During the last few years I have been spending part of the summer in France, supposedly to avoid the summer heat of Israel. That has come to be something of a joke, as the summers in France have been as hot as – or even hotter than – the ones in Israel.
Still, there are many benefits to life in France, or at least the rural part where we usually stay. The food is good and relatively cheap, there is a quieter, slower pace of life, and people are friendly, polite and usually well-mannered. For my husband and myself it is a time of relaxation and contemplation.
Mastering the French language is usually not too much of a problem for speakers of English, especially if, like me, they were taught some of the basics of French (as well as Latin) at school. In many cases the vocabulary is similar if not identical, though the grammar can be daunting.
But the biggest bugbear for me is the numbers. They follow a law of their own, one which bears no resemblance to anything any speaker of English can recognize. Sometimes the number involves having to do addition, so that twenty-one is vingt-et-un (20 plus one), but 22 is vingt-deux. And sometimes you have to multiply, so that 80 is quatre-vingt, which is four times 20. But after that you have to add, so that 81 is quatre-vingt-et-une (four times 20 plus one) and so on, but 92 is quatre-vingt-douze (four times 20 plus 12) namely, multiplying and addition all rolled into one. Quel horreur! It’s a nightmare for someone like me whose grasp of arithmetic is somewhat shaky.
But as I have just turned 80, it is something of a consolation to use the term quatre-vingt to define my age rather than the mundane English term. There is something charming, even magical, about defining myself as four-times-20, as there is still an element of youthfulness somewhere in there. Even if I’m four times 20, the 20is still in there somehow, reminding me that once I was indeed just 20, in the far-off, long-lost world of my youth.
It’s also occurred to me that most of the people I grew up with and who were the friends of my youth must also have reached the same ripe old age. Help!
So, vive la France, and vive le Français, as long as it enables me to retain some latent element of the person I once was, and help me to overcome the ravages of time on my person.