My party line to the UN

June 4th might have been just another day to most people. For me, it marked the Kingdom of Tonga's Emancipation. I didn't know this fact six months ago. Nor that Tonga, a South Pacific archipelago, is one of the world's few remaining constitutional monarchies. I've learned all this and more since March, when the fax number for the United Nations Tonga Mission and my home phone number became the same, but for the area code.

When the first fax beeped into the phone line, I assumed a client had confused my home number with the fax. I hooked up the fax machine and then waited for the sender to redial. I watched what I thought was business correspondence arrive in the laserjet "in basket."

Instead, I found an elegantly penned note inviting the permanent representative to the Kingdom of Tonga to attend a Slovak Republic luncheon. Assuming a clerical person's finger had slipped on the fax dial pad, I immediately called the Slovak Mission and informed them of their mistake.

The next day, more fax beeps screeched into my phone. Again I forced the call to rollover onto the fax. These communications from the Missions of Portugal and Jamaica announced upcoming elections for an International Tribunal. Something was up with my fax.

Over the following week, memos from missions representing countries from all over the world arrived in my New York City apartment. Seeing official correspondence from Japan, Germany, Australia, and Tanzania, I felt like Alice in Wonderland stepping through the looking glass into a world I had always wondered about. I had a behind-the-scenes look at activity taking place in the majestic windowed building that stood overlooking the East River - the home of UNICEF, the Balkan peacekeepers, and the UN Secretary General, Kofi Anan.

An invitation from the representative of the Syrian Arab Republic requested the pleasure of my company for a luncheon at Bybolos; the Croatian Mission invited me to a concert of traditional Lenten Folk Chants from the Island of Hvar.

I was, albeit mistakenly, swept into the current of activity of a world-renowned organization tackling issues of humanitarian affairs and economic development. I fantasized about attending one of the events. What did a Tongan Mission representative wear to a luncheon - batik?

A few days later, I flew south on a week's vacation with my husband and two boys. Upon my return, more than 30 beeps sounded on my answering machine. "This is ridiculous," I thought, and then felt slightly sorry to have missed receiving the most recent correspondence.

I considered calling the Tonga Mission and alerting them to the pile of faxes which lay on my desk. But I considered this mission impossible. My phone number, now undoubtedly registered into the fax speed dials of all 189 Member States of the United Nations, would require years of patience before it was restored fully to its owner.

By mid-April, each flurry of faxes no longer felt like good fodder for dinner-party banter. They were just a plain nuisance. The calls awoke us in the morning, interfered with family meals, and pulled my boys away from homework with an annoying, "beeeep."

Enough was enough. I called information for the phone numbers of the Tonga Mission and learned that their fax was exactly the same as my home phone except for the area code 917 instead of 212. I sighed, thinking of all the people living in New York City suffering a similar fate as they fielded calls for the newly minted 917s, the Big Apple's youngest area code.

When an answering machine greeted my call at the Tongan mission, I left a message.

I expected several weeks to pass before the rate of calls would taper off.

After a month, the beeping continued at an alarming rate. In desperation, I called the Mission again and pleaded with the answering machine for help, all the while wondering if anyone was even there. Several minutes later, a woman with a lilting voice responded. "We are very sorry for the inconvenience. As soon as we received your first call, we alerted everyone," she said. "I am terribly sorry."

I thanked her for trying and said I knew it would take time. She promised that the mission would contact everyone again. I hung up feeling pleased to have finally connected with a person from this remote island which I had come to feel I knew intimately. Still, correcting this mix-up would require an ocean of patience. I cheered myself up by thinking the inconvenience was small compared with the herculean effort required to address world problems.

Six weeks have passed, and, finally, thanks to the mighty Tongans, the beeping has slowed to a trickle. World peace can't be far behind.

Andrea Marcusa is a freelance writer.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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