Thursday, May 17, 2007

Kilo, zero, oh-oh

I look at the weather forecast for today. Cloudy, drizzle, 19 degrees. Damn, how much is that? I have a vague idea that it's not really warm, but don't know if it's going to require a heavy sweater or an overcoat. To me there is a big difference between 50 and 65 Fahrenheit, which is the range I figured for 19C. I've been a year now in Paris, but I just haven't done the cultural Celsius switch yet.

That goes for kilos, and meters, too. While I can approximate a meter to be about a yard when ordering fabric for curtains, for example, I cannot do the same when someone asks how tall I am.

Old method. For example, my son is 6'3", so I figured he was about 2 meters tall plus a bit. WRONG-O! You should have seen the shocked look on that sales lady's face when I guesstimated that my son was 2 metres 4 centimetres tall. (That's about 6'8". Oops.)

New method: I avoid these conversations. I try to write pertinent information such as this in a little address book, but it is never handy to whip out the address book, even if I could find it.

I'm actually good at math, so of course when I have time I can sit down and do the calculation. I have a thermometer in the window in the other room which has both Fahrenheit and Celsius. But I want to just know it, to feel the Celsius temperature in my bones or to envision the metres in my spatial imagination.

On the other hand, I prefer not to calculate my personal weight in either kilos or pounds, thankyouverymuch. I am more fluent with grams than kilos; so asking for 250 grams of olives at the marché is not problem. That's about half a pound, easy.

I was just getting accustomed to the European clothing sizes (36, 38, 40, 42... ) when I found myself needing to purchase a fancy French soutien gorge. The vendeuse asks, "Quelle est votre taille, madame? 80, 85, 90, 95?" Aarggh. I hate it when I'm feeling so cool, so confident about my language skills, and then get thrown for a loop when asked to make some culturally translated calculation like this. My face shifts into a frozen, contorted grimace as I squeeze my French brain to work even harder. Ouch, it actually hurts somewhere behind the eyeballs as I try to concentrate on that one.

I need to get to the point where I just don't have to translate temperature, distance, volume, and weight. My expat friends who have lived in Paris a long time all talk in metre, kilo, Celsius, never switching back to the Am-uh-rican system of measurement. I am so jealous. I long to do that.

The cab driver says, "It's going to reach 25 today!"

"Ah, oui?," I feign some sort of reaction, but I have to hide that I don't know whether that's good or bad. I bear my ignorance with deep shame and embarrassment. My language skills are strong, so I sound like such a doofus not knowing the social currency of these very basic day-to-day exchanges.

I am reminded of Ernest Hemingway's story, "A Day's Wait," where a boy just back in the states has a high fever and the flu. At bedtime, the father sits down with his son after the doctor 's visit:

I sat down and opened the Pirate book and commenced to read, but I could see he was not following, so I stopped.
"About what time do you think I'm going to die?" he asked.
"About how long will it be before I die?"
"You aren't going to die. What's the matter with you?"
"Oh, yes, I am. I heard him say a hundred and two."
"People don't die with a fever of one hundred and two. That's a silly way to talk."
"I know they do. At school in France the boys told me you can't live with forty-four degrees. I've got a hundred and two."
He had been waiting to die all day, ever since nine o'clock in the morning. "You poor Schatz," I said. "Poor old Schatz. It's like miles and kilometers. You aren't going to die. That's a different thermometer. On that thermometer thirty-seven is normal. On this kind it's ninety-eight."
"Are you sure?"
"Absolutely," I said. "It's like miles and kilometers. You know, like how many kilometers we make when we do seventy miles in the car?"
"Oh," he said.

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