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?