French numbers are tricky; I struggled with them at first – not the math, but the words and their sounds. The way certain numbers are spoken in French is quite different to that in English.
Eighty in English is quatre-vingts in French – literally translated four-twenties.
Ninety-three becomes quatre-vingt-treize – four-twenty-thirteen, and seventy seven becomes soixante-dix-sept – sixty-ten-seven.
Not only the translations seemed challenging to my Anglophone brain but the style of speaking numbers is different. I’m used to hearing the number of a train journey or flight number stated as digits. At Gare du Nord I’d normally listen for an announcement for train “nine two one three”, instead it would be announced as neuf-mille-deux-cent-treize, nine thousand two hundred and thirteen. As for the sounds themselves, try this € 177.58: cent-soixante-dix-sept euro, cinquante-huit or to my ears sonswazondeesseteurosankontweet.
To be able to understand in live conversation I realised I would have to stop translating and just get in tune with the pattern and rhythm of numbers. I practised by counting in French things like my knitting stitches and exercise repetitions at the gym just to get those pesky numbers embedded in my brain. Now I rattle off my date of birth when required and my mobile phone number tumbles out more easily in French than in English; it’s a more musical number in French than in English anyway. When I’m buying food at the markets I hear the price of my purchases first pop most of the time.
Last weekend my Dearly Beloved and I went to a very special antique auction in the town of Fontainebleau not far from Paris. The Osenat auction house had collated a sale of over 400 items relating to Napoléon I and the First Empire. The timing of the sale was organised to coincide with the local celebrations for the bicentenary of Napoléon’s departure from Fontainebleau in April 1814, soon after he had signed the abdication order there on 6 April. The catalogue included coins, medals, letters written by Napoléon and others involved in military campaigns, paintings, furniture, decorative objects, clothing, pistols and swords.
The auction was an exercise in numerical brain gym, the numbers crackling in the air like pistol fire; lot numbers, dates, bids. We kept up as the auctioneer changed rhythm and pattern: treize cent (13 hundred), quartoze cent (14 hundred), mille cinq cent (one-thousand 5 hundred), sometimes switching deftly to English for dramatic effect when an international bidder on the phone with an auction room translator hesitated momentarily before plunging in with the winning bid. Lots were sold on bids ranging from € 50 to € 200,000 generating an occasional round of applause for worthy victors.
We knew the real test of our numerical ability would be to bid! It’s daunting in English let alone French, and certainly not the place to muddle your cinqs and your cents. DB had spotted a couple of small items he was interested in. We waited patiently through the first hundred or so lots, observing and listening intently to be sure of the drill. One lot quickly surpassed the estimated value – and our willing buyer price – the bids coming in rapid fifty-euro volleys. The other item – a success for us. The pace was manageable, the auctioneer didn’t dally and with his second bid DB secured Lot#136 as a small souvenir of our French antique auction experience.
The auction also attracted media interest due to controversy over several lots for which the authority to sell had been disputed. A legal judgement issued on the day of the auction resulted in these items, including one of the nightshirts worn by Napoléon in his last days of exile on St Helena, being withdrawn from sale at the last minute.
All in all it was a fascinating afternoon immersed in numbers and saluting Napoléon on the approach of the two-hundredth anniversary of the occasion he bid adieux to Fontainebleau.