An Apparatus For Signaling by Musical Notes

Many, many moons ago, some American friends of mine flew into Budapest, Hungary where I met them for a brief tour before we all went to Romania. My friends did not speak a single word of the Hungarian language but nonetheless did comprehend the word telefon written on a billboard.

It’s the same word in nearly every language because it comes from the American English word coined in 1865 by the people who invented it, a combination of two Greek words meaning far (tele) and sound (phone). In most of the rest of the world, the “ph” is simply substituted for an “f”.

In Romanian there are two usages of the word, one being the device itself (the telephone) and one being a telephone call. Therefore the sentence “Am primit un telefon” could mean either “I received a telephone” or “I received a telephone call”, and is usually the latter. To distinguish them, generally Romanians say either telefon mobil (mobile/cell phone) or else aparat de telefon to indicate the actual, physical device.

Besides the lexical lesson, I was prompted to write about telephones due to this article (Ro) about the current state of mobile telephony in Romania. In essence, phone calls from mobile phones are becoming increasingly cheap and affordable, leading some people to engage in longer and longer telephone conversations.

Just a few years ago, mobile phone calls were extremely expensive in Romania. There were vastly different rates for calls between networks and even subscribers only had limited minutes on their plans. I knew many people who had two different phones just so they could make calls within the same network as the person to whom they were calling.

Now even people who rely on pre-paid cards receive hundreds or thousands of minutes (and hundreds of SMS or text messages). Those with subscription plans can talk virtually as much as they like. In short, it is becoming much like it is in the United States – lengthy mobile phone calls are cheap and available to just about anyone.

I, for one, miss the “old days” of Romanian telephone calls. I miss the days when the “beep” was a necessary communication method due to lack of minutes or phone credit. I miss the old days when calls were brief and to the point, and only made for (at least somewhat) urgent or pressing matters. I miss the days when a telephone conversation ended with one brief “goodbye” from both parties and not a lingering, meandering series of “okay well I have to go now” and “well I need to do X, Y and Z so we’ll talk later” and “so really I must go now, this time I mean it”.

That’s because I actually hate the telephone. I mean I like the actual device. It has a clock on there, which is useful as I don’t wear a watch or carry some other timepiece. It has a calendar, a calculator and a timer. It plays MP3s, which can be a nice song or else an audio book. My telephone also sends and receives emails. It has many other wonderful functions, all packaged within a tiny device that fits in my pocket. My current telephone doesn’t take pictures but I used to have one that did, and that was fun too.

I just hate the telephone part of it. I hate the way that an incoming call completely shatters my concentration. I hate it when I’m in town with a person talking face-to-face and then an incoming call “trumps” that, meaning it’s somehow more important to talk to a person who isn’t there rather than the person who is there. I hate the jangling cacophony of ringtones and ringing sounds that percolate through the bus or theater or museum. I loathe hearing brief snippets of popular songs that I detest.

But most of all, I hate the tinny faux version of someone’s voice reproduced in my ear, passing for what is deemed “conversation”, missing all the rich timbres, all the facial expressions, all the meaning in their eyes. I hate how there’s this flattened version of their voice in just one of my ears and the (often loud) sounds of what’s around me in real life in my other ear, both of them competing for my attention.

To talk on the telephone is to engage in a kind of schizophrenia, where I must close my ears and eyes to what is all around me and instead focus on an invisible person who is far away, pretending in my mind that they’re actually there and we are, in fact, having a normal conversation. It’s why I find it so creepy to see people talking on Bluetooth headsets or other “hands free” devices. Their avatar, their corporeal body, is in front of me but their mind and consciousness is somewhere else, far away.

Although I never framed it this way purposefully, I moved to Romania partly because there were so few telephone conversations between people here. It goes hand in hand with the (former) lack of television watching. There is a fundamental difference between people who spend the majority of their time engaged in actual face-to-face conversation with other people and those who don’t.

I’ve been talking about this for more than 10 years and my short explanation is that there is a difference between “talking” and “having a conversation”. To truly enjoy speaking with another person, to engage in a meaningful conversation, is an art. There is an art to talking to other people and that requires practice, the same as playing the violin or sculpting statues or operatic singing.

For many years, due to the lack of television (and unlimited internet) and the expense of phone calls, Romanians would meet other Romanians face-to-face somewhere, perhaps the corner of the street, perhaps at a bar or cafe in town, and talk.

Unbeknownst to them, each time they met, they were practicing the art of conversation. Each and every word out of their mouths, no matter how silly or banal, was improving their skills in the art of conversation. A good conversation is the glue that cements friendship. A good conversation makes you laugh, and cry, and think, and be inspired. A good conversation passes the time beautifully and enriches your life.

Yes, I moved to Romania (partly) because here I found a country full of expert conversationalists, people who could spin away the hours with their yarns and anecdotes, who could laugh and talk for hours at ease, who could make puns and craft new words, who could debate and argue.

My mother once said that I learned Romanian just so I could jabber with the people in this country who don’t speak English. She is right in that sense, as there’s nothing more I like than to spend hours and hours talking to Romanians, especially the older ones with their stories of rationing and wars and the former price of a kilo of meat.

Just last week I spent more than an hour talking to a group of Romanian mothers talk about their children. I sometimes post pseudo “transcripts” of my conversations with people and I think it should be pretty clear that I really, really like talking with and listening to people. I talk to children, gypsies, old people, Romanians, Hungarians and tourists. I can hardly buy a loaf of bread without stopping to engage in some chitchat with the people in the store.

And now I fear this is all becoming a relic of the past. Just like Americans, Romanians are becoming more and more entrenched behind their screens, spending more time online, more time on Facebook, more time watching the TV and more time talking on the telephone rather than face-to-face. I understand the appeal of the modern, the luxury of being able to reach someone at any time, regardless of distance or time zones. I do, I truly do. But I cannot help but think that nothing is ever gained without something being lost.

However the truth is that I am the one who is the relic here. My telephone is not only clunky and outdated but it comes from a company that has been out of business for a year (Zapp). I’m a writer who still cares about punctuation, grammar and usage in a world where people spend far more time watching videos than they do reading. I don’t shop at the mall and I don’t eat fast food, preferring the piata and making my own cheese at home. I don’t own or drive a car and walk almost everywhere. It’s like I’m moving backwards through time, and the gulf between my reality and that around me increases on a daily basis.

Enjoy your technology, gentle readers. But if you want to talk to me, don’t ask me for my telephone number or try to call me. Your best bet is to catch me on my peregrinations in town, or pull up a stool next to me at the bar. And if you see someone at the store engaged in a long-winded analysis of the origin of the nickname trenul foamei, tap me on the shoulder and introduce yourself :)

* The title of this post comes from the earliest definition of the word “telephone” in English, before the modern device we’re all familiar with was invented. Considering the ubiquity of ring tones on mobile telephones these days, I found it strangely apropos.

6 thoughts on “An Apparatus For Signaling by Musical Notes

  1. We must have been separated at birth!! I think the same…You’re right, it’s becoming more and more rare to see people interact face to face, especially in North America-shame!
    I hope to meet you someday.


  2. I hate videos too. I refuse to link to messages that are links to videos.

    I also hate Power Point presentations and will only give a lecture if I have a white-board or hopefully a real blackboard with real chalk.

    My favorite gift what I was ever given was a real blackboard taken out of an old school-building that my grandfather turned into a free standing black board on a frame that was a piece of slate mounted in a frame with legs. I had to give it away when moving from my home in one US state to another.


  3. “meaning it’s somehow more important to talk to a person who isn’t there rather than the person who is there”

    Well said. This always annoyed me a lot. I also feel the same way about ‘becoming a relic’. My job consists mostly of sitting in front of a screen all day, and when the work day ends I don’t want yet another screen or ‘virtual’ thing distracting me from the tangible world right in front of me. Its hard when everyone else is updating their statuses, playing FarmVille, etc.


  4. I changed my default ringtone so that it’s barely noticeable unless it’s someone I would actually need to talk to. And it’d be great if there was a phone plan with unlimited web access but hardly any minutes.


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