Can You Understand Me Now?

April 2006

Before our spring trip to Holland to see the tulips and later to Belgium and London, I decided it was time to get a cell phone that would work overseas. I'm still enrolled in the original MITRE-arranged Verizon plan, whose CDMA modulation method works in only a few parts of the world. One needs a GSM phone, and one that works on any of several frequencies to be able to communicate in Europe.

Some people I mentioned this to told me they just bought prepaid phone cards to call home, but we've never called the U.S. E-mail works fine for this, particularly when large time zone differences are considered. And even individual country phone cards, of which we still have many, require you to locate a phone, which might not be convenient when you'd like to call a restaurant or theater.

So I did some Internet research and bought an unlocked GSM cell phone (i.e., one that isn't "locked" to a specific provider, unlike those sold in the U.S., whose relatively inexpensive prices are subsidized by lengthy service contracts), a Siemens A75, and a prepaid "Explorer" SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) card that works in many countries, including wherever we'd be traveling on this trip as well as the foreseeable future. If we were only going to one country, I might have waited and bought a SIM card for use there.

As often happens, I waited until the last minute to order, and the phone arrived the day before our departure. But when I turned it on, after the Siemens logo appeared, I seemed to be presented with a choice, but in a language that I couldn't decipher; i.e., not French, Spanish, or German – definitely Eastern European! The first choice turned off the phone, which didn't seem very useful. The second choice presented me with a menu that was likewise unintelligible, as were succeeding choices. Sacre Bleu!

When I called the company, they couldn't figure out what was happening, although they did give me a sequence of numbers to input that would reset the language to its default. As you may have guessed, this turned out to be the same language as before, so they said they'd send me another phone by overnight delivery. Fortunately, the next morning, before the new phone arrived, I realized that one of the five "manuals" (15 pages or so) included with the phone was in the unfamiliar language. (Others were in English, German, Russian, and another unfamiliar language.) I assumed that the language was Estonian, since the country code of my phone number was Estonia (372) and they had told me that the Explorer routed calls through there.

Now I realized that I could compare menu symbols in the text in the two manuals and match up the sections. This was not as straightforward as you might think, since the appropriate section was on Page 7 in the English manual, but on Page 8 of the other manual. At first I assumed that the other language must be more verbose than English, but then realized that the difference seemed to be mainly caused by idiosyncratic page breaks. So now I could find my way to Setari (Setup), then Afisaj (Display), and finally Limba (Language), one of whose choices was English. Yes, "English" – "Russian," for example, was written in Cyrillic. So now the menu items corresponded to those shown in the English manual. Whew!

It turned out that the initial query was to confirm that you really intended to turn on the phone; for example, that the On button hadn't been accidentally pressed. They weren't really assuming that you'd choose No at that point, but if you didn't choose Yes it would turn off in 20 seconds. And now I could set various parameters of the phone to suit me.

I soon realized that the SIM card, not the phone, set the language preference, but now we have two phones – they never notified me how to return the second one. Next trip, maybe we'll buy another SIM card and take both. And I later Googled some of the foreign words, and found that the language was actually Romanian, and that the other manual whose language I didn't recognize was Czech.

Because of the Estonian connection, the Explorer requires a rather unconventional method to make a call. After entering the number and pressing the Dial key, the connection is broken, and shortly there is a call back, presumably from Estonia. When the phone is answered, the local connection is completed. However, even dialing the number isn't that intuitive. The instructions say, fortunately in English, "start dialing the number with the + symbol," which is "the universal sign for international access." To enter the + symbol, "press and hold zero for two seconds." Of course! There are no machinations required by anyone calling me, which I verified by dialing the Estonian number from my home phone.

The charges vary slightly where we traveled: $.60 per minute from Holland or England, and $.69 from Belgium. This is to anywhere and incoming calls are free. However, it is not a good idea to use it in the U.S. – charges are $3.00 per minute outgoing and $2.50 incoming. At first I thought all of the Caribbean was similarly outrageous, including some places we've recently visited: Antigua, Barbados, the Cayman Islands, and the British Virgin Islands all cost $3.00 per minute outgoing and $2.50 incoming. But Jamaica and Aruba are $.55, and the U.S. Virgin Islands $.45 outgoing; all free incoming. Interestingly, if we do travel to Estonia, my "local" phone will be charged $1.25 and $.65, although Romania is a more reasonable $.65 and $.25.

And the phone turned out to be highly useful a couple of times, in ways that I hadn't anticipated. In Bruges one Sunday night, Kurt's Pan, a restaurant recommended by our hotel turned out to be rather small, the ground floor of a townhouse, and was already booked for the evening when we stopped by. So we went outside and consulted the Michelin Red Guide. This photo, from their web site,

not only shows the minuscule size of the restaurant, but coincidentally, also includes the antique well where we placed the guidebook while making calls. The map showed there was another restaurant a few blocks away and normally we would have just walked there. However, we were now cautious and called first, finding they also were full. So we called another one a little further away in the other direction – same result. Now we were beginning to worry – the next interesting restaurant was some distance away, downtown. However, before we got around to calling, the Maitresse d' saw us through the window and came out to tell us they had just received a cancellation!

It turned out to be a well-placed table for four, and we had a delicious meal and a completely enjoyable evening. A couple who had reserved arrived later and seemed to be rather cramped in a corner table for two – they probably thought we were somebody important. The owner, Kurt Van Daele, turned out to be a Belgian Master Chef, but without the phone we'd have been gone ten minutes earlier. And even though the kitchen was upstairs, reached by steps that were steep enough to almost be a ladder (Kurt did perilously descend and return upstairs once while we were there), the service was very efficient. A dumbwaiter transported meals from the kitchen down to the restaurant and returned with dirty dishes.

The next week, after a morning visit to London's Victoria and Albert Museum (to see the blockbuster Modernism exhibit that the new director of the Corcoran Gallery is bringing here next spring) Michelin recommended a restaurant that was halfway back to our hotel. We had taken the tube from the hotel to the V&A, but it wasn't that long a walk as long as we'd be stopping for lunch midway. When we called, we found that it was now a totally different type of restaurant, so we next tried Bibendum, which was only a few blocks from the V&A. In case Bibendum sounds familiar, he's the rotund Michelin tire character. The building was formerly Michelin's London headquarters, and there are still several large stained glass windows featuring him.

They took our reservation, and when we arrived we saw a line waiting for tables in one of several ground-floor rooms. When we announced that we had a reservation, they ushered us through those rooms and upstairs to an airy, spacious dining room. As lunch proceeded, we struck up a conversation with our neighbors, a British couple with similar interests, who recommended another restaurant that we later enjoyed. If we hadn't called, we probably wouldn't have learned about the upstairs restaurant and would have settled for the more pedestrian downstairs venue. And in fact, if we hadn't called the first, recently changed, restaurant, we'd have been disappointed when we arrived there.

It's fortunate the proper manual came with the phone, although it does make me wonder if, equally likely, I might have received a phone with a German, Russian, or Czech menu!

© Copyright 2006 Jack Ludwick - All Rights Reserved