In a world connected by cell phones, social media and the internet, it’s easy to forget some 40 odd years ago–and some were exceptionally odd–when making a call from Lima, Peru to anywhere in the USA was an all-day experience.
Given the exorbitant cost of the long distance telephone calls it also was a very, very occasional event. The thin aerogramme that went by post was good enough for me.
Since there was no such thing as direct dial, to make a telephone call from abroad you began by dialing -0- on a rotary telephone and waiting. When the female operator answered–and it always was a female–you gave her the country, area code and telephone number to be called. She took the information and said she’d call you when your telephone call was put through. Like so many things you had to wait your turn in a queue up behind other international calls.
The wait might be minutes, but more commonly took hours. Anecdotal tales among expatriates spoke of calls that took days to be put through. And woe to the caller who didn’t answer the landline telephone when the operator called back to put their call through, for a missed turn required you begin the whole procedure from the start yet again.
Given the wait and need to stay near the landline phone (no cordless phones in the early 1970s), a bevy of snacks and a strong bladder would come in handy for the wait. I noted that many homes had the one landline telephone installed by a guest powder room, handy that.
One day for a forgotten reason I had to call my sister in Vermont. Though I knew her name and telephone number, I didn’t have her area code in my address book. Nothing in the house offered the needed information, so given my poor Spanish I decided to ask for an English-speaking operator to help me place the call.
When I reached an English-speaking operator, I explained my dilemma. The operator told me to hold. That was good, holding meant the call might go through faster. What luck! Though time passes slowly with an ear glued to a silent receiver (no speaker option), after a year in Peru I’d learned how to wait.
Click, she was back. “Where in the United States was that number?”
“Vermont.” I knew the mixup of V and B.
“Bermont? There is no Bermont,” she said with finality.
Had Vermont seceded and joined Canada in my absence? Taking a deep breath I assured her there was a Vermont…with a V like in Victor…just north of New York.”
Dead silence. Had she rung off? “Hello?”
“Do you have a map?”
“Do you see New York, New York City?”
“Ah, New York City!” she cooed. We had a common point of reference to start from.
“Yes, New York City. Do you see it on the map?”
“Yes, yes!!” she responded happily. She really was trying, bless her heart.
“Okay, now just above New York City, do you see Connecticut or Massachusetts?” as I commiserated silently with all the non-English speakers as to how hard English is to learn.
“Yes, I see Connec-te-cut and Mass-ah-choo-zits.”
“Great! Now above Massachusetts, do you see New Hampshire?”
“Yes, yes, New Hamp-shire!”
“Terrific! Now just to the left of New Hampshire…another long skinny state. Do you see it? Vermont?” I enunciated as clearly as I could awaiting her verdict.
“Ohhhh…that Bermont?! I will put your call through right now.”
Given the interchangeability of the V and B in Spanish, it was just a small linguistic stumble and geographic ignorance that wasn’t unusual. But I felt like I’d baked a cake over an open campfire. So, exito!
Spanish 101 for success!