Monday, May 31, 2010

Counting in French

Counting seems like a pretty universal concept. I'm sure as language was first invented, words to express various quantities of items were some of the first grunts we settled on.

Counting seems relatively standard these days too. Sure every language has its own word for one, but the concept of one remains the same. In fact most languages even have a remarkably similar progression of numbers--0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and we can combine these 10 digits to continue the progression for ever. 11 is very logically 10 and 1, 12 is 10 and 2, 952 is 9 hundreds 5 tens and 2. Quite logical, and it conveniently never ends.

These 10 digits of Indian origin (the country in Asia, not the natives in the US) have even become the standard for nearly all languages on the planet (at least by number of speakers). From English to Chinese to Russian to their origins in India, these digits mostly replace the native numeric representations for most pratical uses. When was the last time you wrote something in Roman Numerals?

Most humans have 10 fingers which are amazingly useful tools for counting in a base-10 counting system, but not all languages originally counted by 10. For example, the original Celts of Europe--who were famous for wearing no shoes and therefore having access to 10 additional counting digits--counted in sets of 20. Instead of having numbers like thirty, forty, fifty, etc. they would just have twenty and ten, two twenties, two twenties and ten, etc. Even in English we still have those weird words like eleven and twelve before we switch back to something that more resembles a base-10 counting system (thirteen, fourteen, etc.) and by 20 we are back to a very systematic base-10 system.

Before being conquered by the Romans, France was a mostly celtic country and some of that cultural heritage is preserved in their utterly bizarre counting system. The French, the champions of the metric system, do not even have a metric (base-10) counting system--at least not entirely. Things start out fairly similar to English and we count quite normally from one to sixty-nine, but for some odd reason the French have no word for seventy. Well, actually they do, they just chose not to use it, and instead the say sixty-ten. Similarly we have sixty-and-eleven, sixty-twelve, all the way up to sixty-nineteen for 79.

The French word for eighty is similarly unused, and instead we have four-twenties. Four-twenties-and-one, four-twenties-two, etc. leading up to four-twenties-nine, and after that, where we would logically expect a word for ninety, we get four-twenties-ten. I would have to say that there is no more horrible number in French than 99, which in this pseudo-base-20 counting system is four-twenties-nineteen!

As mentioned above, French actually does have words for seventy (septante), eighty (octante), and ninety (nonante), the French just chose not to use them. However, some francophones outside of France do use this more modern (and logical) vocabulary, as George and I were a bit surprised to hear when we were recently in Brussels. George purchased some fruit at a small grocery and the grocer gave her the price as nonante-huit (98), and George, being familiar with the weird French version, had no idea what he said. It took me a minute to realize what he said as well, and when I translated from logical Belgian French to weird base-20 French French, quatre-vingts dix-huit (four-twenties-eighteen), she immediately understood and the cashier and another customer in line laughed a bit at us.

We actually have some small remnants of this in English too. We are all familiar with Lincoln's "four score and seven years ago" entrance to the Gettysburg address, but outside of quoting old Abe, I don't think I have ever heard anyone ask for four score of anything, and I have certainly never been quoted a price at McDonald's as four score and eighteen cents.

Welcome to the 21st century France! You can leave your pre-historic counting system at the door.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Weekend in Brussels

The Grand Place

I've been working long hours and extra days a lot lately, so when the 3-day weekend for Pentecost came around the wife and I headed to Brussels for a few days of not-working and much needed recuperating.

Brussels is about 400 miles north of Lyon, and just over an hour flight time. It is the capital of the Kingdom of Belgium, and the de facto capital of the European Union. Technically situated in the Dutch speaking part of Belgium it is a mostly French speaking city, but it seemed everyone we ran into spoke 3 or 4 different languages! It's a fairly big city with about 2 million people in the metro area, and given the abundance of international and European organizations located there, it is a very multi-cultural city too. Famous for beer, waffles, chocolate, the Smurfs, comic books, and the birth place of french fries--it seems to have just about all of life's necessities.

Creepy Tall People

We arrived in Brussels just in time for one of the coolest parades I have ever seen--the Zinneke Parade. I have no idea what the origins of this parade are, but every 2 years the people of Brussels come together and put on one of the coolest, weirdest, sometimes creepy, and most creative parades I have ever seen. There were no motor vehicles or giant balloons in this parade, just small hand pushed or bicycle pushed carts, and lots of cool costumes. Some bands and signing groups participated too, and there were even a few fire breathers and other carny folk.

Not sure what these are

The tall people 2 pictures above kept leaning over and whispering qu'est-ce qui se passe (what is happening?) while being chased by the whatever these things are clinging to the wall here, while the women below where chanting some children of the corn type music. It was really impressive and well rehearsed for a one time event in a biennial parade.

Imagine creepy choir music

The parade wasn't all creepy. The theme this year was à la table (at the table), so the displays were supposed to be somewhat food or dining related. This wasn't always apparent, like in the pics above, but there were some funny on-theme characters too.

Officer Green

Some acrobats

Looks like fun

and whatever this is

looks like something out of the Dark Crystal

Brussels is pretty cool when not putting on Tim Burton-esque parades too. The city is littered with statues, awesome parks, cool plazas, and to George's great delight a gourmet chocolate shop on every corner.

Crusher of sea monsters

Brussels, well Belgium in general, is also pretty famous for comic books and cartoons. The most famous of course being The Smurfs (Les Schtroumpfs in French), and less famous in the US, Tintin. I think the image below comes from Tintin, and there were many comic style artworks around the city like this one.

And Beer! France is well known for high quality wine, but is not known--for good reason--for high quality beer. I don't drink much, but when I do go out, or when I buy beer at the store, I almost always buy Belgian beer. Even the king of beers, Budweiser, is now owned by a Belgian company, and one of my favorite brewers in the USA is called the New Belgian Brewing Company (even though they are located in Colorado). So when I think of good beer, Belgium usually comes to mind.

George is not much of a beer drinker though. In fact, before this trip to Brussels I do not think she has even drank one entire beer in her life. Well she found a couple beers she could enjoy, and by the last day she was having her first beer before 10am just like a real pro.

You know you have a problem when your first beer comes before noon

Brussels also has a lot of great (and varied) restaurants. I had vegetarian chili for lunch one day! I don't think you can get any kind of chili in Lyon, and you can hardly get anything vegetarian either. Good Thai food, which is also pretty much non-existent in Lyon, was also pretty common, and I even ate at a Chi-Chi's restaurant. While I doubt the Michelin guys will be handing out any stars to the afore mentioned restaurants, it was a pleasant surprise and it's nice to have the options.

So we had a great time in Brussels. I think it was an awesome city, and I could definitely see myself going back a few times.

You will find more pics of Brussels here and more pics of the Zinneke parade here

Monday, May 10, 2010

Tax Time

Being a US citizen living abroad, I have the privilege of paying both US and French income taxes. Numerous forms, W-2s, 1099s, Déclaration Revenus, etc. and lots of numbers, rounding, adding, double checking, guessing at instructions (in English and French), some swearing, and of course ... paying. Maybe privilege is the wrong word. What's the opposite of that?

Last year (this year's taxes) was the first year that I was fully a tax resident of France, so although I still had to file my US taxes this April, I didn't actually owe anything (other than the $30 fee to TurboTax and 10 bucks worth of postage). Similarly, for the tax year before that, I was still a tax resident of the US, so I paid taxes there, and didn't pay anything here in France. This is the first time I have had to file and pay my French income taxes.

French taxes work a bit different than in the US. French income tax is basically broken into 2 parts--social taxes and actual income taxes. Social taxes are what pay for our government healthcare, retirement, unemployment, and basically all the social services that this socialist country provides. Social taxes are taken out of every paycheck and these add up to about 20% of my salary.

The other tax is not withheld from your salary, and you can either pay it in one lump sum at the end of the year, or pay in installments over the next year. This income tax pays for defense, police, roads, teachers, etc. and is paid much like you pay your income taxes in the US. In May the government sends you some forms, and you fill them out and send them to your local tax office.

The form is a little different than the 1040 form from the US. For one, it comes pre-filled out. They enter your name, address, filing status, and even how much money you made last year, and you just correct any errors and add up all your deductions. Being childless, homeless (i rent), and not having anything at all to call a deduction, I simply have to sign my name and that is that. They will then verify everything and send me a bill. According to the forms (the math is pretty easy since I have no deductions) I owe an additional 7% of my salary in income tax.

So in total, the French government takes about 27% of my salary in income taxes.

Oh, there is actually a 3rd part of the income taxes too--the TV tax. In France you pay about $150 per year just for owning a TV. But in exchange for that, you get nearly commercial free TV, so that is a tax that I have absolutely no problem with.

So in revised total, 27% + $150. That's income taxes in France.