Telephone bills

We had dinner at the phone bill lady’s house the other night. Does that happen anywhere else besides Syria? We see her maybe once every two months when we go into the phone office to pay our bill. Out of all the ladies who work in the office, she has been the most helpful. The first time we went to pay our bill, we had no idea where to go, what line to stand in, what procedure to follow, etc. I think all the other workers just didn’t feel like dealing with some dumb foreigners at that moment (it can get very hectic in the office since all the bills in a particular area fall due at the same time). She was very patient and showed us the ropes. We’re still dumb foreigners in many respects, but at least we know how to pay our phone bill now, thanks to her.

So last time Jeremy went in to pay the bill, she invited us over to her apartment. She lives in a suburb outside of Damascus, on the road to Beirut. She speaks very little English, but her husband, to our surprise, spoke moderately well. It turns out he used to sell concessions during intermission at a movie theater here in Damascus. While he wasn’t working, he watched the movies (all American, in English), and practiced the words and phrases he heard. He says his favorite movie is “Die Hard,” which gives you an idea of the caliber of the American movies they show over here.

The phone-bill-paying system they have going here is quite interesting. Unlike in America, it can’t be done over the phone, by mail, or on the internet. It simply must be done in person, meaning you have to take time off work, school, or whatever else is going on in your life to physically show up at the office between the hours of 9 and 2 on weekdays, 9 to 1 on Saturdays. (…come to think of it, this is the way most things are done here in Syria – in person, at the convenience of the business, liable to change on a whim. Basically, everything here runs like the DMV in the US.) Also, at least that we have been able to figure out, there is no way to know when the bill is due. Your phone just stops working. Apparently, our landlady is supposed to tell us, but although she insists on being invasive and involved in every other aspect of our life, telling us when our phone will get cut off is not one of them.

During Ramadan, I had a reduced working schedule, which made it convenient for me to be the one to go and pay the phone bill. Before I continue, let me explain something: our internet usage is billed to our phone line. In other words, we don’t use the pre-paid internet cards that are available (the cost is the same). Thus, our phone bill came to about 3000 lira (60 bucks) for the two or three months in the billing cycle. Not a particularly astronomical amount, considering that some of those costs would be reimbursed by my work (I do work for them through the internet sometimes). Anyway, I mention this because a normal, non-internet-included phone bill usually comes to about 150 to 250 lira (3 to 5 dollars).

It must have been the last day to pay without losing your phone line, because the office was absolutely packed. Also, they were closing early because of Ramadan. So everyone – the workers and the customers – were in an absolute frenzy to finish up and go home. Long lines from each payment window stretched all the way outside the building. People were jostling for position in the different lines. As I approached, I could tell that there were different lines for different areas, but the signs explaining the system were posted way up front, out of my view. So I chose one and hoped that the long wait ahead of me wouldn’t end in being told to stand at the end of a completely different line.

The guy standing behind me in line was particularly antsy. I have no idea what his damage was – there was no way the line could move any faster, and his pushing and making exasperated comments about how long it was taking were not helping the already tense situation. As we got closer to the payment window, he found an interesting way to amuse himself: listening to the worker tell each customer the amount due for their phone bill, and then re-announcing it to everyone in a loud voice!

So far, the amounts were all small: 100 lira, 150 lira, 250 lira, 200 lira, etc. Still, the guy behind me felt the need to repeat each amount loudly, making sure everyone around could hear. I was really, really dreading my turn at the window. I silently hoped that when it was my turn, the worker would assume I didn’t speak Arabic and write the amount down, instead of saying it out loud. Alas, I was not so lucky.

Sure enough, the worker told me, in Arabic, that my bill was 3000 lira. I thought the guy behind me was going to have a heart attack. He faltered, and repeated the amount to himself several times before letting everyone else know about it, too. I was so embarrassed. He kept on raving about it the whole time I was at the window handing over the money, getting my receipt, etc. As I walked away, and it was finally his long-awaited turn, he was still marveling about it, inserting some choice comments in Arabic that I couldn’t understand (I’m sure it was about the foreign girl who must talk on the phone ALL DAY, EVERY DAY, FOR THREE MONTHS in order to run up a phone bill of 60 dollars).

I haven’t been back since. We decided that it would be Jeremy’s job to pay the phone bill from then on.

Romance lost

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