The Shrieking Shack (from Harry Potter) is called “La Stamberga Strillante“ in Italian, and the first time I heard it, stamberga seemed to my anglophone mind a rather imposing word for what a shack is. I’d been repeating it in my head, the way I do with words whose sounds please me, until the episode recounted in this post tainted it by association.
A little over a week ago, we started getting phone calls from a man who mistakenly believed that our number was the number of one of his friends. I’ve noticed that callers of this type of wrong number (one that hasn’t simply been misdialed) tend to be less willing to accept that they’ve made a mistake. I think their logic must go something like this: they’ve accurately dialed a number that someone has given them, someone has answered, so there’s nothing wrong with the number, isn’t it reasonable then to expect that they be permitted to speak with the person they’re trying to reach?
In this case, the caller, a certain Dottor Stambergo, was convinced that I was the person he wanted to reach. Our first conversation:
Stambergo: Pronto? Ehi, Ciao!
KC: Buon giorno. Con chi parlo? (Who am I speaking to?)
Stambergo: Ehi! Who are you speaking to!?
KC: I don’t know you.
Stambergo: You don’t know me!?
KC: I think you have the wrong number.
Stambergo: Excuse me, Signora. Click.
Later that day, I noticed that there had been several calls from the same number within a two hour period. Not recognizing the number, and thinking it could have been one of N’s clients, I called to find out who it was. A woman with a Ukrainian accent responded.
KC: Good evening, I found this number, which I don’t recognize, on my phone. I’d like to know who wanted to contact us. There were several calls and I think it might be important.
Woman: I don’t know, Signora. It must have been Dottor Stambergo.
KC: Dottor Stambergo?
KC: Do you know why he called?
Woman: No, Signora.
KC: Oh. Well, thank you. Good evening.
Woman: Good evening.
Over the next few days, we had more calls from Dott. Stambergo. Every time, I politely explained that while our number was in fact the one he had dialed, I was not his friend, and I suggested that either she had given him the wrong number, or he had misremembered it. During one of these calls, we had an exchange that I consider the most absurd of them all:
Stambergo: Well, who is this?
KC: I’ve told you before, Signora C., this is the C. residence.
Stambergo: Oh, come on! Always with this Signora C., Famiglia C.!
I suppose that the consistency of my responses counted for nothing.
For a few days I didn’t answer when he called, but he persisted anyway. Yesterday morning, when he called yet again, I picked up the receiver and hung it up, hoping to prompt his memory. It didn’t work, and a few minutes later, he called again. I wondered how to prove to him that I wasn’t his friend coyly pretending to be someone else, and I thought that speaking English might be a trick she wouldn’t be able to repeat. I answered politely, tried to explain to him again that he had the wrong number, that he could call it until the end of time and that he would never find his friend here, and that he needed to stop. He protested. So I told him the same thing in English, then repeated it once again in Italian, at the end asking if he’d finally understood.
“No I don’t understand you!” he yelled, and turning away from the receiver, he addressed someone else, saying, “you talk to her, I don’t understand her, she’s a foreigner.”
In all our previous conversations, I’d spoken Italian well enough that he mistook me for his (Italian) friend, and despite my repeated protestations to the contrary, he persisted in that conviction. Now that he knew that I was a foreigner, my formerly acceptable Italian had become unintelligible. This is one of my biggest pet peeves, (as absurd it seems, it has happened to me more than once) and I wish I had a name for it, something like immigrant-induced comprehension dissonance. I find it disturbing because it demonstrates the extent to which our reality is conditioned by our prejudices.
(It calls to mind a couple of related pet peeves, the first being accent-induced comprehension dissonance, which sometimes occurs whenever I betray my origins with a badly accented word. It causes the listener to become mute. The second is the more annoying accent-prompted language assistance that I receive from helpful people who feel that they must finish my sentences for me. They never actually guess what I’m about to say, and protest my every attempt to correct them with a polite, “no, no, I understand, I understand.”)
But back to the phone call:
Woman: Pronto? Signora? I don’t understand about this “foreigner?”
KC: I’m a foreigner too. This man has been calling my house, and I don’t know who he is. I’ve explained to him that he has the wrong number but he continues to call. I have a baby and it’s not easy for me to run to the phone whenever it rings, especially if it’s a wrong number.
Woman: Oh, I understand, excuse me.
KC: No, it’s not your fault. HE is fixated on this number and won’t stop calling. It’s not you.
Woman: Okay, Signora, excuse me.
(That would be the immigration-induced exaggerated politeness of foreigners who are often reminded that they are outsiders; I recognize it because I have it too.)
KC: Okay, Signora, good day.
Woman: Grazie, ciao.
I haven’t heard from Stambergosince. I think that our last conversation finally convinced him that rather than being the friend he is looking for, I am just (an)other.