Sizing Up Life in France: How I (Almost) Mastered the Metric System

It Really Is Engraved in Stone

May 27, 2015By David JaggardC'est Ironique!
ParisUpdate-Mètre-étalon Paris-LPLT
This meter under an arcade on Rue de Vaugirard was installed in 1796 to help accustom the populace to the then-new system of measurement. Even after three decades in Paris, I could still use one of these in my apartment.

When I moved from the United States to France 30-some-odd years ago, I had to learn a lot of things. Like to cross my sevens, to call 4pm “16 hours” and to plug my ears on Métro line 13 between Saint Lazare and Miromesnil. Oh, and to speak French. There’s that. But I also had to learn to count.

When I say “learn to count,” I don’t mean “memorize the standard sequence of integers.” Unlike my college roommate, who insisted that his girlfriend use the rhythm method for birth control, I could keep track of numbers up to 28 and beyond.

But after crossing the Atlantic, I suddenly found myself in a country where nearly everything is measured differently: weights, volumes, temperatures, the distances specified in restraining orders, etc. And, of course, the value of goods and services: when I moved here, the French franc was still the coin of the realm.

As any psychologist can tell you, it’s very difficult to break away from mental habits acquired in childhood. This is a boon for religious cults and extremist political parties, but an impediment for immigrants: for the entire first year of my life in France, I continued silently but laboriously converting all prices to dollars.

I’m not proud of my slowness to adapt (or to divide by six in my head), but it did give me an advantage some years later: the overdevelopment of the what’s-that-in-real-money lobe of my brain came in handy in 2001 when France converted from francs to euros, and the euro was, perhaps not coincidentally, worth about as much as the U.S. dollar.

I have always wondered whether the Eurozone authorities set their currency’s initial value at near-par with the old greenback on purpose, as a kind of exchange-rate arm wrestling challenge to the United States. And whether they decided to issue 200 and 500 euro notes in the hope of them becoming the preferred medium of exchange for crime lords and corrupt politicians.

I have not yet had occasion to transport a briefcase full of 500 euro bills, but when the currency changed I was able to switch gears more smoothly than any French bagman. Adopting the euro was like slipping into an old, comfy pair of size 42 shoes.

Yes, 42. I’m not clowning around here — that’s my actual shoe size. French feet are measured on a scale whose usual range runs from about 34 to 50. Which is why parents tell rambunctious children to “Act your shoe size, not your age!”

Apropos of apparel, and moving up the mannequin, trouser sizes are also different from what I was raised with, but seem to have been conceived to correlate to footwear: here again, I’m a 42. Which will make it very convenient for the costume manager should I ever be invited to join a Chippendales troupe.

American shoppers also need a conversion chart to buy French jackets or hats, but get this: shirts here come with labels marked S, M, L or XL. As the salespeople will be glad to explain, “S” stands for petit and “L” for grand. And no one seems to find this “W” for bizarre.

I see this, along with how anyone can eat Nutella for breakfast and what Carla Bruni sees in Nicolas Sarkozy, as one of the great mysteries of life in France: they use the Anglophone nomenclature for shirts, including the sweat and T varieties, but different measurements for anything else that one might use to cover one’s body. Including whipped cream, which comes in liters.

And which brings me to my main topic, and one of the biggest adjustments that I’ve had to make as part of the Frenchification process, namely learning the metric system.

Here’s a fun fact: in 1975, the U.S. Congress passed the Metric Conversion Act, defining the metric system as “the preferred system of weights and measures for United States trade and commerce.” But, despite the exemplary leadership of the Benevolent Order of Marijuana Dealers, which immediately adopted the “key” as their basic unit, it never caught on.

To this day, many Americans’ awareness of the metric system is limited to the car scene in Pulp Fiction. And about all they know about it is that there are four royales in a pound.

But Congress, at least that once, had a good idea: the metric system, even though it was invented in France, is in every way more orderly, logical and practical than the traditional American weights and measures.

As an example, let’s consider the kind of measurement that is most likely to accompany the purchase of multiple liters of whipped cream: length.

As any American fourth-grader can tell you, when the Ritalin wears off, there are 12 inches in a foot, three feet in a yard and 1,760 yards (or 5,280 feet) in a mile. And what he can’t tell you is that in metric there are 10 millimeters in a centimeter, 10 centimeters in a decimeter, 10 decimeters in a meter (see the pattern?) and, for reasons that linguists and mathematicians are at a loss to explain, 1,000 meters in a kilometer.

In other words, not only do the units advance by tens, but their names are also orderly, logical and practical. Which might possibly have something to do with why the metric system is used by EVERY SINGLE OTHER COUNTRY ON THE FACE OF THE EARTH with the sole exceptions of Liberia and Burma.

Sorry to yell, but it’s really time for the United States to get off its feet and join the rest of civilization. Even extraterrestrial aliens measure their crop circles in meters.

I know, I know: it’s hard to change a longstanding, ingrained habit and there are hundreds of millions of us and don’t fix it if it ain’t broke and they’ll get my yardstick when they pry it out of my cold dead blah blah blah. But take my word for it, fellow Americans: if I could do it, so can you.

My metric apprenticeship began in the market. If I went out to buy cherries, for example, the greengrocer would ask, “How many grams?” At first, this seemed as strange to me as requesting a baguette and being asked, “How many crumbs?”

But, impelled by hunger (and the knowledge that 500 grams is just over a pound), I got used to it. In fact, it took me less time to rewire my brain for grams and kilos of food than for the francs and euros that I forked over for it.

Cooking also helped me learn metric temperatures. In fact, I used a specific method to adapt to the Centigrade thermometer: every day I would look at the weather forecast, note the temperature in Celsius and then go outside barefoot in my underwear and walk around the block to see how cold or warm it felt. It’s surprising how little time it took before I didn’t need to do this anymore.

In short, it’s just a matter of acquiring a little concrete experience. A good way to get a grasp of the liter is to grasp a quarter of a liter and lift it to your mouth: the standard beer glass in France holds 25 centiliters. And, in yet another mystery comparable to what any woman sees in François Hollande, it’s called a “demi.”

Drink four of those and you’ll have a clear concept of how much fluid there is in a liter. Drink another four and you’ll still have a concept, but not quite so clear. Four more and you won’t have any concepts at all, although you will very probably get a second chance to see what three liters of beer looks like.

Similarly, watching Parisian traffic is a good way to get a notion of kilometers per hour. The speed limit in town is 50 kph on the main streets. The best way to get a “feel” for this velocity is to cross a major thoroughfare, say the Champs-Elysées, on foot against the light.

Pause in the middle of the street and look at the flashing headlights of the dozens of cars rushing toward you. They’re all going 80, but by the time you reach the opposite sidewalk you will be running 50 kilometers per hour.

Now that I’ve had all of those experiences, some of them more than once, I have no problem thinking in metric. With one exception: even after more than 30 years (3 decayears) in France, I can never remember my own height and weight in centimeters and kilograms.

It doesn’t come up often, but whenever a doctor or an official filling out an ID form asks me how tall I am, I hem, haw and hesitate while plowing through a mental calculation (5 x 12 + 10/2.54) that should be more familiar by now.

And the same goes for my weight, which for some reason I can only think of in pounds. So I usually say, “I’m ‘M,’ which stands for ‘minimum 3.5 liters of whipped cream’. And I weigh 600 royales.”


© 2015 Paris Update


An album of David Jaggard’s comic compositions is now available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, for purchase (whole or track by track) on iTunes and Amazon, and on every other music downloading service in the known universe, under the title “Totally Unrelated.”

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