Maybe someone out there will someday be able to explain to me exactly what the hell it means when the quarterback calls out those numbers before a play. Until then, like most of football, it will remain a mystery as I watch it from the stands with a drum strapped to my chest.
So for those of you not familiar, France is broken up into what are called Regions. All of these regions have historical backgrounds. Bretagne (Brittany) existed as a Duchy for a long time, and before that, an independent kingdom. Right next to it is Pays de la Loire (Lands of the Loire [river]). Apparently it was artificially created for the "balancing metropolis" of Nantes. Another example is the creation of Rhône-Alpes (Rhone Valley-Alps). Officially though, regions have only been in place since about 1982 when the Law of Decentralization was passed.
Like I said, these are nationally recognized regions, so nothing like the system we have going on in the US with our "regions." Just as a reference to any possible European readers, French specifically, the United States has only unofficial regions. For example, no one really knows if Ohio is part of the Midwest states or the Great Lakes states. The problem is there are so many divisions that could be made just within the Midwest, it would be impossible to please everyone. However; in France, a region actually means something.
So in France there are actually 27 regions. Regions that have always existed are regions like Bretagne, Aquitaine, Bourgogne (Burgundy), and Normandie (Normandy.) There were other regions that were artificially created (like Pays de la Loire or Midi-Pyrénées) or were made by combining other provinces together (Rhône- Alpes and the ever classically named Centre). They don't have the power to pass their own laws, but they do have the ability to levy taxes and their most important function is in education. They actually run on the same system as in the US, funding the building of high schools by property taxes.
The bigger and more important groups are the départements. Originally, France was a lot of divided little pseudo independent provinces with a bizarre system of law to govern them. These were dissolved after the revolution. They could start over with new departments, getting rid of old loyalties and alliances. When the departments were divided, they were named after land features, but especially rivers that flow through them. Each department has a Prefecture, in English a capital. There are a lot of things determined by your department in France, so there's some things that get confusing quick.
Just to give you an idea, this is a map of French Departments in 1812.
Now the numbers I mentioned in the title actually are assigned to each department in alphabetical order. So these numbers are put on les plaques d'immatriculation (license plates) and are used to determine postal codes. Rennes is the prefecture of Ille-et-Vilaine, but is in Bretagne. So all license places for people from Rennes end in 35. As well, the postal code for Rennes is 35000. Places like Paris start to get crazy with the last three numbers, but usually Paris tends to be 75xxx as it is in the Paris department. Of course, the prefecture is Paris, but it's in the Île de France region. Also, you may sometimes see cedex at the end of an address in France. It's an acronym for courrier d'entreprise à distribution exceptionnelle. It just means it's a company.
I was never exactly sure how many departments there were in Brittany. I figured I should start learning where I was first, and the rest would go together. As a result, I now know that there are four.
First on our tour is Côtes-d'Armor (22). The name is a mix of French and the native Breton language, meaning The Coast of the Sea. In Roman times, it was known as Armorica. The prefecture is Saint-Brieuc. It's supposed to be one of the most beautiful cities in Bretagne. I can't tell you for sure, of course. Traveling without a car costs money. Hell, traveling with a car costs money.
Next in order is Finistère (29), which funny enough translates literally to The end of the land. The Prefecture is Brest. Brest is usually one of the coldest places in France. It's always at least 3 degrees (celsius) colder than Rennes. Brest is another place that is supposed to be pretty, but from what everyone tells me, it's depressing as hell. Apparently the sun doesn't exist there.
Ille-et-Vilaine (35) is named after the two rivers that join in the prefecture, Rennes. It's a very active and open city, Rennes. Additionally, it's also the smallest city in the world with a subway system. Although it's only about the size of Toledo, Ohio, it functions as a much larger city. It's very hard to compare it in terms of size to American cities. It's kind of like Columbus but with Chicago's traffic and transportation systems.Addtionally, the Brocèliande is located in the department, near Paimpont.
The final of the four departments is Morbihan (56). The prefecture is Vannes, which is located in the south of the department on the Gulf of Morbihan. Morbihan comes from the Breton word for "small sea". It is also the only department that has kept its original name since its creation in 1790. The best known landmark in Morbihan are The Standing Stones at Carnac. They were erected by druid priests around 3300 BCE. There is a local legend that the lines are so straight, because they are actually a legion of Roman soldiers turned to stone by Merlin.
It's kind of fun to read the numbers on the license plates of the cars as they pass. I see a lot of 35 and 22 in Rennes. 56 and 29 are a little more rare, but not unseen. The same can be said for a 44 (Loire-Atlantique)Where it gets fun is when you see a 16 (Charente) or a 2A(Corse-du-Sud). I was even in Ploërmel and saw a 972 (Martinique). It's a fun game to play when you're in France. At the very least, you'll learn the departments a little better. Who knows when it will come in handy.