Now living in the world of email, VOIP and blogs… it’s sometimes difficult to remember the time when all these tools did not exist, and people had to wait for days to be able to communicate from remote places like Shanghai to their home country. Nearer to us, I often explain the difficulties to send a fax to my mother back down in the beautiful Islands of Wallis and Futuna when I lived in Hungary. As this archipealgo lost in the Pacific Ocean is a French (!) territory, the majority of the communication would take place through France. Due to the lack of traffic, operators in other countries would not even program the country code in their phone system. People from there could call us, but could not be called.
Sending a fax was my regular entertainment on Sunday evening. After hand-writing the message, I would start the painful experience of transmitting it. The first time that I tried to do it, I used the normal fax-sending procedure, i.e. I dialed the fax number with the +681 country code. The surprise came when I heard a voice in Hungarian repeating something that I understood after several times to be “the country code your are using does not exist”. The only solution was to find the operator for international calls at Matav (the Hungarian telecom company). This took me quite some time, as very few people actually require this service and it’s not advertised in phone books. This really challenged my (then burgeoning) Hungarian. I finally reached the operator, explaining that I wanted to send a fax to this weird location with its even weirder country code. I then spent about 5 to 10 minutes to explain to the operator that this country and country code actually existed. This had to be repeated every time I wanted to send a fax. After convincing the operator of the very existence of this place and giving him re-assurance of my mental sanity, I would over hear him calling the France Telecom international operator, going like “Hello, I have this mad guy willing to place a call to a country that does not exist, but claiming that France Telecom may be able to do it.” Then, France Telecom operator would answer something like “Yesse, zis is ze country code ove Wallis et Futuna. Pliz old on, I will connect you”. Then, I would wait for a few seconds and the phone would start ringing to my Mum’s house… in the best case. Most of the time, I would overhear the France Telecom operator saying “I am sorry. Ze line is occupied at the moment. I will call you back when ze line is available”. Then I would wait for minutes and sometimes hours for “ze line to be available”. As I had to be ready to talk or send the fax at the appropriate moment, my only hope was to sit next to the phone with a book, until (up to 2 hours later), the Matav operator would call back. The only four satellite phone lines to the archipelago were far insufficient.
Though this repeated experience sounds like from the middle-age, it took place in 1996-97. For Chinese and inhabitants of the Eastern Europe, it does not sound so far away, as all international calls used to be like that until not so long ago. I’m sure calling Europe and the USA from the old Shanghai was a similar experience.