In this day and age, when telephoning is at everyone’s fingertips across most of the world, it’s hard to imagine a time when making a call wasn’t too far removed from dialing with smoke signals. Well, not only can I "imagine" it, but I actually "lived" it! When I moved from New York City to Crete in 1985, telephones were as rare as a Peter Luger's steak. I was so much in a state of cultural shock, that I wrote an article about Cretan Telephoning for The Athenian Magazine, Greece's largest English-Written publication. According to the editor, it received the magazine's most-ever responses. The headline chosen was: DIAL 1 TO 0 FOR MURDER; the sub-head was: "A Cretan transplant finds life in 'the phone booth' a modern Greek nightmare worthy of Kafka." I thought it would be fun to tell all you phone-addicts what it was like, so here are some excerpts from the article:
I glared at the receiver in my hand, mumbled some unintelligible sounds, and slammed the phone down on its cradle so hard the man in the kiosk yelled at me. After three years on Crete, I had thought I could cope with the telephone situation, but it was mornings like this that made me want to wreak mayhem. I hadn't been trying to reach America or Europe; not even Athens: I simply wanted to call a friend in Iraklion, about 20 kilometers away. I had started calling at 9 am; it was now 9:35. It had gone like this: from 9 to 9:08, I got a busy signal just before dialing the last number. From 9:09 to 9:16, the busy signal followed the area code. At 9:17 I got a wrong number – someone in Rethymnon. Between 9:18 and 9:25, I couldn't even get a dial tone; then followed two more wrong numbers. From 9:26 to 9:34, I was able to complete the number but the line subsequently went dead. At 9:35 my call went through at last and a female voice answered. With a sigh of relief I asked to speak to John.
"Oh, I'm sorry," answered the woman. "You just missed him. You should have called five minutes ago." . . .
When I settled in a village called Gouves, a village just outside of Iraklion, I went to OTE, the country's phone company, to order the installation of a telephone.
"All I want is one," I explained. "No extensions." The three men behind the counter looked at each other. They gave me a form to fill out, and then wrote something in the ledger book.
"When will the phone be installed?" I asked.
"What's today's date?" one of the men replied.
"September 12, 1985," I offered.
The man with the book licked his thumb and forefinger and began flipping back pages. When he found the page he was looking for he ran his finger down the column of entries, and stopped at the middle of the page.
"Well, this week we're working on applications from October, 1977, so you may have a little wait." The three men looked at each other again and then laughed raucously.
When I went to a branch office of the Bank of Crete to conduct some business, the bank manager, a polite, soft-spoken gentleman, offered me a chair next to his desk and sent out for coffee. We discussed my transaction and the manager explained that he had to call the main office in Iraklion for confirmation. He was sorry for the delay but it would only take a few minutes.
"No problem. I understand," I said.
The banker dialed, the phone rang once, and went dead.
"No problem; this happens occasionally," the manager smiled weakly, offering me a cigarette. "I will try again."
Four cups of coffee and a half a pack of cigarettes later, the grim-faced bank manager pressed the button for the 22nd time.
"Ah, finally it is ringing," he beamed across the desk. He switched from English to Greek, said a few words, and I could swear I was witnessing the transformation of Dr Jekyll into Mr Hyde. The formerly mild-mannered banker screamed, "WRONG NUMBER!,” slammed the receiver down, picked up the phone as if to throw it, thought better of it, and replaced it on his desk. He looked at me, turned beet-red, and stormed out of the room in embarrassment. His assistant quickly ran over, apologized for his boss, and said he would continue the transaction.
An hour later, business completed, I was sitting in a taverna having a beer with a friend, who was explaining where he lived: up this road, turn right, down that road, and you can't miss the house.
"How long does it take to get there?" I asked.
"Ten minutes by car and an hour by telephone," my friend replied.