EXPAT LIFE: TELEPHONE TRIALS

by missfootloose on October 10, 2009 · 20 comments

in Armenia, Culture and Customs, Expat life

Have you, as an expat or a traveler, ever struggled with using the telephone in foreign lands? I have. While my mate and I lived in Armenia, our phone number was very popular among Armenians unknown to us. I don’t know why, but many people seemed to be in possession of it. Strangers called us all the time, but they were not happy when we answered. They didn’t want some peppy foreigner on the line. They wanted somebody else.

These mystery callers often labored under the conviction that our number belonged to somebody they knew and we should not be answering it. They were convinced they had correctly dialed the right number, but we were the wrong people to answer it. They knew this. A number of them would keep trying and trying and still it was not Annahit or Armen answering the phone. I wondered why the possibility did not occur to them that they simply had the wrong number – printed with a typo, copied wrong, heard wrong – just wrong. Here’s a story of one such an incident.

Photo by barkertrax / CC BY-ND Telephone wires.  I would swear this phone was taken from our living room window in Yerevan, but it was not.

DON’T CONFUSE ME WITH THE FACTS, I’M ARMENIAN.

I’m having a creative meditative slumber when the phone rings. I’m not happy to have my inspiration shredded like this (I’m a writer and creative napping is part of the job), but I crawl out from under the blanket on the sofa and pick up the phone. I offer my usual cheery hello, because that’s just how I answer the phone. Outside it’s snowing. It’s our fourth winter in Armenia.

“Ahllo?” comes a deep, morose voice. It’s a stranger, I realize. A wrong number.

“Hello,” I sing, in English, just so he’ll get the message I’m a foreigner. And he does: He slams down the phone.

I go to the kitchen and put water on for tea. My creative nap spoiled, I might as well have tea and paint my nails. We’re going out tonight and I’m trying for a bit of glamor.

The phone rings again. I am expecting this. It usually takes the caller a minute or so to recover from the shock of my chirpy hello before giving it another try.

We have no answering machine and no caller id, which means that you never really know who’s on the other end unless you pick up the receiver. Since I am an optimistic person and hope springs eternal, I cannot NOT answer the phone when it rings. After all, it could be the news that my latest Harlequin romance novel has made the New York Times Best Seller List, or a long lost mystery relative has bequeathed me a beach house on the Italian Riviera. So I answer, chanting my perky English greeting.

“Ahllo,” the same caller says again, his voice dark and funereal. This is how most Armenians answer the phone, sounding as if they speak from the grave.

“Who would you like to speak to?” I say, speaking in English to make my point once again that I am not Annahit or Ruzan or Davit or whomever it is he thinks I should be.

“Ahllo! Ahlloh!” he honks in my ear.

“I’m sorry, you have the wrong number,” I say nicely.

“Ahllo! Ahlloh!”

“I’m sorry, I don’t speak Armenian. I don’t speak Russian. I am ignorant but you have the wrong number.”

“Ahllo! Ahllo!”

I put down the phone.

Yes, I’ve learned the Armenian phrase for you have the wrong number – skhalek zangel – but apparently I speak this with such stunning fluency that callers are convinced I’m putting them on and really I am Annahit and a barrage of Armenian will come rolling into my ear. I will answer again in English, and unbelievable as it may seem, a number of callers will even then not give up. My caller today is one of them.

By the time I have made my tea and arranged my nail needs on the table in front of me, the man has called three times. The phone rings and it’s him again. He asks me for my number. I understand that much Armenian and I know numbers. I decide to play along and give him our number in Armenian, since he very obviously already has it. Much confusion, a waterfall of Armenian. Mie rope, I hear, which means just a minute. See, I’m not a total illiterate.

I wait a minute until he rustles up somebody who speaks English, or I presume that’s what’s happening. A morose female voice offers me ahllo from a very deep grave. I gave her my English hello in my perkiest Goldie Hawn voice.

“Whot is yoor name?” she demands in a Soviet commandant tone.

Go take a hike, is what I want to say, but contain myself. “Who do you want to speak to?” I say instead, very politely, because that’s how I was brought up.

“Whot is yoor number?” she demands in a voice clearly lacking in warmth and the milk of human kindness.

I give her the number – in English and then Armenian.

“This is not true,” she declares.

I find this interesting information. “Okay,” I say, not being a confrontational type gal.

“It is not true!”

“I am sorry to hear that.”

“This is not yoor number!” Her voice is full of furious accusation. Clearly she’s not a Miss Honey’s Charm School graduate.

“I’ve had this number for years,” I inform her. The conversation is scintillating and I’m hanging on to see where this is going.

“This is not yoor number!”

“Okay.” Whatever you want, lady.

“Where yoo get this number?”

I’m beginning to feel like a criminal being interrogated by the secret phone police. “The phone company,” I tell her. Where do all numbers come from? The phone was in the house when we moved in. Maybe the landlady stole it or bought it, or who knows. Once a Soviet republic, this is a country of many possibilities.

“This is not a true number!” she snarls.

I don’t know what Miss Congeniality expects of me. “Thank you for telling me,” I say politely and hang up.

She does not call back, but I’m glad she doesn’t have my name, my address . . .

I drink my tea and paint my nails.

*


>

Vintage telephones from Soviet Armenia found at the Vernissage, a fabulously fun flea market in Yerevan, the capital.
Photo ©
Keegam Shamlian Thank you, Keegam!

*

A few nights later the husband and I are watching television and the phone rings.

“I’ll get it,” I say and pick up the receiver in the hallway. Maybe it’s the New York Times. It could happen.

“Hello,” I say sunnily.

There is a silence. “Ahllo?” A female voice, hesitant. A wrong number.

“Who would you like to speak to?” I ask.

Another silence. I am prepared for the inevitable crashing of the receiver on the other end.

“Knerek,” says the voice politely. “Skhalem zangel.”

“Okay,” I say, too flabbergasted to say it in Armenian.

“Who was that?” my man asks.

“I don’t know. A wrong number.”

He looks at me, eyebrows raised. “What’s the matter?”

“Nothing.” I shake my head, dazed a little. “She said, ‘Excuse me. I dialed wrong.'”

* * *

Please hit that comment button and offer up your telephone debacles! Entertain me with your tales — embarrassing, mysterious, hilarious, dumb and dumber, I love them all.

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Typ0 October 10, 2009 at 10:43 am

We get a lot of wrong numbers here and i want to tell the people, “You’re looking for someone who speaks Arabic. I do not. Ergo i am not the person you called to speak with. Go away!” The worst is teh multiple wrong numbers/thick skulls in the middle of the night.

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The pale observer October 10, 2009 at 4:20 pm

We get wrong number calls all the time in Ghana… the frustrating thing is that after the ten hello, hello, hellos back and forth, and confirming they have the wrong number as they blurt something out in Twi… they call back – again and again… Until I just give up and answer, leaving the phone on the table as the person goes on and on… sigh…

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Judy October 10, 2009 at 4:53 pm

Ha, ha, this reminds me of many similar calls I received while living in Azerbaijan. Getting stuck in endless battle of “Ahllo” and “Hello”, with neither of us willing to surrender by saying something useful, lol! I also noticed nobody ever said goodbye at the end of a phone call. They’d just hang up when they’d finished speaking. Do you also get phone calls from kids who want to practise their English? I had one youngster who called me regularly claiming to be Michael Jackson! Happy days.:)

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Mara October 11, 2009 at 12:49 pm

First of all I love the phone without any numbers on it.
I don’t really have a really funny story about me using a phone, but when I was holidaying in Italy in the middle of the nineties, I was sitting minding my own business in a lovely train carriage. There were five other people in the carriage and all of a sudden a mobile phone rang out. I had only ever seen one mobile phone and I was amazed by the result of that one phone ringing: everybody started rifling through bags and pockets to find the phone! It was too funny…

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Middle Aged Woman Blogging October 11, 2009 at 5:33 pm

Thank God for caller ID!! Most of those perverted phone calls with the heavy breathing went by the wayside. (I just watched KLUTE for the umpteenth time) Love these photos. The cemetery is really interesting. I always find it fascinating how other cultures honor their dead.

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Mary Witzl October 11, 2009 at 5:56 pm

We had almost the exact same thing happen in Scotland, of all places, and although the caller was ostensibly speaking English, he was 1) very Glaswegian and 2) very drunk, and absolutely convinced that I was the one with the problem. I figured out how to handle it eventually, and it was VERY effective. Great way to use all the religious tracts we kept getting, too!

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Marja October 12, 2009 at 6:05 am

Je kunt het mooi vertellen. Hier hebben we gelukkig weining problemen Alleen veel telefoon marketing in NZ Dan komt het weleens uit dat ik nederlands ben en doe ik net of ik het niet goed versta Groetjes

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Aledys Ver October 12, 2009 at 7:40 pm

Great story, very well done 😉

As a foreigner living in the Netherlands I used to dread those telemarketing phonecalls. I realised that if I answered in Dutch, I somehow seemed to give the impression that I was fluent in the language and therefore, I’d encourage “een lang verhaal” to which I’d not know what to respond 🙂 Therefore, I decided to answer in English, and then reply (to cut it short) “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Dutch.” This would only prompt the person to immmediately swith to English, because of course, in Holland EVERYONE speaks good English! I figured then that I could start answering in Spanish, and apologise in the same language, which basically produced the same effect: the Dutch person calling would also speak Spanish, of course!!!

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Elizabeth Bradley October 12, 2009 at 10:06 pm

When we moved into our other house four years ago we immediately began to get calls for Ruben Martinez. I mean many, many calls. The Pharmacy wanted him to come pick up his meds, old girlfriends, bill collectors, the shoe repair shop. The calls went on until we moved. I often wondered if Ruben died. Why didn’t he go pick up his meds, or his shoes? His long lost cousin had no idea where he was. I still wonder.

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♥ Braja October 12, 2009 at 11:47 pm

Same thing happens in India, though I find myself asking you the same thing as I ask my husband: why do you bother even speaking?!! :)) I just say “wrong number” in heavy accent and hang up. If the phones rings again, I ignore it, then it stops. They get it.

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Maya October 13, 2009 at 7:02 am

I kind of feel out of the loop since our phone here in Australia never rings (I only talk to friends and family via skype). When we lived in Spain I used to answer in English, even though I speak fluent Spanish, so I wouldn’t have to deal with telemarketers–I used to get a lot of hang ups!
Your picture of all the phones reminded me of how many years ago I rented a room from a girl in Granada who used to have a lock on the phone so that we wouldn’t make any phone calls, but at least we could still receive them.

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LadyFi October 14, 2009 at 6:52 am

Wow.. love that vintage Zen phone with no numbers or even a dial on it! Wonder how that works?

When I lived in Barcelona, the people before me were obviously, how shall I put it?, in the sex business. So I got lots of calls from their clients who wanted to come a-visiting… Had to change the number!

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Lauri October 14, 2009 at 5:53 pm

We have a good phone system in Botswana. I just wanted to say I love the picture of the old phones. I miss dialing phones. I loved the noise. We we just too lazy to dial?

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Miss Footloose October 15, 2009 at 3:08 am

Thank you so much for your stories. I appreciate them all!

@ Yes, that phone without numbers is a hoot! The Vernissage flea market in Yerevan has wonderful stuff!

@ The cemetery picture shows graves and tombstones from the Middle Ages and older.

@ I’ve been known to start speaking in Dutch to a persistent caller. For another one I just put the receiver down next to the phone and walked away.

@ I considered getting a whistle and really give it to the caller, but never did.

@ Aledys Ver, mooi verhaal!

A friend in Armenia kept getting calls from someone who did not want to believe she was NOT a taxi service and kept making calls after being told in three languages she had the wrong number. My dh suggested my friend tell the woman, okay, the taxi will be there in ten minutes. Don’t know if she ever did.

Now I’m going to mess with Photoshop and you’ll see the result in my next post 😉

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Anna October 15, 2009 at 7:04 am

Ha, I always knew Armen and Anahit are your favorit Armenian names.
Unfortunately in Armenia we are not used to be nice to someone you do not know… And also, you don’t have to be a foreigner to feel that – once I called a classmate and got her grandmother on the phone. Me: – Hello, could I speak to Ani, please?. Her: – Who is it? Me: – I am Anna, we studied together in University, we wanted to get out some day. Her: – where did you get her number? Me, puzzled: -She gave it to me… Her: – She is not home. And she hungs up on me.

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Expat mum October 15, 2009 at 3:13 pm

Being brought up to be the polite Brit that I am, the only problem I have with wrong numbers here in the States is that many people just slam the phone down on you, as if it’s your fault that they dialled the wrong number! Cheek!

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Jungle Mom October 20, 2009 at 1:15 pm

My husband flew to a Pemon Indian village and ended up stranded without any radio to call for a plane. Each day he would walk out to the air srtip and use a hand mirror to try and signal the mining planes that occasionally (once every day.. or two) flew over. The Pemons had pity on him and brought him what they referred to as ‘a bigger radio’. It was a larger mirror!

Eventually, a pilot did land and offered to fly him back to town. The pilot was on his way to a mining town but left my husband to wait for him in Canaima, at the bottom of the highest water fall in the world! Angel Falls.

This is now a resort tourist area and he wandered around in his jungle missionary attire and actually discovered a satellite phone booth! So he called me.

I was in town and at that time there was still no land line phone service. We did have an ancient cell phone which my husband had attached a double size battery to. However, the only place to get a signal was by climbing up on a ladder, under a palm tree in our back yard. Very interesting in rainy season!

Since I was anxious for my husband’s well being, I left the phone up on the ladder to catch any call! It rang and he tells me he is calling from Angel Falls.He is in the middle of the jungle using a high tech satellite phone!

I am in a town, civilization! I am climbing up a ladder, holding a cell phone the size of a brick, which weighed three lbs., perching under an umbrella, wearing a rain coat praying not to get struck by lightning!

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Miss Footloose October 21, 2009 at 1:22 pm

@ Anna-jan! How cool to find you here. Thanks for the story! I’m wondering if not-being-friendly-to-people-you-don’t-know is a leftover from Soviet times: You never knew who was gonna tell on you!

@ Expat Mum: Rude people the world over, I guess!

@ Jungle Mom: What a fabulous story! I can just see it in my mind. Do you have a photo of you standing there on a pole hiding under an unbrella? It would make a great post story! Thank you for entertaining me!

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Judith van Praag March 30, 2010 at 4:31 pm

As always, your post was most entertaining. At the moment you’re blog is my favorite hang-out for coffee klatsch (or to be honest this a.m. it was morning tea).

A friend and I have had double lines crossed, where a sudden second conversation between two strangers who insist we shouldn’t be listening in on them, while we felt they interrupted our conversation. I’d say to my friend, let’s stay on the line and find out what they are talking about. Then the others would get furious. But the funny thing was that after we’d hung up and tried again, we heard the same people again. And they were getting angrier and angrier, while we laughed and laughed.

We’ve also had a phone number that was very similar to the one credit card holders need to call to activate a new card. The first times it happened I was really puzzled by hearing someone telling me a number without any further introduction. The first time I heard: “I want to activate my account.” I said, “What account?”After which the other would hang up without saying something. We had to move to an other area to be relieved of that nuisance.

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