Sunday, September 2, 2007

59ers: A French cultural lesson

In her last post Rita referred to "59ers" from France. No, that's not the folks who showed up 10 years late for the California Gold Rush. You can tell where a French car is by the last two digits of its license plate. France is divided into 95 "metropolitan" departments and four overseas departments. These are more like counties than states because they're small and don't have a lot of independence. They cannot, for example, issue their own license plates, enact laws, or run schools. All that's done from Paris.

Each department has a two-digit number that goes at the end of its plates and is used for a bunch of other stuff (the first two digits of a department's zip code start with it, for example). They're basically in alphabetical order. Thus, Ain is 01; Bouches-du-Rhône, at the mouth of the Rhone river where Marseilles sits, is 13; Hérault, where I spent my junior year abroad, is 34; Paris is 75; Var, Toulon's location, is 87; and so on. But anyone who has ever studied French knows that there are always exceptions. Terrain-feature-based names go together: Bas-Rhin and Haut-Rhin are 67 and 68, being filed under R; Savioe and Haute-Savoie are 73 and 74, under S. And exceptions to the exceptions: Bouches-du-Rhône is 13, while Rhône is 69. Possibly because they're Johnny-come-latelys, the departments around Paris are 91 though 95, regardless of their initial letter. Then there's the Territoire de Belfort, which is 90, between Yonne (89)and the first Parisian suburb of Essonne (91).

Anyways, the people across the border from us are in the department of Nord (French for north) and have a 59 on their plates. 59ers.

No comments: