One of the toughest parts of living in a foreign country can be the isolation that it imposes. If you're hooked up to the Internet and to a competent telephone company, you can communicate with friends and family often enough not to get desperately lonely, but if you have to rely on regular post and a state-owned telecoms monopoly, the separation can be intolerable.
When I first came to Slovakia in 1992 I was posted as a teacher at a school in a western Slovak town. Cold, wet, foggy and utterly cut off from the rest of the world was how Piešťany seemed on first acquaintance, an impression that was not improved by the passage of time. The worst of it, for me, was not having access to a telephone. Phones existed at the school, but they were strictly reserved for the use of Authorised Personnel, a group that I have never in my life belonged to, for anything. One night I couldn't take it any more, and broke into the reception office to dial home. I dialled and dialled, speaking to one friend in Vancouver and another in Montreal, to parents and acquaintances. I spoke for a good hour.
The next day I expected the worst - after all, it wouldn't take the school's phone authorities too long to figure out who had been dialing Canada, and I could probably expect to be booked and have the bill deducted from my princely 3,200 crown ($140) monthly salary.
Angry the school was when the bill arrived, but also powerless to identify the guilty party - Slovak phone bills then, as now, do not include a breakdown of what calls were made during the billing period, and how much each call cost.
What the bill tells you
Each Slovak telecom monopoly Slovenské telekomunikácie (ST) phone bill has five categories of charges, listed by letter on the left hand side of the print-out. There are local calls (A), domestic long-distance and '0900' service calls (B), mobile network calls (C), audiotext calls (D) and international long-distance (E). The final sum is taxed at 23%.
If you have Internet at home, you may find your local calls charges shoot up and even double your monthly phone bill, since ST charges a 'pulse rate' for local calls that keeps adding up rather than a flat rate per call. This, incidentally, is one of the main barriers to the spread of the Internet in Slovakia. You may also find your mobile calls are a major chunk of the bill, as ST and mobile providers Globtel and EuroTel charge each other a fee for calls made through their networks. You do not, however, know how much each call cost, nor is there any record of the numbers you dialed.
Fighting the power
Since my undiscovered 1992 larceny, there have been many occasions on which my own phone bill has seemed suspiciously high, but without the detailed breakdown I could never be sure. Until, that is, I went away for four weeks one Christmas and still received a bill for $100, far more than the $15 I had been paying every month until then.
I took the bill to my local 'Infotel customer service centre' (each of Slovakia's 79 districts has one) owned by ST. You can find out the address of the one closest to you at the top left of your phone bill, or by calling information at 121 and asking for the reklamácie na telekomunikačné účty ('complaints about phone bills') department. For 65 crowns and 20 haliers (about $1.30), you can get a fully itemized bill, as long as you bring with you the identity card of the person in whose name the phone is registered.
However, getting an itemized bill and fighting unfair charges is sometimes not as easy as it seems. At first, back then in 1998, I was told I couldn't get an itemized bill because I had an analogue line, not a digital one. Then the official asked the Slovak woman who accompanied me if she was sure I hadn't been calling the country's '0900' sex numbers. He asked me in turn if I was sure my partner hadn't been calling while I was away. In the end he said he couldn't help, and that I would simply have to pay.
I didn't pay, the phone company cut my line off and ran the bill up to 15,000 crowns. I then began teaching a high-ranking ST executive, who eventually managed to have the bill reduced to 3,000 crowns by sending presents to a lady in the ST billing department. This amount I paid, just to be restored to the community of people with telephones.
With the sale of ST to German investor Deutsche Telekom last year, change seems to be on the way. ST loses its monopoly as of January 1, 2003, and clearly has to become a bit more customer-friendly if it is not to be blown away by the competition. In the past month, it has become once again possible to call direct to information in one's own country, rather than through Slovak information. No longer does one have to agonize with an ST operator over the spelling of McGarrigle, Cholmondeley or Hudsucker.
Nevertheless, a phone company whose first reaction to a customer query is to ask if the person had been calling sex hotlines still clearly has work to do. Ditto for the prehistoric practice of submitting customers a bill without specifying how it was calculated.
-with Chris Togneri
Foreign Affairs is a bi-weekly column devoted to helping expats and foreigners navigate the thrills and spills of living in Slovakia.
The next Foreign Affairs column will appear on stands June 4, Vol. 7, No. 22.