Dec 082013

bakelite phoneIn 1991, a Greek wanting a new phone usually had to wait several years to get one. I was told that most mid-level managers in the Greek phone company spent the majority of their work hours trying to expedite new phone installations for their friends. (Needless to say, this doesn’t speak well for their ability to get any other work done, which may have contributed to the reason that new phone installations took so long in the first place.)

When I told people I was in Greece as part of a team to build an improved, cellular telephone system, the usual response was, “Thank God you’ve come.”

I discovered that getting an international line was especially trying. One couldn’t just pick up the phone and dial. You had to call an international operator, and give them the number you wanted to reach so they could connect you. But in the Athens suburb where I lived, even reaching an operator was a near-impossible feat.

My usual routine for making a call to the States was to open a beer, then sit by my phone and dial. The fast busy of no connection. Sip beer, dial again. Fast busy. Sip beer, dial again. Fast busy. I’d repeat this routine until I either got a connection (persistence occasionally paid off) or finished my beer. Then I’d give it up for the night and try again the next day.

One evening, after repeated dialing and when I was nearing the end of my beer, I finally got an operator who refused to connect me because the line quality wasn’t “good enough.” I lost it.

“I’m in Greece,” I shouted at her. “The line quality doesn’t get any better than this.” Then I switched to begging. “I’ve been dialing for half an hour, please connect me.” But she didn’t. She hung up on me. I burst into tears.

Using wifi in GreeceFast forward to the summer of 2013 when I returned to Greece. From third-world telecommunications, Greece is now a connectivity champion. I had no trouble connecting to wifi anywhere I went—my hotel, cafes, restaurants, beaches. In several remote areas where I needed directions or GPS or information off the Internet, I had no trouble connecting to the local cellphone network. Even though I carefully rationed the use of my global data package, my connectivity junkie self never felt the quiver and loss of control caused by a smartphone gone dumb.

So here’s the irony—I just spent a weekend in Victoria, British Columbia—a charming, first world, high technology place if ever there was one. (Technology is even listed as one of their primary industries.) And yet, I felt my connectivity junkie start to quiver. Oh sure, I had wifi at the hotel and at the occasional restaurant. But time after time, the places I visited either didn’t have wifi, no one seemed to know the correct passcode, or there was a charge.

Dear Victoria, you need to know—despite all its economic problems, Greece has you beat.

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