Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Allo? Allo?

More often than not our land line phone remains silent. Sometimes I forget that we even have it...and then it rings and I remember. I'm always a little apprehensive about answering it because, unlike with my cellphone, there is no way to tell who is on the other end. Or if we'll be able to communicate anything worthwhile.

I answer the phone like this,


That's a fairly normal way to answer the phone in most places and in most languages, I think. Technically I suppose I should say "Allo?" because that's more universal but "Hello?" is pretty darn close to that and branch members seem confused when I say "Allo?" and they're on the other end.

If it does happen to be an American on the other end, the speaker will usually say,

"Hi! This is so-and-so. I was wondering..."

And the conversation continues without anyone getting frustrated.

If it's an Egyptian on the other end, though, both parties end up pretty short fused. I just don't know how to have an Arabic telephone conversation because I expect the person calling to start the conversation because, after all, they're the ones who called.

"Hello?" I answer.

"Allo?" They respond with an equally questioning tone.

Maybe they didn't hear me. I repeat, "Hello?"




"Yes, hello."






By this time I'm ready to hang up. And yet I keep going. Since we conduct business over the phone there is a slight possibility it could be someone important. What if it's the doctor's office or something? Clearly, I can't hang up, but I do need to find out what the speaker needs to tell me. How do I get the information out of them?

Usually I do this by asking questions that seem rude to me.

"Who are you?"

"Degla Medical Center calling, ma'am."

"What are you calling about?"

"We need change appointment."

Why on earth didn't you say so 50 salutations ago?

It makes me feel rude to have to pry information out of callers. You'd think they'd be willing to at least tell me why they're calling. But they aren't. It's my job to pry out every little detail and basically give them permission to speak. Didn't I already grant permission by picking up the phone? Do I need to say, "Hello. Permission to speak granted. Please state your name and business."? That just sounds awkward.

Do you know what is even more awkward? Sometimes they act like this in real life, too.

Yesterday the telephone repairmen came over. Again. When your telephone wires are twisted together outside and are held together with masking tape you tend to need the repairmen a lot. Why? Because I'm not willing to climb around our rat-infested balcony looking for where the wire is broken.

They showed up at my door and knocked, ever so softly. I answered, "Hello?"

We stared at each other for a long time.

Finally I broke the ice, "Who are you?"

"We are telephone repair man."

"Come in."

Hard to know who you should and shouldn't invite into the house when your husband's not home if they're dressed in street clothes. Of course, the fact that they were carrying a plastic bag from some random store (full of supplies) and a Winnie the Pooh notebook probably should have tipped them off as telephone repairmen. Very professional. They could have been anybody.

They spent the next hour asking permission to do everything.

Before they'd come through the doorway from the kitchen/bathroom area of the house to the rest of the house they'd call out to me.




"Yes, what?"




"What do you need?"

"May I come?"


And then they'd come into the living room. By the time they were ready to leave I was almost gritting my teeth while talking. Their English was worse than my Arabic, yet they laughed whenever I said anything in Arabic. It's a good thing I know what window, chair, door, balcony, and wire are in Arabic. If they thought they were speaking English...they were very mistaken.

When they were almost out of the door, one of them handed me his cellphone. Apparently there was someone on the other end with whom I had to speak. I'll spare you the allos. I don't know who I was speaking to, but they also wanted to deal with me in English. I think that the repairmen were under the impression that the man on the phone spoke better English than they did. Here they were mistaken, again.

"Phone work?" the man asked.

"Yes," I said.

"Good. Money?"

"Yes, how much?"

"Money. We fix phone."

"Yes, how much?"

"Pay money."


"20 guinea."

That's like $4. When's the last time you paid a repairman $4? Probably never.

Don't think we're all that lucky, though. When's the last time you went to the store and there was no brown sugar? Or sour cream? Or tomato sauce? Or some other item that is normally in stock but just wasn't there? Probably never.

Life is no bag of chips anywhere.

I've been feeling a little blue lately, thinking about all my friends (seriously all my friends) moving back to America. And I'm a little jealous. I'm homesick for a washing machine that actually cleans my clothes. And a dryer would be so nice to have sometimes. Hanging up clothes isn't exactly hard, but it is a pain and it's so dusty here that the clothes usually end up a little grity once they're folded and put away. And there is at least one day each week where I wish with all my little heart that I could just put all the dirty dishes in the dish washer, turn it on, and forget about them instead of them piling up in the sink while I put off doing them yet again. *Sigh.*

At least Andrew solved the telephone mystery for me. He asked some of his friends on campus about it and found out that you're basically supposed to "have tea," so to speak, with the person on the other end of the line before they get to what they wanted to say. That makes sense.

Life is allowed to move slower here. As a "Westerner" I want to cut to the chase. I want them to tell me what I need to know so that I can get on with my day, which is fine when another Westerner is phoning me. Even if we know each other we keep the frilly nicities of chit-chat to a minimum.

Egyptians, and perhaps Arabs as a general rule, rather enjoy chatting. They make their point slowly so that they can enjoy their tea/your company longer.

Maybe next time I should swallow my instinct and, after our initial hellos, say, "Hello, how are you?"

Of course, then I might be on the phone all day...


  1. Hey! They do that here in Ukraine! lol funny post :)

  2. There's a reason I'm not meant to travel the world. I don't think I have the patience for it!

  3. Every time I answer the phone and say "what can I do for you?" in the middle of someone's "how are you" I feel like the world's biggest jerk.

    But a lot of days I feel like saying "nobody actually thinks you care how I am, and I'm not going to waste my breathe asking how you are, just get to the point!"

    So, I guess no 'tea time' for me. :)

  4. They did that in Turkey, too, only it always sounded like "Alleeo?" Over and over and over again. My brothers got sick of it and finally started playing all sorts of loud noises over the phone when anyone like that phoned. They still phoned. Persistent...