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