Last Friday my internet died. It dies intermittently, and I usually take it as a sign that I should go to bed or go outside and meet some Bulgarians. When I come back it’s either revived or it isn’t, whatever. But on Friday I needed to look at train schedules, and some other important things, and my browser kept asking me in Bulgarian for a “username” and “password,” neither of which I had, since it had never asked me before.
If I had problems, the page said, I could call a number for help any time, day or night. There are many things in Bulgaria that I, as a Peace Corps volunteer, did not expect to have access to. 24-hour customer service is one of them.
Uh-oh, but the number only works from phone lines provided by the same company as the internet, and my cell phone is on a different carrier. How would I ever find out my username and password? That’s when I remembered I have a “landline telephone.” It’s like a cell phone, but much bigger and plugged into the wall.
A few minutes later I was on the phone, listening to a recording offer me a dizzying array of options, in Bulgarian, at the touch of a button. But I couldn’t touch any buttons because I have a rotary phone. Somehow I was able to convey this to the machine, and I was transferred to an operator. I explained my problem and she asked me for my telephone number.
“Shit [that part was in English]. I don’t know my telephone number. I mean, uh, I wrote it down somewhere. But I don’t know it. I will find it and call back.”
A few minutes later, armed with my telephone number, I was back on the phone with a new operator, named Galina, and explained my problem all over again.
“Do you want my telephone number?” I asked proudly. Yes, but then she also wanted my address. Hmn. I know where I live, mind you. I can find my apartment from any corner of my town and I can even draw a map from my apartment to the town’s major landmarks. But, I don’t receive mail at my apartment, the street signs aren’t very visible around here, and, uh, I’m sure my building has a number but it’s not written on the building, I don’t think…so…no. I don’t know my address.
Then the whole sad story comes out. I just moved here, another American lived here before I did, maybe the account is still under her name, or—
Galina stops me and asks me if I live in a certain part of town, across the street from such-and-such building, on a particular floor. Galina knows exactly where I live. She knows who I am and she knows I just moved here.
“Okay, your modem was reset. I’ll give you a new username and password now.” They are random strings of numbers and both capitol and lower-case Latin letters. Galina pronounces the letters as if they are Bulgarian letters, which makes them very difficult for me to understand. So she uses cities in Bulgaria as references, “R” like “Ruse,” “N” like “Nikopol,” identifying each as either malyk (small) or golyam (big). Then, because I really don’t want to have to call them again, I repeat both strings of characters back to her, checking for mistakes.
When you can’t read your situation, which is all the time in a new country or language, the temptation is to judge, or to romanticize (which I guess is also a form of judgment) what’s going on around you. Your brain just doesn’t have space for all the ambiguity, so it tries to fool you into thinking you understand what’s going on. Either everything sucks, you could do it way better, or isn’t it all just wonderful and precious? At first, calling a customer-service hotline felt surreally American. But then, Galina didn’t answer the call by rattling off three sentences that she’s required to say to every customer. In the United States, the person on the other end is generally helpful and wants to do their job, but they are usually answering your call from another state or even another country. And often each call they take is timed and closely monitored. Not to mention that if a clueless foreigner called the phone company asking for a username and a password, but couldn’t produce her own address, she would get nothing but suspicion from the person on the other line. But, whether or not Galina lives in my town, she is familiar enough with it to know a new American lives there, and exactly where, and that it’s understandable I might not know my address yet. And, whether or not the call was being monitored, she had the time to slowly give me the information I needed, twice. Was she being extra nice to me because she was thinking critically about my predicament, had some background information about me, and concluded that I was trustworthy? Or would she give out my account information to anybody who asked for it, or just anybody who spoke Bulgarian with an accent?
There’s good and bad to both the American and the Bulgarian versions of “customer service,” but this time, the Bulgarian version really worked in my favor.