Monday, October 19, 2015

Swirling Thoughts #235 - really just an ordinary day

Since the great (Target) credit card breach of 2013, we've been suffering the effects of “once you give someone in this country your credit card number, you'd better pray there's never a great credit card scandal leaving you with a new card because then you will just be screwed.” Yes that is a real effect.

Recall my myriad pleasant exchanges with Cellcom. OMG just recalling that brings up bile.

Enter Israeli social security - lovingly known to all Tehudat Zehut (national identity card) carrying Israeli citizens as Bituach Leumi. Let me start by saying Bituach Leumi (once you find the branch you need – there are four all within an impossible block in the center of town – making the chances of finding the one you need on the first try just 25%), has higher security than the airport. They pat you down. Then they laser scan you. They ask way tougher questions than any El Al agent has ever asked me (Come on! Everyone knows their Hebrew name and who packed their luggage!). But not everyone knows the answers to gruff questions like "yesh l'chem va'ada?" In the 10 seconds it takes for me to process the Hebrew (and that's on a good day) the door has already been closed on me while they pat down the next guy. I'm left mentally translating an answer when they come back to me and offer an equally gruff "English?"

In any case, the last time we gathered up the tall pile of Bituach Leumi notices that have been relentlessly filling my mailbox since the credit card number was switched, we arrived to an amazing line of zero people! What luck! We were then told Bituach Leumi is closed on Wednesdays. And it was told to us in such a way that basically translated to,
“Duh. Aren’t you citizens with Teudat Zehut cards? Everyone in the country knows Bituach Leumi is closed on Wednesday.”
Well, that’s how it felt, anyway.

And so we made a date of it, had some lunch, and put the pile on hold. For about another year.

I should add that in the interim we successfully reached them by telephone - a whole other story involving a lost secret code - and tried to give over our credit card info . Who refuses credit card info? Hint: if you are missing a secret code, Cellcom & Bituach Leumi. Make no mistake. In Israel, the secret code is king. We thought we'd untangled the mess but that Bituach Leumi pile of mail kept flowing in. And the truth – it felt kind of ominous.

And so today, a Monday, mind u, we arranged for gan pickups, babysitting and carpools. All through my morning yoga class, instead of clearing my mind, I debated back and forth: to bring my gun or to leave my gun. (Did I forget to post about getting a gun? Oops.) As I’ve been toting it around Efrat (recall Nir Barkat, Mayor of Jerusalem, advising Jerusalemites who have guns to carry guns and the subsequent advisory from our Minister of Defense…) it would seem like a no-brainer to bring it into town. Except for pat-down guy whose job it would be to check my gun, coat-check style. Except what if he asks me questions, fast, in Hebrew, faster than I can answer him and we’re left with him finding my gun while I’m fumbling for my license? My yoga class would have been better spent 'staying in the present' as my question was answered in 2 seconds flat by my fellow yogis at the end of class: Have gun? Bring gun. Sababa.

Mission Impossible
So I didn’t clear my mind but I did clear my calendar.  We had all day. And so we gathered up the oppressive stack of Bituach Leumi notices and made our way in to the center of town. Me, armed and ready to protect my beloved. Now - an aside - I kept hearing how town (Jerusalem) is empty on account of all the terror attacks. Couple that with the one- in-a-million parking spot I found ONE time in the impossible area surrounding Bituach Leumi, and I put my faith in a really hopeful silver lining and had my beloved turn into the impossible area. About 40 minutes after turning onto Shlomtzion Hamalka Street (and moving about 40 meters) Bob looked at me and said “It’s probably best you carry the gun.”  

Ignoring the obvious (hungry man suffering from traffic fatigue will want to eat meat), I pointed out my favorite dairy café as we inched along. An alternate silver lining.  Alas we found a spot and made our way to A (not THE) Bituach Leumi office where we were promptly asked if we had a va'ada. Va’ada? I repeated, buying myself some time, but not really as the door promptly closed on us. After a moment it reopened and there was a gruff offer of "English?". To which we answered by presenting our stack of papers and asking where the appropriate Bituach Leumi office was located. The way the guard looked at my stack of papers made me think not too many people let their Bituach Leumi mailings accumulate over an almost two year period. And so came the answer, gruff and in Hebrew.

Closed? On Monday?
Yes. Closed Monday.
This must be terror related.
Just today?

No. Every Monday!
But I thought Bituach Leumi was closed on Wednesday!  
Yes.  Also Wednesday. Open tomorrow from 8:30-12
Of course. I just don’t understand how they can generate all the mailings they’ve sent me on a 4 day work week.

There were no real words at this moment – just hunger and so, being the sport that he is, Bob agreed to view the menu of said favorite dairy café.  As we approached I saw some obvious security guys moving about. The curly behind-the-ear wire  is a dead giveaway. Then there was Mister Enthusiasm – literally a guy sitting outside the café announcing to anyone who passed by, “Nir Barkat, Mayor of Jerusalem is inside the café! And the American Ambassador just walked by!” He said it to us twice and then to a friend on the phone as Bob eyed the menu. He was really enthusiastic about it all. I contemplated popping in to let the mayor know how I’m following his advice but thought better of it in light of all the security.

In the end we walked further into town, looking for a certain bookstore. Mistaking the Mashbir (Israel’s version of Sears) for a mall, I got my big chance to get through security with my gun. It was quite uneventful but a sort of milestone nonetheless. We had a traditional his and her’s Ben Yehuda Street lunch – me a smoothie, him a falafel – and we chalked it up to another failed errand turned lunch date (of which we've had countless in 6+ years).   

And as sure as the mail will arrive, I know we will try, yet again. Stay tuned...

Swirling Thoughts #234 Escape from Cellcom…One woman’s tale of woe and deception

Disclaimer: I am fully aware that some of my perceived conspiracies are an outgrowth of my illiteracy and lack of cultural understanding. Perhaps most or even all of them. Nevertheless, my perception is my reality.
It all started one year ago in May of 2014 when our american credit card company decided, in light of the previous Thanksgiving’s credit card breach via Target, to cancel and re-issue cards to all its customers.

I promptly called every number on my credit card statement to let them know to automatically bill the new card in place of the old.

When I reached Cellcom I was informed that they would not be able to automatically bill the new card as it is a non-Israeli card.
But the old card was a non-Israeli card.
Yes but we can no longer accept non-Israeli cards for payment.
But if my card number had not been switched we wouldn’t be having this conversation and you would still be billing my non-Israeli card without incident.
And so, we cleared up the terms of Cellcom’s secret grandfather clause.

When a family makes money in America (Bob works in NY, remember) and spends it in Israel, suffice it to say the most efficient way to pay bills is to have them all centralized to a credit card in the country where the money is. That said…

It’s no problem just give us your Israeli card.
I don’t have one.
Insert long conversation of them not believing I don’t have an Israeli card and me not believing they won’t take my American card. A game of Chicken, if you will.
Then you will have to pay every month.
How will I know to pay?
We send an email.  
Small detail. Bob gets the emails. He doesn't always remember to send them to me.
Can you send me the email?
You are not authorized on the account so no.
How will I know to pay???
We will send you a text. Do not worry. 
Wait. A red flag just went up somewhere in the universe.
Are you sure?
Yes. I am sure.
And sure enough over the next many months I received the kinds of texts even an illiterate immigrant cannot ignore. With words like ‘immediately’ and ‘settle your debt’. They sure do talk tough over there at Cellcom. I tried calling many times to figure out better ways to work the billing. One time they told me to photograph my bill, my American credit card and my national ID card and sms it to a cell phone number they provided. Out of desperation I did this and was answered a week later with a debt collection text.  

And so I would go to the post office, ask to pay my Cellcom bill, identify myself as Robert (really they just take the ID number) and pay. And pay and pay and pay. Those bills seemed so high. Hundreds and hundreds of shekels high. And those texts were so threatening! I went to the post office early a few times hoping to avoid the nasty text. Each time they told me I didn’t have a balance! How could it be?

I spent a few hours poolside with my Israeli neighbor this past Pesach. She was horrified to find out I was paying anything more than 80 shekels. 
She got on the phone with Cellcom and demanded answers.
Why isn’t Lisa paying 80 shekels LIKE ALL OTHER ISRAELIS PAY?
She pays late every month.

Turns out that those texts are only sent after the billing cycle is over and the bill hasn’t been paid. At that point a 100 shekel late fee is added to the balance! Text does not equal bill. And for some strange reason the post office cannot identify my not-yet-overdue Cellcom balance without a paper bill. 

So for starters we asked for paper bills to be sent. Eureka. But the monthly average is still so high.
It’s still too high!
Oh but it includes home telephone services!
We don’t use Cellcom for our home telephone services.
But you should! You are paying for it.
Also it includes Television.
But it’s so worthwhile! You are already paying for Cellcom television!
We couldn’t take anything off until they spoke to Bob for his authorization. Because Bob set up the account. He got on the phone and asked that they authorize me, his wife, to also make important decisions regarding our account. They required that request in writing with a copy of my national identity card. OMG.

After Pesach I checked the mailbox for our new paper bill at least twice a week for a month, effectively doubling the amount of trips to the mailbox I’ve made since we made aliyah. Guess what? No bill. I checked with Bob. Not even an email bill. But I got a LOT of phone calls trying to re-sell me Cellcom TV service. Until I realized the benefit of living in the HOLY land.
We don’t have TV!
Don’t you want TV?
We’re religious Jews! We don’t believe in TV! Please stop calling!

Now my Hebrew isn’t great and I rely a lot on pictures to explain things like, for example, the booklet my kids brought home on how to deal with possible emergencies such as rockets, shells and

(Incidentally, I asked my 5 year old what we are supposed to do if we find ourselves in this particular situation. She answered very matter-of-factly. We pray.)

And I rely a lot on my kids to translate for me. Which is exactly what Barbara did last week when she got the ominous debt collection text from Cellcom.

And so I reached my limit. I dispatched Bob to hook us up to a new cell phone provider just hours before he left for New York. Like 2 hours before. He saw I meant business.

And like that, we were free. For about five minutes. 

The first call came in exactly 12 hours later. It was Yossi from Cellcom. I started laughing right away.
I know I’m a funny guy but I didn’t even say anything yet!
You don’t have to Yossi.
Our connection isn’t so great. Probably because you are no longer using Cellcom!
It’s okay, Yossi! I’m not coming back.
But we have a great deal!
Barbara was in the car with me. I assured her they would be calling back.
Eventually they will even call back in English, I told her.

Today they called her looking for Robert. She gave them my number. This is how it went.
Shalom, can we speak to Robert?
This is Robert.
(Pause….Robert is not... a man?

This was my chance.
Oh, no! Robert is short for Roberta. In America, Roberta is a woman's name. When we made aliyah they dropped the a.

Somehow this ridiculous lie was deemed reasonable and she continued with her pitch. I cut her off.

I can’t. I won’t. There is nothing you can say that will bring me back.
But why? Please. Explain it to me. You can speak in English.

She really wanted to understand.

I paid hundreds of shekels extra each month in late fees all because they refused to take my American credit card and that the only way I would ever come back is if they would repay me those fees and accept my American credit card. I’m done.
I understand, Robert.
Thank you! And please please please have them stop calling me. Because I’m not coming back.

Post script. No Cellcom calls or texts were received from this last conversation in May until today. I guess “NO” means “Ask me again in five months.”