"Do you have an invitation?"
- Swedish customs Officer.
At the end of 1994 I started working on a project for SAAB. It involved the use of a new communications system called CAN, which was to become a standard system for many manufacturers. In order
to discuss the specification requirements, I had to go to Sweden several times. For some reason, the customs men in Sweden always stopped me when I entered the country, even asking one time if I
had an invitation from SAAB to prove I was supposed to be in the country. SAAB's engineering centre is in a town called Trollhatten, about sixty kilometres from Gothenburg. It is a very
picturesque town that reminded me of Dublin. On our first trip there, there was myself and several managers, as well as people from the planning and sales departments at Head office and our
European Branch. The initial meetings went well, and I was impressed by the politeness of the engineers we worked with, as well as their surprisingly excellent English. We stayed at a hotel in
the middle of the town, right next to a river. It was an intriguing experience to see a cargo vessel pass by the window while eating breakfast. Nearby the hotel was a set of locks, which lowered
the boats down over a waterfall, and a hydro electric power station built to take advantage of the height difference at the waterfall. It was possible to stand right by the lock as the ships were
being raised, and it was weirdly entertaining to watch a full sized cargo freighter appear or disappear in front of your eyes. It was also possible to tour the power station, and one could feel
the ground tremble from the generator turbines. We also saw the railway lines and the crane built specifically to deliver those turbines, and never used for any other purpose. In the other
direction from the hotel was an Irish bar called Butler's which I would frequent on subsequent trips. One night after dinner, during which one of the Japanese managers entertained us with the
porn CDROM he had picked up at a local shop, we were walking home when we came across a hedgehog. One of the Japanese insisted we take it to the nearby woods to save it from getting squashed by a
car so we all walked for about thirty minutes with him carrying the hedgehog in his hands. We didn't mind, it was a mild night and most of us had jetlag and couldn't sleep anyway. But perhaps the
most memorable moment of that first trip to Sweden was at the airport, when I asked at a travel agent to reconfirm my flight home. Behind the counter was an astonishingly beautiful blonde girl,
who so knocked me back that I almost forgot why I was there, and hoped there would be some complication in my ticketing that would necessitate a longer stay at the counter, during which I could
stare at her beauty a few moments more. It is the closest I have ever come to love at first sight.
It was decided that myself and one other engineer would do the software for this model, and I chose to do the bus software because there was so much English documentation for it that I would have to translate anyway, that doing it myself appeared to be less hassle. I would also have to carry on the discussions with the SAAB engineers regarding the operational specifications, but I presumed this would be temporary because Damian was scheduled to move over to Sweden to act as a locally based liaison, and he would then take over the brunt of that work. As it turned out, Damian never went, since he claimed the company misled him about the conditions they offered. The manager who was supposed to set up the deal later told me that Damian had been making ridiculous demands, such as wanting to live in Denmark and commute, so they decided not to use him. Damian was led to believe that he would be going, and made some preparations such as selling his car, so he was pretty pissed off when the deal fell through. He later quit Pioneer, probably still disillusioned by this affair.
This meant that I was stuck handling all the specifications from SAAB, which meant receiving several faxes a day from them and sending responses after chasing around to get answers out of people. I was only able to develop the bus software in my spare time, and this was also held up by the fact that we had chosen an IC for the bus communications that was still under development, and didn't actually work! SAAB kept pressuring us to provide a sample to show that we could implement this bus system, and I was stuck with an IC that was not doing what it was supposed to. In the end we had to call in the makers of the IC, to help me figure out what was wrong. It turned out that I was initialising the chip wrongly, which made its behaviour unstable. The chip used a complicated addressing system to access internal registers, and if you did this wrong it performed almost exactly as if there was a faulty connection, which is what I thought it was for a long time. With the help of the makers, we got it working enough to prepare a sample. I was at work one Saturday, putting the finishing touches to the software for the sample, the day before I was supposed to fly over to Sweden with it, and just when I had got it to a level sufficient for the sample, with all the must-have functions implemented, I decided to back up the source files. Somehow I managed to delete the whole directory by mistake, and sat there in shock until my supervisor pointed out that we still had the program file loaded in the simulator, and could use that for the sample, and I could redo the software when I came back. As the project went on, we still had a lot of problems with the IC, since there was one part of the specification that the makers had implemented wrongly, but would not admit to. This meant that the SAAB engineers could not mount the radio in the test vehicles, since it might interfere with other communications and cause a crash. As a result, the people who were supposed to be evaluating the radio didn't get to see it until very late in the program, more and more faxes came, longer and longer. The local liaison engineer who was sent instead of Damian was the manager who had failed to get him to go, and he knew nothing about software. When they finally did get an engineer who knew software, his English was so bad that the SAAB engineers preferred to speak to me directly. Every day I would dread the sound of the phone around five o' clock, because it was probably the SAAB engineers trying to push me for answers. For most of that year I worked from nine in the morning till ten at night, and about two or three Saturdays a month. My overtime was above the legally allowed limits, and that didn't include the work I brought home. I started to think about quitting, particularly after the manager in Sweden had sent a fax to my boss belittling my efforts and blaming me for all the delays in the project, which left me fuming and swearing to leave the company if they valued me so little. I have an entry in my diary from the time saying "quit this piece of shit company", which was obviously written late one night when my frustration was at its peak.
During 1995, Pioneer carried out a restructuring which involved a call for some 700 voluntary redundancies in response to the largest losses it had ever seen. Had this not happened immediately before my visa expired, I quite possibly might have taken them up on the offer. But the lack of time I would have had to find new employment meant that I would have to temporarily leave Japan, which would have used up much of the severance package they were offering. I let the offer pass, but did start looking at job offers. Only one, in Yokohama, had any real promise to it.
All those late nights meant that eating my dinner at Simple Simon became a daily event, and a few beers after work helped to relieve the stress that was building up and keep me sane. My friendship with the owner grew very strong over that year, and I was a regular companion to him for his after-closing drink. Every night, once business began to slow down after he had called last orders, he would come outside the counter and sit and talk with the regulars, often sharing some "sake" he had received as a present or a leftover bottle of whiskey. Or we would sit in silence watching a music video or a movie. The bar became a second home to me, and I count many of its customers among my friends. In later years I would look back on this place and the friends I made there as the reason I did not give up and leave Pioneer. When I mentioned that my work schedule meant that I could no longer work out at the company gym, the owner arranged for me to join his gym at no cost. Many of the gym's members also frequented the bar, so my circle of friends grew quickly. Years later, I would become the official photographer for the gym's swim team.
One friend I met there was a girl called Riko. She was sitting alone in the corner, and I was the only other customer there. She came over to talk to me, and it turned out she used to work at the bar years before. After the owner shut up for the night, she gave us both a lift home. But a while after she dropped me off, the phone rang. It was her. She had dropped the owner off at his home, and was now wondering if she could come back. I said yes, and she arrived a while later with some beer and snacks. We sat up talking and kissing till early morning. I continued to see her for a couple of months, but she didn't want to get serious because of some trouble with a previous foreign boyfriend.
Around this time I was getting more seriously interested in photography, using a camera borrowed from Alex's friend Pierre, who had left it behind when he went home. When I went to Alex's wedding in England in the spring of 1995, I decided to pay him for it, and have been using it ever since. That trip was in part a business trip, since I went to Sweden as well, and started a trend of going home at times other than Christmas that would continue for several years. The wedding was held in the middle of England, in a tiny little church on the top of a hill. The fact that it was on April First had me thinking it was an elaborate prank, and when we got to the indicated location we would just find a sheep with "April Fool!" written on it. Fortunately it was a real church, and a quite quaint one at that.
Also that spring, the Aum ShinriKyo cult released poisonous gas on the Tokyo Subway system, killing a dozen people and poisoning thousand more. I could have been caught up in that myself, had I decided to stay out all night in Roppongi the night before, as myself and Eamon were in there for weekend of celebrations marking St. Patrick's Day. We met the Irish ambassador in the Hard Rock Cafe, and one of his guests, a jockey trainer, was taken to hospital after being on one of the trains that was attacked. A friend of Riko's was also on one of the trains, and was very disappointed that her favourite coat had to be destroyed along with all her other possessions on the day.
Other events of this year include my only ever attempt at long distance running, a ten kilometre road race, which I finished only after stopping to throw up within sight of the finish line, and another attempt at the Norikura bike race, where I shaved about ten minutes off my time, and got interviewed by local television for my trouble. OJ Simpson was acquitted of murdering his wife, an event which merited a newsflash even in Japan. And my next door neighbours had a long, loud argument at three in the morning, which the husband made up for with a large tray of takeout sushi the following evening. (I happened to be going out when he came home carrying it, and he gave me a sheepish hello.) It appears they made up, because after that I often heard their sexual encounters as well. I finally finished the SAAB project, and started some research on the iLink system, which was an enjoyable experience but never came to anything.
My father retired at the end of 1995, and had a farewell party in February of 1996. He sent me an invitation, but I couldn't go, so I asked Eamon to represent me as he had just moved back to Ireland. My father started doing lots of DIY work around the house, and eating far too much. He loved Chinese food, and would always take the leftovers others had left behind. His weight ballooned, and in the later part of 1996 my mother phoned me one night to tell me that Dad had suffered a "mild" heart attack. Apparently he had been feeling tired and short of breath for a while, and he went to see the doctor about it, who took one look at him and told him to get himself to a hospital for a thorough check-up. He drove himself to a local hospital, and the doctor followed in her own car after she realised that letting him drive might not have been a good idea. After an examination at the hospital he was ordered to check in for observation, and later that night he had his attack. Fortunately it was not a strong attack, and he was allowed home after a couple of weeks. He had to cut a lot of fatty foods out of his diet, but other than that he was not affected much. He still takes an array of pills to keep his blood flowing, but other wise life is normal. He finished off the house repairs at a more leisurely pace, and when he sent over photos of the finished work, there was one shot in which he was reflected in a mirror, and I wondered who it was, since he was much thinner than I had ever seen him. When I next travelled home to Ireland, he told me the whole story over a pint, and he was so matter of fact about his own brush with death that it reassured me and scared me all at once.
That experience weighed heavily on my mind as I watched another overweight, old gentleman giving it all he had at the Blue Note Club in Tokyo. The owner of Simple Simon had offered me the opportunity to go see B.B. King play live there, so myself and another friend, also called Anthony, went into Tokyo in the early morning to be first in line for seats. Unlike other venues where people line up for days to get first place in the queue, the Blue Note had a system where seat assignments were given out starting at 8AM on the day of the show. We were there at about 7:30, and no one else was in sight. We took turns to go to a nearby public toilet, and by the time Anthony got back, the doors had opened and one young man had gone in ahead of us. As I stood there watching the woman inside arrange her things at the reception desk, I waited, assuming that she would come and unlock the door. As I did so, this young man walked in and asked if there were any cancellations. The door had not actually been locked. He was told no, and given a docket. I burst in and demanded to be given first place in the queue as I had been waiting longer, and the woman asked me if I had a reservation. I said I had bought a ticket previously but was here to reserve a seat, and she gave me a seating docket with number 1 on it. (The other man was first in line for cancelled tickets. We would be first in line for seating.) When Anthony came back from the toilet, I showed him the ticket, and he smiled at me, held his finger and thumb about an inch apart in front of my face and said gleefully; "We're gonna be this fuckin' close to B.B. King!"
This put us in a party mood for the day, and we searched for any place that would sell us alcohol that early in the morning to celebrate our success. We went to record shops to find CDs specifically to be signed by the man himself. When Anthony showed me the ballpoint pen he was going to use to get the autograph, and expressed concern that it would perform correctly, I took it out of his hand, tested it on a nearby phone book, and promptly threw it away, admonishing him that "That is not a pen you give to B.B. King to sign an autograph!" We then went to buy a better pen, specifically for the purpose. Later in the day, we joined up with Shimano, the owner of Simple Simon and his wife, and walked like VIPs to the front of the queue. As the door opened, we walked briskly but dignified to the middle table right in front of the stage. As the show began, B.B. King came out and sat right in front of us, close enough to touch. After the third song, B.B. reached down to Shimano and held out his hand. Shimano didn't know what was going on, and stared at him blankly. B.B. then turned to Anthony, who took the guitar pick out of his hand. Later on in the show when he stepped off the stage to walk around the crowd, he leaned on my shoulder to do so, and then shook my hand. All in all it was a great show, and we were still on a high when we got to the bar afterwards, as Anthony went around the room showing off his signed CD and other souvenirs to anyone who would listen.
Another friend I had met at Simple Simon was a girl called Mina, who spoke a little English because her mother had insisted she learn, and had sent her on a home stay in America. One interesting story she told me was of one of her Japanese friends on the same home stay scheme, who at a piano recital had flubbed her opening chord, and exclaimed "Dame! in front of the entire audience. Since this audience, which consisted mostly of conservative religious southern-state Americans, misheard her exclamation as "Dammit!", a phrase of which they did not approve, she was ordered to go back to Japan the next day in disgrace, and did not even understand the reason why until her friends joined her after the scheme was over. I thought it a sad result to a misinterpretation of one word, and I often recall it and refer to it when confronted with situations where misunderstandings lead to hot-headedness. This example of overreaction based on misunderstanding has helped me to placate others who are on the verge of making similar mistakes. ("DAME is a Japanese word which means "No good", and is commonly used to castigate young children, so there is no nuance of profanity attached to it. That American audience, I can only presume, heard what they wanted to hear, and did not consider the possibility that they had heard wrongly.)
In the winter of 1996, I succumbed to the pressures of trendy technology and purchased a mobile phone. I had to wait until I got my visa renewed though, because telephone companies in Japan will not provide service to foreigners unless they have three months left on their visa. Apparently some foreigners were signing up for phones, and then leaving without paying a full year's fee, which is what the phone companies base their profits on.
If you dropped in by accident, the story starts here;
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