A couple of days back an electric bulb burst in our apartment. We had just finished dinner when I switched on the main light and *pop* – the bulb burst, and threw the apartment into darkness. My first thought was not about what to do next – that would come later – but how lucky we were not to have been anywhere near the bulb. Pieces of shattered glass reflected light that filtered in through the windows; there were probably many more in the darker areas of the room.
Perhaps it was a blown fuse; I looked around to see if the fuses were located inside the apartment. This was a new place, not yet familiar. When the obvious places didn’t reveal anything, I went outside and scanned the common areas of our building – no luck there either. We didn’t know our neighbours yet, so the only alternative was to call the concierge phone number listed on the message board and ask for help.
“Hello, do you speak English?”
“er…just a little..” A woman’s hesitant voice.
“I’m calling from Avenue d’Ouchy 85. We have a small problem in our apartment -”
“Wait minute please – what is your number?”
“It’s the one I’m calling from.”
“Is it xxxxxxxx?”
“OK, one person call you soon. Bye.” She hung up.
A few minutes later, a man called and started in French. I interrupted him.
“Excusez-moi – do you speak English?”
This was going to be tough. I tried telling him – in English – what had happened, stressing on the words “problem” “electricity”, and after listening to me he started off again in French, but it could as well have been Swahili. We take communication mostly for granted, which makes situations like these – where one doesn’t understand a word of the other – more surprising and disorienting than it should seem.
After struggling for a couple of minutes I gave up. I had his number, and perhaps a friend familiar with French could act as an intermediary. Before hanging up, he said “Bye, Bye” – the only two words that had made any sense to me.
Wife then called D, who called this man and got back to us: the man had reluctantly agreed to come over; he should be at our place in about half an hour. We lit some candles and waited.
The darkness, and the silence it brought along, took me back to childhood days in India where we faced frequent power-cuts in summer. I welcomed them – they gave me an excuse not to complete my homework due next day – but the mosquitoes and the heat would eventually have me cursing the local electricity board. I would rub Odomus – a mosquito repellent cream – over my hands and legs and sit next to candles, listening to the hollow sound of crickets in the dark. Sometimes, while with friends, we would exchange stories and jokes.
The man arrived after a while. He was short, plump and looked typically French – like one of those characters in a film depicting the Victorian era, if you chose to disregard his unkempt appearance. He shook hands in a brisk manner, and said something in French; I nodded, as if in complete understanding, and showed him the socket the burst bulb had occupied. Then he went outside and opened the “fuse room” – apparently each floor had one – and began to look for the blown fuse. I walked back and joined Wife inside our apartment.
“What’s he doing?” she asked.
“Checking for a blown fuse. Typically French, isn’t he?”
“Quite handsome, actually.”
“I thought he looked like Napoleon. To me most Frenchmen look like Napoleon – wonder why.”
“He’s probably the only Frenchman you know.”
“Probably the only Frenchman worth knowing…”
The man returned a few minutes later. Inside, he looked for a fuse and found it above the front door – the problem appeared to be with this one. He disappeared again for a while and returned with another fuse, which worked …. temporarily. The real problem was with the socket of the blown bulb: he unscrewed it, and left the wires hanging from the ceiling. Then, the new fuse worked: light, once again.
Before leaving, he explained something about the socket; we listened and nodded. We expected a bill, but he didn’t come out with any. I tipped him ten Francs, which he gladly accepted and wished us “Bye, Bye”.