By Scott Dominic Carpenter author of French Like Moi
Surprise is the highest form of pleasure, and it’s easier to find than people think. You don’t have to invest your 401(k) in Powerball numbers to enjoy the fruits of unpredictability, or even travel by Amtrak. No, it turns out you can simply move to Paris, where the ordinary so often leads to adventure.
It went like this. Shortly before Anne returned from the States, I finished painting the walls and pushing the furniture back in place. During my final check, I discovered the bedroom lamp had burnt out. This led me to hoof it to the local supermarket, which stocks bulbs of various shapes and sizes.
Only after I returned home with my trophy did I realize my error.
In France, the base of a bulb is called a culot, a word derived from cul, which translates as “ass.” Although ungentlemanly in some contexts, cul raises no eyebrows in others. In polite company, you can refer to the bottom of a bottle as a cul de bouteille, or to a dead-end street as a cul-de-sac. You can even mention that a woman has a bouche en cul de poule, and even though you’ve just said her mouth resembles a chicken’s anus, it’s somehow a compliment. Culot is similarly inoffensive. The hint at anatomy lies—or perhaps sits—dormant.
Your standard light bulb in France is available in two different asses—the threaded type so common in the US, or the unthreaded model, where two pins stick out like the bolts on Frankenstein’s neck. At the store, I’d mistakenly purchased the Frankenstein-type ass, whereas my lamp required the screw-type variety.
Back home the solution would be straightforward: you would exchange the thing. After all, in the US of A the customer is always king. In France, though, it’s best to remember how royals occasionally wind up with their head in a basket. It’s best to expect a little roughing up.
At the store’s service counter, I found a middle-aged man with hooded eyes. He was trying to sleep while standing up.
“I’d like to exchange this bulb,” I announced.
He struggled to focus. “What’s the matter with it?”
“It’s the wrong ass.” I pointed to the Frankenstein pins. “I need the screw-type.”
There was a long silence.
“You can’t exchange it here,” he said. “You’ll need to do it at the register.” He seemed rather pleased with himself.
Nothing if not obedient, I navigated through the aisles, pausing to pick up the screw-ass bulb I needed. Soon I had joined the line at the checkout. Because the register I’d selected gives right of way to pregnant women and invalids, both of whom are abundant in my neighborhood, I had time to reflect.
In the States, returning merchandise is not just easy, it is a birthright. Exchanging a purchased article for a different color or size is pretty much expected. Since you can always trade things in later, Americans don’t even try to get it right the first time. Usually you can choose to swap your goods for a different product altogether, or even reverse the transaction, backing out as boldly as you might, say, from the Paris Accords or NATO. If there are limits to this principle, I have not encountered them. My mother recently returned a set of dishes despite having used them for five years. Even though she possessed no sales slip or original packaging, and the store could find no record of the sale, they issued her a full refund.
Only later did she happen upon the missing receipt; turns out she’d purchased the stuff elsewhere.
So it goes.
Back at the grocery store it was my turn at the register. The cashier was a large woman shaped much like a pyramid, and nearly as expressionless. I produced the bulb, along with its receipt.
“What’s that?” she said.
“I need to exchange it. It has the wrong ass.” I held up the screw-ass version I wished to replace it with.
She sat motionless. People behind me were getting antsy. At any moment a pregnant invalid might show up and butt in.
“You can’t do that here,” she said finally. “You’ll have to take it to the service counter.”
As a kid I’d found myself in more games of keep-away than I care to admit, so I saw how this would unfold. They’d send me back and forth till I ran home in tears. “I have already been to the service counter,” I declared. “They sent me to you.”
The Pyramid gritted her teeth. Behind her darkening brow, steam collected.
“Saïd!” she bellowed. “Saïd!”
The man with hooded eyes lumbered forward, and a discussion ensued. Two other cashiers joined the fun. What to do? Was such an exchange allowed? How was it to be handled? Who was authorized to reverse a charge? None of the employees had ever done it before. I traveled from register to register as various cashiers took a run at this feat, the way Olympic hopefuls try again and again to land a triple axel. Eventually a manager was found. He straightened his cuffs, and after twenty minutes of negotiation, a swap was arranged between two bulbs of equal wattage and value.
On my way home, I pondered my lesson. In the States, if you don’t like one light bulb, you trade it in for another—as easily as if it were a car, a spouse, or a pair of socks. In France, no matter what bed you’ve made for yourself, they expect you to lie in it. Whether you’re talking education, careers, friends, or home accessories, there are few take-backs. Today’s small adventure had revealed the cornerstone of life in France, its base, its very cul.
By then I had returned, and I screwed my trophy into the lamp. With a flourish of satisfaction, I flicked the switch. Twice. Three times.
A brief inspection revealed the cause of all my ills: I’d left the cord unplugged after moving the furniture. I didn’t need that bulb after all!
I considered returning it.
City of Light Bulbs is extracted from the book French Like Moi: A Midwesterner in Paris by Scott Dominic Carpenter. Find out more about Scott and his book on his website sdcarpenter.com