Today I had to call one of my credit card companies to report that I had received my new card. As I live in Britain and the company is in Australia, I followed the instruction to reverse the charges and called British Telecom.
"British Telecom" sounds woefully outdated to my ears, given that the Australian Telecom changed its name to Telstra over a decade ago. It's like arriving in a small town to find that the local Pizza Hut is still using the old logo with its curly-girly twiggle coming from the side of the H (I imagine pastel-coloured suits in an eighties boardroom asking each other "How can we give this H more of that outrageous camp swagger?"); or like seeing the dated "future" Pepsi logo in Back to the Future: you snicker slightly at how they could have got it so wrong.
Anyway, I say to British Telecom "I'd like to call Australia reverse-charge."
The operator says "I will have to pass you through to another operator."
I briefly wonder why I am being told. Do I have an option? I get some hold music, before a cheery Australian robot asks me to dial the number "as if I was calling from within Australia. For example, to call a number in Sydney, dial 02, then the number." This is utterly heartwarming; I get to pretend I'm in Australia for a few seconds, and the mention of the Sydney area code floods my mind with nostalgia. I resist the temptation to call my old house, and dial the credit card hotline. There is a pause. I suddenly realise that I am going to have to read out my card number, then provide my name and date of birth for clarification. Perhaps a phone booth in the pub is not the smartest place to be making this call from. I am thinking about the satellite relay my voice is being filtered through to go from Britain to Australia.
Then a lady with a strong American flavour to her not-quite American accent asks me the appropriate questions, activates my card, and wishes me a good evening. Oh, it's evening in Australia. So I say
"Excuse me, just out of interest, would you mind telling me where your call centre is located?"
There is a pause. I know this pause because I used to do exactly her job for a British credit card company in Manchester. People in the UK would call me (also in the UK), hear my accent, answer the ID questions, and then tremulously inquire if they were really calling all the way to Australia. You could tell that the old ones were slightly in awe of this brave new world; arrogant ones were working up to tell you it was a disgrace that this was an international call they'd been hoodwinked into making; and the young ones would tell you off for moving to a dismal shithole when I could have been at home cooking flaming shrimpo on the barbio.
The American lady says that she is in the Philippines. I thank her, say goodbye, and sever the orbital transmission from my morning summer English phone box, via midnight winter Australian phone company, to her tropical Filipino call centre, safe in the knowledge that I don't use my Australian credit card anyway, and when I call her to renew my next card in 2011, she will still be there, just like last time we spoke in 2005.