In the late 1790’s, France was the first country to adopt the metric system. Unlike the measuring units of the Ancien Régime, which were based on agriculture, nature, and body parts, those of the metric system were based on the number 10. Sometimes called “the universal system”, it was a logical way of organizing things that was totally in keeping with the French love of precision.
The only problem is, it’s not easy to change the way you view the world. Even today, the English have trouble completely converting to this much more understandable system of measurement – and as for us Americans…I think we’ve mostly just stopped trying.
After struggling with the metric system in school, I figured I was done with it. But then I came to live in France.
Though I'm completely idiotic when it comes to math, in America I could at least understand basic units of measurement. An inch is roughly the size of my thumb, and a foot is the length of the ruler that I’d carried in my backpack from kindergarten to eleventh grade. (In twelfth grade I had the opportunity to skip math class altogether – and I did, without hesitation.) My love of fresh-sliced American cheese quickly made me understand the true weight of a pound.
When I arrived in France, I realized I had no idea what the size of a centimeter really was. 10 millimeters, of course, a metric system fanatic would chide me – but that told me nothing. I remember once hearing that a millimeter was about the thickness of a single human hair, but I couldn’t imagine 10 of those together side by side making up a centimeter.
The unit of measurement I used most often, though, was the meter. When you buy fabric here -- which we do a lot, for the boyfriend’s Napoleonic military reconstitution costumes -- you have to measure by this unit. You also have to use meterswhen you do DYI stuff, buy bookshelves, and talk about your own height. A meter is roughly equal to a yard, but I couldn't really picture a yard very well; teachers were always the ones with yardsticks when I was in school.
Back in the late 1700's, when the entire French population had to convert to the metric system, the authorities realized it wouldn’t be easy. It was decided that stone plaques indicating the length of a meter, as well as smaller measurements contained within it, would be placed in areas around Paris. Although most of these plaques are no longer on the city’s buildings today, two remain.
Dating to ca. 1796-1797, this “Mètre” marker is at the end of an arcade just across from the Senate, which is itself just in front of the beautiful Jardin du Luxembourg. It’s the only marker still in its original location.
The plan worked: today, Parisians - and all French people for that matter - seem to know how long a meter is. This plaque is no longer anything but a curiosity from a bygone era, but I can tell you as someone who’s had to learn the metric system that it’s still very helpful. The first time I came across it, I found that I could study it and visualize it in proportion to my body (sort of regressive, if you think about it, but hey, being born into a measuring system related to anatomy and nature means such an instinct isn’t easy to shake).
Before I'd found the marker, though, I'd already come upon a surprising – and sort of shameful – solution.
Globalization has its ups and downs. On the one hand, I hate that there’s a Starbucks at the Place Blanche, probably occupying the site where a French café or bistro used to sit, and where in bygone days many of Montmartre’s famous artists might have come to drink and have fascinating conversations. On the other hand, it’s the only place in the neighborhood where I can get hot tea to go if I have a sore throat.
Years ago, when I was a student here in Paris, one of my friends and I came upon a Subway restaurant just off the Place de la Bastille, symbolic birthplace of the French Revolution. We stared at the façade disgustedly. ….And yet, a few months later, we sheepishly went inside and ordered sandwiches. French food is wonderful, but sometimes you just want a sandwich from Subway. Even French people do!
Going into a Subway restaurant in Paris is what the French would describe as “dépaysant” – it literally takes you out of your country for a moment. The restaurants here look exactly as they do in the US. It’s said the meat is even imported from the States. I’m not sure if that’s true, but the smell of the restaurants is the same as back home. It’s really weird.
The only thing that’s different about the experience (besides ordering in French – though a lot of people who work there do speak English as well) is that the sandwiches are measured in centimeters, instead of inches and feet. Yep, no “Five euro foot-long” here. I quickly learned that a six inch sub is a 15 centimeter, and a foot-long is a 30 centimeter.
These may be approximate equivalents, but it worked for me. One day, I heard someone describing a sculpture as 16 centimeters high…and I found myself visualizing half a Subway sub! Suddenly, I understood! A whole world was opened to me! A meter is about three big Subway subs lying end-to-end.
I’m 1.57 meters tall. That’s a little more than five ham and cheese subs. (image source)
Over the years, I’ve learned to cope with other metric measurements. A kilogram is about two pounds…which can be really bad when you weigh yourself. After all, gaining two pounds isn’t a huge deal – but if you’ve gained 2 kilos, that may not make you so happy. On the other hand, losing half a kilo means you’ve lost a pound, so that’s pretty cool.
I’ve also somewhat gotten used to measuring the temperature in Celsius. I think it’s a horrible system, because Fahrenheit allows for so much more subtlety and difference. To learn Celsius, I basically stopped trying to compare it to Fahrenheit – instead I just observed what it felt like outside. Since there’s such a limited range of possibilities in Paris (it rarely gets below -5, and rarely above 30), I just have basic notions of what the temperature is. For example, -5 is frickin’ cold; 8-10 is an average winter day; 15-16 is chilly but very pleasant and thus my favorite temperature range; 19-22 is warm but not unbearable; anything above 24 should not be allowed to happen in a city where most apartments (including mine) don’t have air conditioning.
Kilometers, though, are still a problem. I don’t drive, so I have no practical everyday reason to know what a kilometer is. It’s hard when we visit family in the countryside and are told something like, “The village is 12 kilometers from the train station.” What does that mean? I usually ask how long a drive that is, but often people don’t seem to know: the French seem to measure distance by length, not by time.
I may be doomed to never understand what a kilometer is. For some reason, I can’t compute its ratio to a mile. There doesn’t seem to be a practical, concrete way of visualizing it, either: It’s too hard to imagine a thousand Subway sandwiches lined up end to end. Hmmm…come to think of it, I wonder how long the world’s biggest sandwich is?...