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?

Crossing the border

We live in France, just across the border from Switzerland. Geneva is our closest big city and we’re as often on the Swiss side as we are in France. Work is in Switzerland. So is the airport, the bigger department stores and many of our favorite restaurants.

Crossing the border is no big deal. In fact, it has become largely a technicality, since the Schengen accords abolished the need to control the borders between 26 European countries.

La Haute Savoie
La Haute Savoie

In our corner of Lake Geneva, the border weaves a crooked line through hills and along rivers. When you’re driving around, you may change countries without even realizing it.

Recently we had visitors from Canada who wondered: how can you tell which side of the border you’re on?

It’s not all that obvious. Here in the Haute Savoie part of the French Rhône-Alpes region, we have a toe in Switzerland, a heel in Italy, and a long history of belonging to various sides. Like our sister region, the Savoie, our departmental flag is almost identical to the Swiss flag. Geneva was taken over by France during the revolution and at one point in history, the area where we now live was supposed to be part of French-speaking Switzerland.

« Entrée Savoie » par Florian Pépellin
Sign from our sister department, La Savoie « Entrée Savoie » par Florian Pépellin

But Switzerland is another country. Other than the Swiss flag itself, which proudly flies at every border outpost, here’s what to watch – and listen – for when you cross the border into Switzerland:

  1. Prices in Swiss francs
    One of the first things you will notice is the prices in Swiss Francs. Even if you don’t notice it right away, you’ll soon feel the pinch. One Swiss franc (1 CHF) is worth about .80 EUR cents, but the cost of just about everything is much higher than the exchange rate seems to justify.

2. Bus stops and public transit
The Swiss are great believers in public transit. Even small villages on the outskirts of big towns are well served by buses and trains. Ferry boats run by the CGN (Swiss national navigation company) take commuters from France to the Swiss side of Lac Léman (Lake Geneva).

3. Better roads and cleaner streets
Everything is well maintained in Switzerland. Which may be one reason why prices are higher.

4. Recycling bins
Even in public places like train stations and on the street, you often see bins specifically for recyclables like plastic.

5. Accent
The French like to make fun of the Swiss Romand accent, a kind of lilt that makes the phrases go up at the end. But then again, the French make fun of accents from everywhere – even within their own country.

 6. English spoken
After so many years in France, it surprised me at first to hear so much English spoken just across the border. You will notice that many different languages are spoken in Switzerland, but most commonly: French, German, Italian and English.

Caninette  7. Dog poop
Along with cleaner, better maintained streets comes a certain mania for picking up. Stoop-and-scoop bags are available pretty well everywhere in Switzerland. And beware of fines if you don’t pick up after le chien!

8. License plates
The plates on Swiss cars begin with the two-letter abbreviation of the Canton: GE for Geneva, VD for Vaud or ZH for Zurich, for example.

9. Vignette
You can’t drive on the Swiss motorways without paying an annual highway tax. I love the efficiency of it – a small price to pay instead of all those annoying tolls in France. La vignette (which you must display on your windshield) costs 40 CHF (33 EUR) and the borders on the main roads (ie, Bardonnex in Geneva) are often patrolled to catch visitors who haven’t paid up.

10. Frontaliers
You will also notice a lot of French license plates on the Swiss side. That’s because jobs are more plentiful and better paid. Les frontaliers, those who live in one country and work in another, are an unpopular bunch: Disliked by the French, who assume there’s something illegal or immoral about earning more money or paying less tax; and tolerated but not really liked or trusted by the Swiss.

I should know. I’m one of them.

What about you? Ever been confused about which side of the border you were on?