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How Many People, and Bulbs, Does It Take to Change a Light in Budapest?

Vintage Tungsram advertisement

Jet-lagged and dazed, I arrived to my Budapest rental on a rare sunny afternoon in early November. I’m revisiting a place I once called home and which evokes complicated emotions. On relatively short notice, I’d found a one-bedroom apartment through Homeaway.com. Paolo, the Italian property manager, greeted me when I stepped out of the taxi. I followed him as he carried my luggage up a wide staircase. The building looked either “vintage” or rundown, depending on one’s frame of mind, yet the renovated apartment was nicer than in the photos. The very high ceilings made it seem more spacious. He explained that the furnace wasn’t working but space heaters would keep me warm until it was fixed. That did not bother me because a review of this property spoke highly of the owner’s responsiveness, one reason I chose it. As I began to settle in, I noticed that two of the three bulbs in the kitchen ceiling light fixture were dead, the light over the stove did not work, and one bulb in the bathroom was out, too. I called Paolo and he returned that evening. He took a large step ladder from the storage pantry, set it up and climbed it. Like the tantalizingly close fingertips of God and Adam atop the Sistine Chapel, a gap remained between his digits and the bulbs.

“Someone else will have to take care of this,” he said.

The next day a team of men arrived to fix the heat. They solved the problem in five minutes. I figured that Paolo had told the owner about the lights, yet a few days passed without any communication. Since the sun sets around 4pm, the darkness began to bother me. I wondered if I had made a mistake in selecting this place because, unlike several AirBnB listings I’d viewed, it had been considerably less expensive. Had I again fallen into the trap of letting price be an overdetermining factor? Rather than get sucked into the emotional quagmire of second-guessing, I improvised and wore my hiking headlamp when I cooked. Why did I bring a headlamp for a city sojourn? Because…Budapest! It’s as changeable as it is charming.

Three days later, I asked the owner for an update via the Homeaway site. He wrote that he’d contacted a company and was waiting to hear from them. Eventually the owner messaged me late one afternoon. The light guy (for lack of a better descriptor) could come the next day: did I want to be present when he did the work and, if yes, when was I available?

I’d already planned to visit the oldest daughter of the family I stayed with during a college semester. I wondered if I should let the light guy come whenever he could so I wouldn’t have to be involved. Perhaps a regular tourist might have made that choice, yet my intuition told me to be there. Since I didn’t want to rearrange my schedule, I wrote to the owner that the light guy could come before 10am or after 4pm. With less than 24 hours notice and the limited window I’d offered, I didn’t believe he’d show up. To my surprise, I heard a knock at the door just after 4pm.

A thickset man carrying a tall ladder and an orange plastic bag introduced himself. When he smiled, I noticed he had more gaps in his mouth than teeth. I showed him the two dark bulbs in the kitchen ceiling fixture, the one in the bathroom, and the defunct stove light. He pointed to the stove and shook his head.

“I don’t think I have a bulb for that,” he said in Hungarian, in a tone suggesting that no one had told him about it, therefore he was not prepared.

Sighing loudly, he took a screwdriver from his bag and removed the plastic panel that protected the light and the fan. He took out the bulb. He also pointed out, in a somewhat condescending manner, that the fan filter needed to be replaced; indeed, it had turned an awful brown. Perhaps he thought I lived here and had neglected this basic task. After lecturing me, he rummaged in his bag and produced a bulb identical to the one he’d removed.

“Look at that!” he said, as if he were a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

He had performed a typical Hungarian charade in three acts. First, create the expectation that you can’t solve the problem. Second, point out another issue to distract from the original one. Third, try to do the job (and maybe even succeed), and make it seem as if one has performed a miracle. In this script, the other person is expected to heap effusive praise for the, uh, miracle. He inserted the bulb and it worked.

One down, three to go.

He set up the ladder under the ceiling fixture. He slowly climbed to the top, breathing laboriously at each step. Worried he might pass out or keel over, I steadied the ladder. He reached for a bulb but it was behind his head. As he tried to twist the bulb, I feared he’d twist his arm out of his shoulder socket.

“Wouldn’t it be easier if you moved the ladder?” I asked.

“No, no, it’s fine,” he said, even though his body position spelled disaster.

After a few more fumbles and raspy breaths that sounded like death rattles, he climbed down and repositioned the ladder, not optimally but better than before. He went back up, unscrewed one of the two dead bulbs, passed it to me, and asked me to hand him one of the new ones. He screwed it in. It didn’t work. We repeated this procedure with a second bulb and then a third. We struck out.

“The bulbs are no good,” he said. “I just bought them.”

At first, I could not believe that so many fresh lightbulbs didn’t work. Wasn’t Hungary home to Tungsram, a large and prestigious bulb manufacturer? When I lived in Denver I once noticed that some lightbulbs I’d bought had been made here, a discovery that made me smile. I suspected the socket was faulty and the fixture would need to be replaced. More hassle.

He decided to work on the bathroom light for a change of scenery. In unscrewing the non-working bulb it flickered a bit. The socket was still live. After I handed him a couple of new bulbs, he found one that worked.

Two down, two to go.

That bit of progress inspired him to revisit the kitchen fixture. He unscrewed the second of the two dead bulbs and replaced it. Miraculously, the new one functioned. By then we’d used up his bulb supply. The light guy seemed ready to call it quits. I looked in the storage pantry and found a spare. I handed it to him and he screwed it in. The kitchen brightened.

Success!

After he stepped off the ladder, he grinned and raised his right hand, palm towards me. I lifted mine and slapped his palm for a high five. We both laughed. That unpredictable moment would not have arisen without years of meditation, Feldenkrais lessons and Aikido practice. I remember a time when I would have recoiled at touching a stranger and I would not have considered that he and I were on the same team, rather than locked into a script.

“Thanks for your help,” he said.

“No problem,” I said, relieved I had adequate light. “Can you get a refund for the faulty bulbs?” I asked. It turned out they were made in China.

“No,” he said. “It used to be that you could test them in the shop. Not anymore. I just bought 30 bulbs and only half were good.”

As he packed up his ladder he asked me if I liked working here. I told him I didn’t live here and that I had not been in Budapest in a very long time.

“Everything has changed and nothing has changed at all,” he said.

That seemed about right, for Hungary and for me, too.


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