“Quelle heure est-il?”
If there’s one question you will often hear in France, it’s “What time is it?”. Or more likely the informal construction, which breaks all the rules you are taught but is most commonly used: “Quelle heure il est?”
One of the frustrations I encountered when first moving here was the 24-hour clock. I discovered the French use the military time that I’d only heard before as a kid watching TV shows like Hogan’s Heroes and Mash, where they would say ‘Oh-seven-hundred hours, sir!’ for 7:00 a.m. The French use this clock not just in airports and train stations but all the time.
For non-native speakers, this requires some mental gymnastics. First you have to convert the 12-hour time clock we English speakers normally use into the 24-hour version. Alors…7 p.m. becomes 19:00, dix-neuf heures. Ten-thirty becomes 22:30, vingt-deux heures trente. That’s way too much math for me. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m numerically challenged, and the part of my brain that does language doesn’t like to do business with the part that counts.
“But it’s much less confusing than your a.m. and p.m.,” a French colleague said. “Half the time you English speakers forget to add it and we don’t know exactly what time you mean.” Ah, the French love of precision.
However, when you finally get the 24-hour clock down, you discover that although it is the rule, there are often exceptions. Sometimes people will simply say ‘une heure et demi’ for one-thirty in the afternoon. You are supposed to contextually understand that they don’t mean 1:30 a.m. Which I get, but hey, if it’s all about being precise…?
I love digital clocks because they do half the work for you. On the other hand, the clock in the above image known as the cadran Laumaillé in Toulouse makes telling the time especially challenging. There seems to be some mystery around its orgins (perhaps our Toulousaine friend Mélanie of My Virtual Playground can help us with that?)
My relationship with time is strained at the best of times. The big time clock in the sky casts its shadow on my daily doings, making me perpetually stressed and late for lack of time or causing me to over compensate by being early. My assumption that the French would be very Latin and fashionably late proved wrong from the outset.
While my compatriots have a way of seeming all casual and relaxed about time, they are irritatingly prompt for things like meetings and events. I’ve been known to arrive ten minutes late and miss entire speeches. The upside is I’m usually just in time for the drinks.
What’s your relationship with time? Do you use the 24-hour clock?