Sunday, April 1, 2012

“I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” (Rogers and Hart, 1939)

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One might think that living in France would be very similar to life in the states - western culture, similar rules of law, driving on the right side of the road, etc. In many ways that is true but there are enough things that are different to keep one off balance. For instance, on Sundays, only the supermarkets open and they open for only three hours. If you forgot something on the last trip to the market, you won’t be able to return to the store and buy it after noon on a Sunday. The pharmacies here take turns on which one will be open on Sunday morning. (Note to self: do not get sick after noon on a Sunday.)

The other big example of creating imbalance is the time. The French use a 24-hour clock. I go to the crèche at 14h30, not at 2:30 PM.  The concert will be at 17h00 (5:00 PM).

I am always using mental gymnastics and my limited math skills to figure out what time it is. If I am talking on the phone with a French person whom I plan to meet in the afternoon, I need to work out the time in French so that I don’t show up two hours early (or late!) It is a constant struggle for me. Having 12-hour clocks – including the clock tower and its bell which rings on a 12-hour schedule – and a 12-hour watch don’t make it any easier!

I was looking for a Panda by FIAT! Oh well...
Case in point: I rented a Fiat Panda at Super U yesterday. As per the instructions told to me on the day that I reserved it, I picked it up after 08h45 (8:45 AM) and knew that I had to return the car before 18h15. In my head, I kept repeating dix-huit heures quinze but I told Ellen that the car had to be returned by 8:15 (huit heures quinze).

We drove to Nyons to meet our French friend Catherine and her friends. We all went for a three-hour walk among the orchards along the river, stopped at a café for a beer (une pression) and then left our friends to return to Vaison and return the car. Since I still was saying 8:15 (while thinking 18h15) I dropped Ellen off at the apartment, cleaned the car, filled the tank and returned it one-half hour early or so I thought!

Cherry blossoms

Cherry blossoms II
I got to the counter and the clerk immediately asked me why I was late. (There goes the balance again!) The question confused me as I thought I was early. He then repeated the time the car was due “dix-huit heures quinze at which point I finally realized my mistake. He told me that since I was late, I would have to pay for a weekend. He added that if there had been someone waiting on the car I would have also had to pay the difference between the Panda and the larger car that they would have had to provide to the waiting client.

I started apologizing. In French I was thinking: “espèce d’imbécile!” In English I was thinking: “What a doody-head!” as my friend John so often says. In either language, the generic translation would be “how stupid of me!”

The clerk reiterated that I might as well keep the car until Monday since I was going to have to pay for it. I replied that I didn’t want the car until Monday so I handed him the keys and said the car will stay at the store as I didn’t want to be responsible for any possible damages in addition to the weekend rate – and I would return on Monday to settle the bill.

The clerk looked at the clock (12 hour clock). It was five to eight (dix-neuf heures cinquante-cinq) and the store was closing in five minutes. To his credit and my surprise and relief, he took the paperwork and asked me to show him where I had left the car. He finished the paperwork and charged me for only one day. (There goes the balance again. The French are not known for bending rules/overlooking errors.)  On the way back into the store, I continued to apologize interspersed with thanks. He said that as soon as he saw that my license was from Michigan he figured that I might have erred on the time. More importantly to him, I acknowledged my mistake rather than arguing.

Nice ending to a very nice day albeit off-balance as usual.

The unique steeple in Nyons


  1. Hey, Mark, here's something that might help. Take this with you next time.

  2. What a "doody-head!" But, as usual, you handled it like a diplomatic doody-head. Funny! I probably would have paid and whined all the way home and back again. You're funny. A great lesson for your readers in French life and time.

  3. Howdy, to both of you, great lovers of the South,
    I am catching up with the news on your blog (no reading since January)
    The humor is intact:
    "I started apologizing. In French I was thinking: “espèce d’imbécile!” In English I was thinking: “What a doody-head!” as my friend John so often says. In either language, the generic translation would be “how stupid of me!” "[quote]
    I missed my exam (though I thought my paper on the sixties was an honest rendering)
    Friends from Bordeaux are arranging a mutual visit in Les Corbières (Perpignan). I will try to phone you should you want to come over before the election (22 April)

    Marie (Doubs)

  4. Bonjour ... also catching up here. A good story that has happened to us all who are used to other time zones, me in Paris ... always counting backwards and forward, hoping to not wake someone up or hoping that you aren't a day late for the birthdays, etc... good story, great ending!