2001 WPA World Nine-ball Champion, July 22, 2001 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mika first visited our country in 2002, the year after he won the World Pool Championship. “I was really pleasantly surprised about everything, by how many people knew me here, the hospitality and the fact that almost everybody speaks English,” he states effusively (for a Finn). “There was literally no language barrier. It was just a nice place to be.”

Thanks to the unifying power of pool, Mika has sort of become an informal goodwill ambassador for our country. “I like that there are so many nice holiday destinations even just a short distance from Manila,” he states. “Like Boracay, Subic Bay, Tagaytay, Baguio. Palawan. I wouldn’t mind having my semi-retirement in the Philippines eventually. It’s my long-term plan. And I can always play pool here.”

Mika can’t seem to get enough of our warm weather, but also more importantly, of our warm reception of him. “The hospitality of the people here is just amazing. It’s really outstanding, I think it’s the best in the world,” he gushes. “Finns have a lot to learn. In restaurants or any service industry I think that Finns should come here first and see what it’s really supposed to be like. Filipinos are proud of their work but still humble. They always seem to want to make the best of the situation, to make you feel comfortable, like you want to come back again. That culture of hospitality really is a big asset of the Philippines.”

Over his many visits, Mika has learned to accept and admire our distinct Filipino quirks and qualities. “Filipinos like to party. They’re kinda laid-back people,” he observes.

“It’s funny this thing that Filipinos do with their eyebrows. In Finland, that is kind of like a flirtatious thing. When a girl does that it sort of means: Hey what’s up? You wanna do something? So I was a little bit confused.” For sure, the Finn’s fervent Filipina fans were all too willing to set him straight on this. But he just takes this all in stride with straightforward Scandinavian stoicism.

“Filipinos are always late,” gripes Mika (after we were 10 minutes late for the interview). “But it’s cool with me. I’m used to it. I almost expect it,” he says reassuringly. He has gotten so familiar with Filipino manners, he’s even started taking a few of them on himself.

“I noticed usually when I stay here for a week or so, I start speaking like a Filipino, I start emulating how my friends talk, the accent. I don’t even notice it. I use the gestures you do here like the eyebrow thing, pointing with lips. I guess I get acclimatized.”

Although Mika may praise us and put up with some of our foibles, there are still a few things he hopes could be improved. “I wish there would be more awareness about the environment,” he states. “Some of the thinking is very short-term. Creating trash and pollution and maybe throwing them in places that otherwise would be very beautiful. There’s a lot of nature here that is really untouched but people are taking some of it for granted. I hope some political power would start focusing on it because that’s part of the richness of the Philippines.”

This declaration reveals Mika’s sincere affection for our country, beyond just being the place from where his respected rivals hail from. “I’ve always dreamed about having a world championship over here. I know it’s good for the country and it’s good for the pool community. If a Filipino does well here it may boost the national pride and confidence. It may trigger some other things. If I don’t win I hope it’s a Filipino.”

“I think this world championship will give a big boost to an already pool-crazy country,” he predicts. “Maybe there would be a wellspring of new talents. A couple of years down the line I can expect a lot of really good players from here. I can already see a very strong next generation.”

When asked what advice he could share with local cue-men, Mika just smiles and shakes his head “They don’t need advice, they’re too good already,” he yields. This is high praise indeed from “the Iceman”, whose steel-cold stare has unnerved many a champion.

“They tell me I look mean on TV,” shrugs Mika. “But I just say that’s the way I play. It’s serious business. Like in any sport I think you can see many characters that are just really intense when they play. They let their guard up. I think I’m a little bit more relaxed in real life.”

“Finns in general are a more quiet people,” he goes on to explain. “They don’t say much. That’s just a fact. Even I know it. I might be in that category. I would like to warn Filipinos that when they meet Finnish people that they shouldn’t be taken aback by this. Small talk is not a part of our culture. It’s just the way things are. I’ve been traveling the last 14 years so experiencing different cultures has affected me in the way that I’m more approachable, or not that Finnish. There’s still a lot of that rooted in me anyway. Sometimes I can’t help it. Sometimes maybe it’s nice to be quiet,”

As a parting shot, Mika extends his gratitude to all those rooting for him, whether Finn or Filipino. “I’d like to thank the Filipinos for all their support. I’m very touched by it. I even have this fan club with a yahoo group. So I’d like to say thanks to them for hanging in there. They have a lot of great players from their own country but I’ve heard them say if a Filipino isn’t going to win the tournament then they hope it was me. So that’s very cool.” Thus speaketh the Iceman.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in What’s On & Expat newspaper, 2006.

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