This is not, strictly speaking, language-related, but it’s such a striking anecdote I can’t resist passing it on—and besides, it’s about people who want desperately to talk to each other. In language. So without further ado, a translation from the Russian of the Captain’s Daughter (via Anatoly); she is remembering the days when she and her tall, black-browed, energetic First Love were eager to get married and go to America together:

Of course nothing came of it. That’s what first love is for. But do you know what I remember most?
At that time, far from every apartment in Yerevan had a telephone. And even if there was one, not every phone could make calls to other cities, and in my neighborhood there were no intercity phones. So to talk with Moscow, I would visit a friend or relative who had one, and at the appointed time First Love would call. I couldn’t place the call myself; in the first place, the telephone wasn’t mine and they wouldn’t take money, and in the second place, it was expensive.
So one time I made the trek from my Bangladesh (for which Muscovites can read “South Butovo”) to the Sixth Nork Massif (call it “Khimki”) to be there by exactly three in the afternoon, because that was when First Love was supposed to call. But my friend had forgotten or gotten mixed up, and she wasn’t home. There was nobody there at all. And I stood in front of the door, swallowing tears and listening to the telephone ringing loudly, heartrendingly, inside the apartment… I stood there for an hour—and for an hour, with brief interruptions, the phone kept ringing.
Now tell me, how can such a thing be presented today, in the age of cell phones, Skype, and iPads? And yet it happened…

And can anyone below middle age now imagine the surprise and concern with which people used to pick up a ringing phone and learn that it was a long-distance call? The first thought was that someone must have died. People didn’t make such expensive calls just to chat.


  1. In the Soviet Union long distance calls had a different ring, a longer one, I believe, so at least you had a forewarning. We didn’t get a phone line until I was 15, before that I made a trek with my dad almost every day to the closest pay phone to call the grandparents.

  2. yes, they did have long rings.
    but all this wasn’t that long ago. It’s the speed and character of change that make it feel so remote.
    Sending a telegramme in certain cases was better than calling.
    Another side of pre-internet, pre-mobile life was lack of privacy. I couldn’t talk to my True Love on a corded phone wired to the wall in the sitting room in the early 70s. Later we had a telephone with a very long cord, to take it to a more private place.

  3. Change the tense: long distance calls still have a different ring tone (although now I think it depends on your telephone station and its level of upgrades.) And we still don’t have touchtone landlines.

  4. It doesn’t seem to me that I am that old, but yes, I do remember when dial service came to my home town. No more “Number please?” Later I remember the best high-tech feature a telephone could have–an extension cord so I could take the phone into my room.
    When my brother was in college at Stanford (around 1960), it was a very big deal when he’d call us. Yes, “long distance” was a very big deal.
    Five years later, when I was in college (also in California) my Mom was ok with my calling collect fairly frequently. I don’t know what the calls cost, but clearly it wasn’t prohibitive.
    Ok, eventually I grew up and entered the modern world–touch tone telephones and everything. But then I traveled to Poland in 1973 and met my true love. We had a one-year courtship that was mostly by snail mail. (Emphasis on the snail. I would compose a letter and post it. She’d get it about two weeks later. She’d write a response and it would be two weeks before I got it.) But when I did want to call, I had to call an operator in New York and then wait half an hour to get the call back and the call completed. It was really expensive, so I only did it when I was calling her for something important…like proposing that we get married. And then maybe twice more to make arrangements.
    Text messages (or, as we used to call them “telegrams”) were cheaper, then as now.
    How strange it is now to be talking in person to my brother-in-law in Poland via Skype. What would our courtship have been like if we could have actually talked together that freely? Would we still have gone through with it?
    What a strange world to have been able to witness.
    Dave Hay
    Houston, Texas

  5. Dave, that’s a lovely tribute to the not so distant past! I worked in Tokyo in the 80s and had to go through Japanese operators (nice ladies eager to show off their mastery of Russian) to place a call to Moscow and Ryazan, and then wait for the operator to call back and put the call through. My in-laws in Ryazan (think, roughly, New York and Pittsburgh) wouldn’t believe I was actually calling from the other side of the Globe.

  6. Yes, that’s a nice (oddly enough) memory. In Moscow in the 1970s and 80s, you had to order a foreign call three days in advance for a particular time. I remember sitting in the apartment, waiting for the call… and then speaking to my family at Christmas. We were all so nervous and conscious of both the eavesdroppers and rarity that the conversation was always stilted. But still — to hear their voices! Then letters took up to 6 weeks. I wouldn’t give up skype and direct dial for anything, but there was something about the anticipation and festivity that was — it seems now — wonderful. Every call and every letter was an Event.
    But that’s just that weird nostalgia speaking.

  7. Phone numbers were easier to remember. Ours had three digits.

  8. Bill Walderman says

    When I was growing up, in the 1950s, we lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan (decidedly less fashionable than the East Side back then), but my father used to travel a lot on business. He would call my mother every night long distance.
    You couldn’t dial direct in those days–you had to go through an operator. Long distance calls were expensive, and you paid more for a person-to-person call (one where you asked to speak to a specific individual) than a station-to-station call (where you simply called a number). However, you didn’t have to pay for a person-to-person call if the individual was not available. On a person-to-person call, the operator would make the connection and ask for the individual, and the party making the call could hear the response of the party at the other end of the line.
    My parents were people who lived had lived through the Depression, who made sure to turn the lights off when they left the room.
    If my father needed to speak to my mother, he would call station-to-station. If he didn’t need to go to the expense of speaking to my mother but just wanted to let her know he was all right, he would call person-to-person, asking for my mother. My mother would tell the operator that the individual he was calling was unavailable, but she had two different ways of responding. I don’t remember exactly what they were, but she would respond one way if she didn’t need to talk to my father–this let him know that she was all right–and another way if she did want to speak to him, in which case my father would call back station-to-station as soon as the operator disconnected the person-to-person call.

  9. In France in the 1960s, if was sometimes quicker to fly from Marseilles to Paris -= say 90 mins flying time – than get a phone call through – six hour delays were not unknown. It was because de Gaulle did not believe in the telephone – he had one on his desk but supposedly no one ever dared to ring it – because gentlefolk wrote letters to each other, or officials sent notes. when Pompidou became president, he instituted a crash upgrade progamme.

  10. when Pompidou became president, he instituted a crash upgrade progamme.
    Seems a bit drastic. Couldn’t he just have improved the phone service?

  11. John Emerson says

    I’ll have to upgrade de Gaulle a couple of notches in my Book of Judgement.

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