Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The joys of being a foreigner: light bulbs

For me, one of the hardest parts of living in a foreign country is the number of times I end up looking like a complete idiot. I'm forced to ask a sales person a dumb question to understand how something works, or say the wrong thing, or do something that is completely acceptable in the US, but extremely weird in the UK. And as I was reminded this past weekend, light bulbs seem to be my number one nemesis.

Sure, I've managed to navigate the National Health Service with ease, got a job, paid my taxes, joined a community orchestra, figured out that in terms of newspapers, I'm a Guardian reader. But figuring out which light bulbs to buy? Beyond my abilities.

But let me try and justify this... light bulbs in the UK are hard! Not only do I need to chose the correct wattage, regular or energy efficient. Light bulbs are sorted into letters, A-G. The chandelier in my living room takes size E candle bulbs with small bayonets.

Bayonets? Yeah. The first time I heard that, this is what I imagined: [picture of bayonet attached to gun; removed]

My landlord looked at me as if I was an absolute idiot while he explained that bayonets are the little sticks coming out of the base of a light bulb (see the above picture).

So after spending several minutes on my knees in my local grocery store looking at all the light bulbs this past weekend, I still picked out the wrong one. Even though it was a type E candle bulb with small bayonets, the base was too thick. I've got a drawer in my kitchen with several light bulbs which I've been too busy or sheepish to return because they don't fit properly. And even though I'm a fanatic about recycling everything, I don't even attempt to get the energy efficient variety. I've only ever been able to find one that fit once, and that's a more expensive mistake. The only way I manage at the moment is to buy light bulbs in bulk whenever I find the right one, and to save a copy of the box.

But some day I'll figure it out. Some day I'll be able to walk into a store, know exactly where my light bulbs are, and pick up a box, even if it's a different brand. Of course, the week that happens will probably be just about the time my visa expires.


  1. Great post, Anne. I remember when I had a friend from the UK visiting here in the US, and we went shopping. We were in a department store and each were going to look for what we wanted. She said, "I'm taking the trolley and I'll be in tea towels." I knew what the trolley were, but tea towels? When you say towel, I think bathroom, not kitchen. Suffice to say, it took me a while to find her. And yes, I felt like an idiot when I found out what tea towels were.

  2. Haha...if it's any comfort,I am British and I still have no idea at all about buying lightbulbs,and have to take anything specialist to a lightbulb shop.Recently a halogen bulb broke and I had to go and describe it to the shopkeeper 'Was it long?' 'Err..yes' 'Long like a pencil?' '' 'More like a bell?' 'Err yes, but a long bell..''And what was the wattage?'

  3. Thanks for sharing, Andrea! I've altered my vocabulary enough that I'm not usually caught up saying the wrong word (mobile, queue, etc), but I don't use "cart" often enough to remember to say "trolley". I've looked like an idiot a few times over that one. =)

    That IS comforting, Keren! Hearing that makes me immensely happy! =) Perhaps it's just that I've never owned a fancy light before, but I really never had these problems when I lived in the US.

  4. I too, have gotten the wrong light bulb. Usually I take the old one to the store but it is hard to do when it is a flood lamp. Fortunately I have fixtures that take both kinds so when I get the wrong one I can still use it.


  5. So reassuring to know I'm not alone! I keep hoping a light will burn out in the apartment, I'll check the bulb and discover it's one I already have in stock... but it hasn't happened yet. =)

  6. Oh and try buying a bayonet light fitting in the Netherlands. I had to find a massively specialist shop.

  7. I love chatting you, Keren, you really do get this foreigner thing! =)

  8. Oh, it's not all that easy in the States, either! Try finding a 3-way compact fluorescent bulb that fits inside the harp in a table lamp or a smaller floor lamp... or low-wattage compact fluorescents to replace the vanity bulbs in a chandelier. The first attempt at that made us feel as if we were eating under police interrogation lights. I finally got smart and started looking at the "lumens" rating before I ordered (online was the only source). And then the company discontinued that particular bulb...

    Until it broke a few years ago, we had to look high and low for 3-way bulbs with a mogul (meaning, jumbo-sized) base for a lamp we inherited from my in-laws.

  9. Guess it just depends; if you've got a crazy light, seems like finding bulbs anywhere is difficult!

    hehehe. I love the image of your lights being so bright it was like a police interrogation. =)

  10. It's that hard? I usually write the bulb stats down or I take the bulb with me shopping. It doesn't take too long, but some bathroom or chandelier bulbs are available but harder to find.

  11. With the box and a burned out bulb this past weekend, it still took me several minutes, and I still ended up with the wrong one. But it could be that it is so hard because I've got an obscure light fixture. But I'm going to blame the UK for having too many different types. =)

    Or maybe you just know something the rest of us don't, Medeia. =)


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