24 heures


“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?

Remettre les pendules à l’heure

PenduleThis weekend in France we perform what for me is the most detested of rituals: setting the clocks forward. Spring forward, fall back. That hour will haunt me for weeks, even months. When I wake at my usual 5:30 a.m. it will be darker than usual, although at this time of year that will change soon enough – with spring springing, soon the birds will be up almost before they go to sleep. As for me, like the farm animals, I will be hungry at all the wrong times. Awake too late, tired too early.

“It’s only an hour. Get over it,” my husband says. Humph. It’s all right for some, especially those able to sleep ten hours at a stretch. That hour matters to me. It is lost, if not forever, at least misplaced until the fall when it will land like manna back in my day, making that last Sunday in October feel deliciously long before sending me into a tailspin for several more weeks.

For some mysterious reason, the springing or falling always occurs a week or two before or after the switch is made in North America, temporarily adding to or diminishing the usual 6-hour time difference between Paris and Toronto. I’m no good with numbers but that “décalage horaire” (time difference) is indelibly inked in my brain, as if my biological clock has a dual time zone.

There is no easy parlance for the time change in French. It’s just “changer l’heure” or “le passage à l’heure d’été / à l’heure d’hiver.” The time change from winter time to summer time is a simple fact of French life that, like most things, people seem to accept as well and good.

The expression, “remettre les pendules à l’heure,” describes the act of setting an old-fashioned pendulum clock but in common usage actually has another meaning altogether: to set things straight. This comes in rather handy in France. Things just have a way of needing to be straightened out.

How do you feel about the time change? Love, hate or indifferent?

L’instant présent

IMG_4038One of the wonderful things about learning another language is the chance to see things differently. Thinking about the present in French leads me to appreciate fully the dual nature of this expression. The present moment – l’instant présent – is indeed a gift.

In case you think I’m going all philosophical on you, rest assured. I’m on holiday at the moment; hence my current fascination with the now. The stopping of clocks, the forgetting of what day it is. A momentary meditation on tree branches dancing in the wind, the clink of my coffee cup in the saucer, the sensation of sand between my toes. Suddenly there is no time like the present.

Daily I struggle with the demon of time. If I ignore it, the silly bugger has a way of sneaking up on me. “What? It’s ten o’clock already? Where did the time go?” If I obsess about it, time is a monkey on my back. Cracking his whip, urging me to go faster, to hurry up and move on to the next thing. Get it done. Then what?

The solution, as ever, lies somewhere in between. Set goals for the important stuff, stick to a schedule some of the time, forget about it for the rest. I’m not sure time can be managed in any real sense. What I do know is that it is our only currency. It can’t be saved but it can be spent wisely. A moment can be stretched almost to eternity if we allow ourselves to wander there.

So excuse me while I slip into l’instant présent. The weather is nice and I may decide to stay awhile.

Et toi?