I’m guessing the Chicago Cubs will eventually let me down, and I certainly should not put much money on Jay Cutler and the Chicago Bears, but my attempts to watch American sports on either my laptop or on my tiny flat screen television has been both tremendously entertaining and incredibly frustrating. Apparently I can get all the Russian news shows I want, and channels with people dancing and singing are a dime a dozen (whatever that means), but it appears that the American television services I already pay for are only for Americans who are actually in America.
One of the reasons I took this apartment was that it had cable television and Internet service, or at least that was how it was sold to me. I honestly don’t care that much to have 114 channels (either in Bulgarian or English), but I discovered last summer during my Florida sabbatical that it’s hard to live off the grid. I don’t just want WiFi at home, I need it. And I certainly can survive a year without watching the Cubs or Bears, but I have long been invested in both their stories and I hate not seeing how a story ends.
Despite how it was advertised, when I moved in there naturally was no cable or Internet. Through my interpreter, Stoyan, the landlady promised me these would be installed “very soon.” A week later it was finally communicated to me that if I was at my apartment at 10:00 that morning, the cable people would be there to install my services. Naturally they didn’t show up until 11:00 (it seems ‘cable time’ here is the same as in America).
At first it was three young me in an unmarked panel van. I could tell they were the cable company because they were wearing matching blue shirts that said “Netsurf” on the front. I met them at the locked gate entrance to my apartment building (well, it does lock and there is a key that makes it lock, but I have been told to just leave the key in the lock and so I do). Once we got past the language barrier and I showed them my apartment on the third floor (it is actually on the second floor but this is Bulgaria and so I live in apartment 3A), they went to work on the outside of my building.
Mostly, however, it was two guys watching the third guy do something with a big roll of cable. Here’s how it looked from my balcony:
After they spent about a half hour looking at the building and the roll of cable, two more men showed up. They came into my apartment again and looked at what is clearly a cable-outlet in my living room and then they stared for a long time at an electrical box in the hall. They had a very animated conversation that, from the outside, seemed to indicate they were quite puzzled as to actually install the cable. They went back outside and worked again on the building itself. One of the men even retrieved a pick axe from his truck and then disappeared around the back of the building.
Mostly, though, they stood around and looked at things and talked.
Finally, after about two hours, a man not wearing a blue Netsurf shirt showed up. It became clear very quickly that he was some kind of supervisor. He was wearing a stripped dress shirt, denim shorts and flip flops. From my balcony perch I could watch and hear him speak very loudly to the others, one or two of whom rolled their eyes at one another. The supervisor had also brought what was clearly a home-made ladder and, after inspecting the outside electrical box, began barking orders and soon everyone was off, very quickly, to do whatever he suggested. I saw one of them walking to the back of the building carrying what was clearly a car tire attached to two wooden boards. The guy with the pick axe followed him. Again, I am not making this up, they needed a pick axe and a car tire to install my cable.
I was going to go around back and see just what the hell they were doing but right about then my landlady showed up. I call her Christina because that is the closest approximation I have to how her name is pronounced, but on my lease (in Bulgarian and English) it is spelled Hrciuecha (although this is my English translation of the Cyrillic alphabet my keyboard cannot duplicate). Anyway, Christina had words with the man in the stripped shirt and then she explained (to my phone) that “big problem” was being fixed “very soon.” She then pantomimed putting a gun to her and head and pulling the trigger. Some things don’t need translation.
Christina and I sat in my apartment for another two hours. Given that we cannot talk to one another except through a phone, we began showing each other pictures of our children. Six people were coming in and out of the building, my apartment and, for a long time, in the hallway.
The workers watch the supervisor (on his ladder) working in the hallway and in my apartment.
A couple of times the supervisor came in and talked to Christina and then, once, he smiled at me, gave me a thumbs up, and said “have a great day!” He then drove off in his BMW sedan.
I assumed this meant ‘big problem’ was fixed, an assumption endorsed when three of the workers came into my apartment with what was clearly a modem and router. They moved my furniture around, drilled holes and at one point began cutting and pasting together chunks of the baseboard they had earlier removed. It looked like this:
Finally, at about 6:30 p.m., the men packed up their tools and I thought any minute now they were going to show me how to log onto the Internet. Instead, they spoke to Christina who then told my telephone that “television good, Internet not good,” and that the men would return the next day. “You be here at 11?” she asked my phone. “Absolutely!” I responded. Abconhotho!
Naturally they didn’t show up until 12, at first three men, then two more and about an hour later the man in the same stripped shirt. Two hours later Christina returned, I believe someone had called her, perhaps the supervisor who then immediately left. She and I waited for a long time out on my balcony.
The ever-patient Christina sitting on my very-small balcony.
Finally, the youngest of the workers came into my apartment and turned on the TV. The very first image was of people dressed in traditional Bulgarian outfits and dancing what looked like the Polka. The cable guy then showed me some functions on my remote control, including picture-in-picture. And when the tiny second picture came on, it was of a man and woman having graphic sex. Everybody laughed so I did, too. It took the worker a second to switch to another scene of people dancing.
And then he showed me how to get on the Internet. My network is called “RON” and my password is a bunch of numbers and then “RON.” It worked just fine, everybody left, and I was left to surf the web how I pleased. All total, installing my cable took about 10 hours over a two day period. But I was tickled pink because now, I figured, I could use my laptop to tune into ESPN or WGN and see how the Cubs are doing.
“Your provider is not equipped to steam this video,” the message said. I tried every service where I have an account, like Hulu Plus or Comcast Xfinity. They all gave me similar messages, that the shows I wanted to watch are not available outside of the United States. That can’t be right, I thought. This is the World Wide Web, why can’t I watch anything in the world?
And that’s how I wound up, around midnight that night, having a typed conversation with a man in India. To get American television in Bulgaria I had to go through India. Global village, indeed. I had gone on to the Comcast website to find out if there was any service they offered that would let me upgrade my already-existing Xfinity account to get streaming video in Bulgaria. We chatted for a long time and I kept a transcript of our conversation. Here is an edited version:
Nitish: Hello RON, Thank you for contacting Comcast Live Chat Support. My name is Nitish. Please give me one moment to review your information.
Nitish: It’s a privilege to have you here on chat and I am looking forward to provide you excellent service!
RON: Hi, I am currently living in Eastern Europe but would like to access my Comcast Xfinity online service from the United States. I know you guys are not currently available outside of the US, but I was wondering if you might have any suggestions?
Nitish: Hello, Ron. How are you?
RON: Good. It’s just that the Chicago Cubs are having a good year and I sure wish I could see them. Any chance of that?
Nitish: Great to know it, Ron. May I know which service you want to use?
RON: Hmmm. Internet streaming?
Nitish: Ron, I wish I could suggest something on this. I am afraid to tell you that you cannot use internet streaming in Eastern Europe, as the internet connection work thru Modem/router and Cable connection. I would like to tell you that you can Watch T.v online everywhere online.
RON: Rats. That’s what I figured. I cannot get ESPN here and, honestly, that leaves a void in my life.
Nitish: May I know what error you are getting while trying to watch ESPN channels?
RON: I get a general error message that says streaming is not available, to try again later.
Nitish: I am sorry to hear that you are facing issue to watch ESPN online. Do not worry. I will do my best to resolve your issue by the end of this chat.
RON: Hey, thanks! I was hoping I could upgrade or something like that?
Nitish: Sure, I will also provide you the best deal for you. Sounds good?
RON: If I can watch American baseball and American football, I will pay good money for that.
Nitish: May I know the channels name, you would like to watch?
RON: Uh, ESPN?
Nitish: Thanks for confirming.
Nitish: Please allow me 2 minute to check your account information. How’s your day going?
RON: Well, been a long day. It’s been exciting and very interesting living in a foreign culture. About the only things I’m really missing are baseball, good coffee and peanut butter.
Nitish: Even I like peanut butter.
RON: Are you in the United States?
Nitish: I am from India, Ron. Have you ever visited here?
RON: Not yet, it is a place I want to go. One of my good friends is from India. He is a great guy but is kind of lousy at poker.
Nitish: Great! I hope you would visit India soon, and taste the great food of here.
[He had me switch from Google Chrome to Internet Explorer and then asked about the local Internet provider]
Nitish: Please open my.Xfinity.com. Then enter your user name and password to log in, then please try to watch ESPN.
RON: Hang on, I’m trying it again.
Nitish: Sure, please do. The best deal for you is Starter XF Triple Play in which you will get 140+ Cable Channels and 75 mbps Internet Speed & Unlimited Nationwide Talk and Text in just $99.00/mo for good 24 months.
RON: Isn’t that what I have now? Only, without the phone service?
Nitish: Yes, you internet and Cable will remain same, you are getting new service which is Phone with free nationwide calling.
RON: But I don’t need free nationwide calling, I’m not in the nation. I’m outside the nation, so why do I need free nationwide calling?
Nitish: I apologize for the inconvenience. Please allow me a minute to check it for you. Also please provide me your best contact number, I will also esclate your this issue to the higher department, as I too do not want you to face any issue by watching T.v online.
RON: That’s okay, Nitish. I know you are trying to help me and also sell something your bosses want you to sell.
Nitish: I must say you are the coolest, talkative and cooperative customer I have ever assisted. What is the best time contact you?
RON: Thanks. I don’t think Comcast is going to help me with this problem. If they cannot stream globally, then I will have to approach this another way.
Nitish: You’re welcome. I truly want to help you, Ron. I hope you will give me a 1 change to make your negative experience into positive one.
RON: Okay, but how? Another department is just going to tell me Comcast is not available in Bulgaria and then try to sell me something I can’t use.
Nitish: I will first do some remote troubleshooting from my system. Then if it won’t get fixed. I will escalate your issue to the higher department.
RON: Okay, I don’t mind waiting, but I don’t want to waste your time. You probably have better things to do.
Nitish: Ron, I will be more glad if I will fix your issue on this chat. However, I would be happy to escalate your issue to the higher department as I want you to watch ESPN.
Nitish: I am working on your account, Ron.
Nitish: I have done all the possible steps from my system. May I please ask you to check it again now?
RON: Thank you very much, but it’s not working. It’s kaput, nada, a big nothing.
Nitish: It is my pleasure to help you, Ron. Could you please provide me your best contact number?
RON: Okay, but I don’t know if anyone in India or American can call me. I don’t have an international number.
Nitish: I really apologize for the inconvenience. Thank you for giving me your contact number. May I know what time of day is best to contact you?
RON: Hmmm, your time or my time? For you it might be three in the morning.
Nitish: There are no additional steps needed to resolve this issue. Our technician team will handle any troubleshooting and resolve this for you. You will also get a call. They will surely help you in this.
RON: I kind of doubt that, but, hey, thanks for trying.
Nitish: You’re very welcome, it’s my pleasure to help you. Thank you for choosing XFINITY and have a great day!
POSTSCRIPT: Comcast did call the next day at 11:45 p.m. my time. The very nice lady suggested I should not cancel my Comcast account even though it will be impossible for me to get Comcast in Bulgaria. I thanked her for calling. She said, “your welcome.” I then followed the advice of others from campus and downloaded a Virtual Proxy Network that masquerades my computer’s IP address so that, to another computer, it appears that I am in the United States. I haven’t been here two weeks but I’m already a cyberspace criminal. Will the Cubs be worth it?