The numbers game

Chiffres_LettresDes chiffres et des lettres is France’s longest running game show. It will never see me as a contestant.

Just as there are dog people and cat people, I believe there are word people and numbers people. Three guesses as to which group I belong to – and that’s as high as I’ll count without a calculator, merci.

I never much cared for math. I can do the basics if forced to but in general it’s just too much work. Hubby and I have an arrangement: he does the finances and pays the bills; I take care of spending the money, as well as sticking stamps on envelopes and seeing they make it to the post office.

Somehow I gave birth to two math whizzes who both aced their Baccalaureate ‘S’ (scientific series) diplomas. One is a software engineer who’s on his way to a masters, the other is studying to be a vet. Either way, they did not inherit my aversion to numbers.

Learning to speak French is a challenging exercise for anyone with no taste for figures. You have to do math just to count. For example, seventy is 60 + 10 (soixante-dix). Eighty is 4 x 20 (quatre-vingt) and ninety is an equation: 4 x 20 + 10 (quatre-vingt-dix). C’est compliqué!

And then there’s the time. The French, like most Europeans, use a 24-hour clock. So not only do I translate the numbers from English, I must convert them from twelve to twenty-four. One p.m.? Let’s see, that’s 12 +1 = 13 hours, or in French treize heures. Most of the time, that is. There is no a.m. or p.m. in French but some people still use the regular clock, and add a suffix on so you know what time of day it is. So instead of saying 23 heures, they’ll say onze heures du soir. Keeps you on your toes if nothing else.

You’d think after awhile I could do the math directly in French. Wrong! Not if you learn the language as an adult. It seems different parts of your brain deal with numbers and language, and if you learn too late never the twain shall meet. (How many is a twain anyway?)

Years are even more challenging as they insist on expressing them as whole numbers. We got married in Paris in 1986. It took me until the mid-90s to figure out how to say that many numbers out loud. (Mille neuf cent quatre-vingt six).

Phone numbers kill me. In Canada we had 7-digit numbers back in the day. To keep things simple we said each number individually: 1-2-3, 4-5-6-7. In France, not only had they already gone to ten digits, they doubled them up so you had to do the math. I learned my  French mobile number by heart years ago but still translate it in my head.

(By the way: what is it with men and numbers? My husband can remember all our old phone numbers, and we’ve moved at least six times. He can remember the license plate of our first car. And yet he cannot remember most of the family birthdays or which ear is my deaf side.)

And then there’s money. When I first came to France, the conversion between Canadian dollars and French francs was fairly simple, about 5 FRF for 1 CDN. I got to know the prices of things fairly quickly. I soon noticed that my in-laws and other older family members often talked in astronomical amounts: thousands of francs for things that cost hundreds. The older generation still likes to convert prices to old francs, e.g. before the currency reform in 1960.

When the Euro came along in 2002 my brain went into overdrive multiplying and dividing everything by 6.5 – until I got a fancy currency calculator that did it for me.

Now we work in Switzerland and have to calculate in Swiss francs. Recently the franc went up in value and is now close to par with the euro. We win some and lose some on that one with bills to pay in both currencies, but I’m just thrilled not to have to do the math.

I’ve heard that you can test a spy’s mother tongue by asking them math questions, which are notoriously tough for a non-native speaker. Guess I’ll add that to my list of reasons never to go undercover – in addition to being unable to keep anything to myself and fainting at the sight of a gun.

Et toi? How are you with numbers?

How far to Pétaouchnok?

IMG_3218It’s as foreign and far removed as Timbuktu, and as unpronounceable as any four syllables in French can be. And just where is Pétaouchnok you ask? Theoretically somewhere in Russia or the Ukraine, although it’s an imaginary place. Also known in French as le trou perdu, le bled or le patelin. Pretty well everywhere in provincial France outside of Lyon, Bordeaux, Strasbourg, Marseille, Toulouse and Nice. I exaggerate, if only slightly.

Just as bizarre and foreign sounding are most of the place names that appear on the signs of French towns – their sister cities or twin towns as they call them over here. Twinning or jumelage in French is a kind of socioeconomic mentoring between towns of different places and cultures intended to foster better understanding and economic ties. The European list is here if you’re interested.

Our current town is too small to have a twin, but nearby Evian has two. I am still waiting to see one that says ‘Ville jumeléé avec Pétaouchnok.’

The twinning program in its current form began after the second world war, which explains why so many French towns are twinned with German ones. There was certainly a need to bridge the huge gap between European countries in the post-war period. As one of my all-time favorite television programs so brilliantly spoofed:

I wonder whether twinning exists on a different level.

The street was used to live on was called Le Couchant, referring to the sunset. We had been living there for ten years when, on the other side of town, they built a new development with a street called Le Levant, or the rising sun. One day my daughter asked if we thought that there was a family living there who were just like us, only opposites. Where the Dad was always giving orders and the Mom was really happy all the time. Out of the mouths of babes.

Does your town have a twin? How do you say ‘trou perdu’?



Système D


MacGyver, aka Monsieur Système D

The French have a secret weapon. It gets them through many a sticky situation and even allows them to pull off some pretty amazing stunts. It’s called le Système D.

The D stands for ‘débrouille’, meaning to get on with it, figure it out, use any means available to do something. It also stands for ‘démerde’, a slang way of saying the same thing. Either way, tu te débrouilles or tu te démerdes is a very French way of getting it done. System D has now been adopted in English, thanks to Anthony Bourdain.

The French love a challenge. It’s probably just as well given the number of challenging situations they must face daily in the form of strikes, traffic jams, holidays and life in general. They love the television character MacGyver for his ability to get himself out of any situation on nothing more than wits and a Swiss army knife.

How has living in France taught me to use le Système D?

Traveling. No one is there to help you or tell you what to do when you arrive in a place not knowing what’s what. Even if you speak the language, it may not be clear where to go or what to do in a given situation – buying a ticket, signing up your children for activities, figuring out the best way to get from point A to point B. The information is always there, somewhere, but it’s usually hidden behind a counter or an unfriendly face. Système D teaches you to find it.

Communicating. Expressing yourself in a foreign language can be a matter of survival. You want your meat cooked rather than raw? Have a plane to catch? Refuse to accept such poor service? Better figure out how to get that across. In conversational terms, this means grappling with French grammar and a limited vocabulary to share your nuanced, erudite thoughts. Or just to let off steam. If you don’t know the word for something, you have to figure out another way to say it. Or say something else. Either way, it’s System D.

Cooking.  I used to cook by the book. Or by the recipe. One-half teaspoon of this, carefully folding that. But cooking in France is different: ingredients, pan sizes, cooking temperatures. French cookbooks use terms I don’t quite understand. Now I look at recipes for inspiration and then wing it. Use my imagination, substitute ingredients, taste while cooking. Sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s not so great. Rarely is it the same twice.

Working: Somebody wants to pay you to do something and you really aren’t sure you can do it? One thing I learned in France is that you have to act like you know what you’re doing if you want to be respected. Teaching. Translating. Interpreting. Assisting. Coordinating. As Nike said, just do it. That said, there is a strict framework that must be respected. Customs. Laws. Hierarchy. So System D only goes so far.

Socializing. You’re at a crowded apéro and are dying of thirst but there’s a chatty person between you and the drinks. Do you: a) wait until he or she naturally runs out of steam and you can politely manoeuver your way to the bar, b) create a distraction by pretending to see someone you know and grabbing a drink or c) engage the person in conversation while discreetly rotating so that you can reach the bar?  Answer: B or C. if you said A, you need to work on your Système D.

What about you? Do you stick to the rules or are you a débrouillard?

Costard cravate

Costard-cravateDid you know that French men wear costumes to work?

‘Costard-cravate’ is the familiar term for a suit and tie, the uniform of the French businessman. The official name is le costume, or more correctly, according to the dictionary, le complet, although I have never heard this term used.

For special occasions, in a funny turn of franglais, they wear un smoking, or what we call a tuxedo. A.k.a. a monkey suit.

The business casual craze has been slow to catch on in France. Le costume is still de rigueur for les hommes in the corporate world, finance and politics. For women there’s a bit more flexibility but classic apparel for the career girl is un tailleur, or skirt suit.

This is slowly changing, however, in the much of the European business world. My husband, who now manages IT projects for a biopharma company, goes to work in jeans and sports gear. Dressing up means wearing chinos and a shirt with a collar. I have to admit I prefer this most of the time. But I sort of miss seeing him in a suit now and then.

When I was a kid, my Dad would leave for work every morning in a suit and tie, usually topped by an overcoat, a hat on his head and carrying a leather attaché case. I thought all men did this, until I discovered that not everyone’s Dad worked in an office.

Not having to wear a suit and tie is one of the reasons I’m grateful not to be a man.

When I first left school and went to work in an office, I hated having to put on stockings and heels. Dressing up like a secretary felt a lot like wearing a costume. So I decided to get a job in advertising, where only the suits wore suits. Copywriters and art directors could get away with just about anything as long as they were ‘creative.’

Now I work freelance and when I go to out to client meetings I try to look professional yet still feel like myself. The rest of the time, working at my home office, I might wear the same clothes that I do for yoga.

What about you? Is it costard-cravate or do you prefer to keep it casual?

Mayday, m’aider!

Did you know that the expression ‘mayday’ used as a distress signal comes from French? I did not, although I speak the language and have lived in this country for over twenty years.

Amazing what you learn watching television. I was glued to the news last night watching reports of the Germanwings plane crash in the southern French Alps. A former commercial pilot being interviewed on France 2 says that the mystery of this crash is the fact that there was no call of ‘Mayday, mayday, mayday’ – which must be repeated three times according to international protocol. And suddenly it clicks. Mayday is ‘m’aider’ – meaning ‘help me’ in the formal or infinitive form of the verb.

Like you, I am horrified by this crash. The loss of innocent life, the tragic fate of 150 people who took off for a short-haul flight from Barcelona to Dusseldorf on Tuesday morning. Something that low-cost travel has made almost like a taking a bus for many Europeans today.

It is all the more shocking considering that the flight was operated by Germanwings, a low-cost affiliate of Lufthansa, one of the world’s safest and most technically reliable airlines.

Perhaps because it has happened here in France, I find myself obsessing about that 8-minute descent into oblivion. The strange trajectory of the crash into the worst possible mountainous region. The gut-wrenching fear of the passengers, the impossible news for the families, the courage of the crews who must sift through the debris for bodies at 1500 meters near Seynes-les-Alpes.

Like many, I’ve considered the possibility that it could be an act of terror. Suicide or a medical emergency is now looking likely with the discovery that one of the pilots was locked out of the cockpit just before the crash.

My thoughts are with the victims and their families, the hundreds of police and investigators trying to recover the bodies on treacherous terrain at high altitude.

And for anyone who has to get on a plane knowing that their worst fears could be just a ‘mayday’ away.