Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg
Paris, France
December 31
Writer, copy editor, translator, travel planner. Head servant to my cat.
A reader, a writer, a fingernail biter, a cat person, a traveller, a cookie inhaler, an immigrant, a dreamer. …And now, self-employed! If you like my blog and if you're looking for sparkling writing, painstaking proofreading, nimble French-English translation, or personalized travel planning, feel free to check out


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SEPTEMBER 28, 2011 10:49AM

The Meter and Me

Rate: 21 Flag


the meter and me 

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.


(image source


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.


 jambon fromage

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?... 

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Okay Canada has the metric system.. I am still befuddled... but when I designed clothes I had to order everything /fabric in metres.
I can do that but refuse to accept the rest hahaha
ahhh how hot did you say it was?? I know 33C is damn hot hahaha
The metric system was supposed to be firmly in place in the states by the millineum's end when I was learning about it in the 1960s. As you know, it's not the case. People your age should have been raised with it. This was a cute post about coping, though.
Oh, how I enjoyed reading this fabulous post. Insight derived through a Subway sandwich--I love it! Funnily enough, I've recently begun eating at Subway because there's one walking distance from my new office (and I loathe driving). Also, you write so elegantly and weave so seamlessly from personal to historical--fascinating read! By the way, I do know what you mean about struggling to process units of measurements. A few years ago, I was staying in Athens, with one of my cousins, during a heat wave. Well, it was 42 degrees C, and he doesn't have air-conditioning. All I knew was: it was best not to move. Months later I realized it was something like 115 degrees F! That was quite the eye opener. Did I mention I loved this post?
Wonderful post. I thought the metric system was easier and that is why they wanted us to switch. That was a big movement when I was young here in the US. It was definitely going to happen. Fizzled out I guess. Thank you for all the info.
I enjoyed and identified with this post very much, Alysa. I was raised with the Metric system until my family moved to Canada, at the time when Imperial measurement sytem was in use. Understanding inches, feet, yards, pounds, gallons, Fahrenheit and miles was so painful. I couldn't understand at that age why people had to make life so complicated. Then just as I was able to navigate my way through, still converting subconsciously, Canada went Metric in the 70s! The very ironic fact is that even today, if I pick up a grocery store flyer, I will see an item advertised with its price in pounds in bold print, and price in kilogram in smaller print. Just and example: Filet de truite Steelhead: 5.99/lb $13.21/kg! Yet go to a fabric store, you'll ask for anything that's sold by the measure, in meters.

Once you're exposed to it long enough, you feel bilingual in another dimension so that you can convert back and forth from one to the other unconsciously.
Thanks for reading, guys! I'm glad I'm not the only one with measurement system issues!

Miguela - You seem so disappointed the metric system didn't catch on in the US!

Linda - I totally understand being able to do one thing using the metric system and not other stuff!

Sally - I'm so glad you enjoyed this..and that you're a fellow Subway fan. I am so embarrassed to admit that since I should be eating sandwiches with fresh ingredients and French cheeses and all - and I often do - but Subway is just so good.... And yeah, 42 degrees is far too hot to do anything.I just don't understand why Europeans can't get into air conditioning on a larger scale. I mean, they're ecological and all but...42 degrees!

zanelle - I think you're right that the metric system is technically easier...but I just feel like from the start we deal with feet, inches, etc, and it's so hard to then convert, no matter how truly practical it is....

Fusun - I totally hear you on so much of what you wrote! The price listing makes me think of how some stores have the price in francs in little print on receipts still. Conversions of any kind can be so hard! I'm glad you now feel comfortable with both systems!
I absolutely love that there were plaques put up to help the metric system take hold. How brilliant of those French. I need one in my house! I even love math and am befuddled by the metric system, or any base 10 computing for that matter...
What truly shocks me about this post, horrified really, is there is nowhere to go for tea in your neighborhood except Starbucks??????????
Just Thinking - I'm glad you enjoyed this, and rest assured: there are lots of places to go for tea here, from typical cafes (though in those tea is almost always over-priced), to charming little tea shops and places like Mariage Freres, where you can buy very special blends and flavors - but none of them that I know of offer tea to go. The French aren't big on carry-away coffee and tea. Which is a shame, because for the price I paid for the Starbucks tea, I would gladly have exchanged it for something from Mariage Freres!
Well, except for the fact that reading this gave me a headache it was a really fun read. Great picture of you with the meter marker.
When I first saw a Burger King on the Champs-Elysees, I thought "The French are doomed." It would make sense to measure one's waist in terms of Whoppers.
Great post. I hate math. Oh, and you took a lovely picture!!! Purple looks great on you.
Simply putting the system in the schools would have helped bring in the metric system here. Growing up in the UK (I was in elementary school from 1959-66, HS 66-72) I thought in inches. My younger brother, six years behind me, thinks in cm.
Now as for temps, even my 75 yr old mother in law now thinks of hot or cold days in Celsius, because the weather people on the BBC switched years ago. However having moved to the US I am sort of mixed up. I remember hellishly cold days in Scotland in Celsius (-20 once!), but similarly awful hot days here in SoCal in of course Fahrenheit (128 on the big thermometer in Baker!).
One odd thing they did in the UK when the construction industry converted was to try to avoid confusion between meters, centimeters and millimeters was to size everything, large or small, in millimeters. So on a building plan there would be numbers in the many thousands, on a room plan a few thousand, but no ambiguity as to what each number meant.
Sarah - Thanks - but sorry about the headache...I totally understand....

Stim - Apparently Subway has just become the number one food chain around the world. Crazy. I like your measurement system...but I think for me it would have to be in units of cookies.

Sheila - You are so sweet! The purple shawl was a present from my stepmom a few years back; I never go anywhere without a little jacket or shawl, since the weather here changes so often. That was just the one I happened to have that surprisingly chilly day. I'm glad you like it. I think you might be in cohoots with my therapist, who tells me I should wear more colors!

GeeBee - Thank you for your very, very interesting and insightful comment. A few months ago I noticed on a UK mosaic tile website (only browsing - I could never afford such a thing, alas!) that they gave the measurements in I know why!
I got a kick out of picturing you as "five ham and cheese subs" tall!
trilogy - Thank you! The sub thing is a bit weird, but it's the only thing that, if I ever want to just go crazy, I can get five subs and then say I ate the equivalent of my height! Weekend project! :-)
Subway should promote a super-duper Alysa-long sandwich with you as the spokes-model!
Like you, I struggled with the Metric system in school and then forgot it completely. Your comparisons, though, have helped me to re-wrap my head around some of it.
Still, I hope we're never forced to convert to Metric in the U.S. When I was a child, studying it in school (5th grade, I think) teachers told us that, by the time we all grew up, everything would be done on the Metric system. I'm not sure why that didn't turn out to be true, but I'm glad!
As an artist I love the metric part of my ruler since it broke down the measurement into a smaller parts. If not for all the charts and graphs I had to render along with illustrations, I would never have learned. Don't ask me to convert anything larger though!!!
THE METER IS SOMETHING they torture you with over here
in the land of the Free.

they say:boyo, ya better learn it or you will be out of luck.

ok, it is about a yard.

aha, then a thousand yards minus i dunno,
a few hundred due to the diminishment fractionally
of the f-ing meter?


i have to drink a liter of wine to understand this bullshit,
this damn french attempt, long defunct,
to take over the world.

they did it around 1800. ja ja we got liberty & what not,
but that was something we americans thought up
when we have had it with these damn taxes.

so: a meter of taxation? not a centimeter. i say only
a millipede of a milli
Learned to do conversions of meters to yards, centimeters to inches, grams to ounces, pounds to kilos, kilometers to miles and Celsius to Farhenheit because I had a German girlfriend who was my brother's au pair for a couple years.

I can still do it in my head mostly and I never set foot out of the States other than a trip to Vancouver when I was five and couple of trips into Mexico at fourteen and sixteen. Back then, I only knew the metric system existed and it was pretty much everywhere other than the US.

I'm a nerdy, geeky type, though, so I guess that's 'normal' under the circumstances.

I loved the little "history" lesson and I think I may be as many Ham and Cheese subs tall as you. I'd prefer my measurements in Turkey and Provolone if that's alright.

I agree with many things here, esp. the naturalness of having measurements based on nature, esp. the body (even tho it deteriorates into rods and bushels and acres), and how Fahrenheit is so much more subtle - Celsius is just too crude for delicate measurements of temperature.

My kids were raised in metric, having been schooled after Canada converted. But I am not fluent. Metres are roughly the size of yards, so they don't bother me too much. Lumber still comes in feet & inches, thank goodness - probably to be in sync with the U.S. I have a grasp of Celcius, tho I hate it - I have two local temps on my computer, one in C and one in F. Like Fusun says, a lot of the country is still 'bilingual' as far as weights and sizes are concerned, which is good for us oldsters at the grocery store.

And miles were good - if you went 60 mph, it would take you an hour to go 60 miles. Neat. Going 100 km/ph takes you an hour to go 100 km...which just isn't as elegant.

But going across the border into the U.S. is a pain - you cover km more quickly than those looonnnng miles...
uh oh: u are a purple gal now. i know your type well.
ha. you look elegantly playful & wise
beyond your years.

the reason i am here is for u to use yr influence & get
that French President guy off cnn.
he is making too much sense to Boy wonder
anderson cooper.

i am not giving in to the french influence,
except for french chicks
and french fries & kisses
and other french
people who are gratefully dead, like bergson
and maybe descartes.
have not forgiven
him, descartes, for f-ing u philosophy,
that mind body split

whitehead, an englishman whom i am whoring,
long dead but had the
sense to come to the u.s.a
and taught at harvard,
of nature,
a fallacy.

damn fallacious french.
dont u dare rhyme it know!
You cover km more quickly than miles as long as you are not like the Canadian guy I followed into Glacier National Park on the US side of the border. As we approached the park entrance he suddenly slammed on his brakes. I nearly tail-ended him and the guy behind nearly hit me. "What is he playing at" said my wife, as we crawled along behind him. "How slow is he going?" I glanced at the gauge and suddenly realized the problem. We had passed a "30" speed limit sign and he had slowed down to 30 km/h which is just under 19 mph!
I remember trying to learn the metric system and it was a nightmare. It was too late for us. I've never lived in another country, so I'm sure I'd struggle with it!!!
Curiously, kilometers are the one measurement I can picture. My first trip to Europe, my friends and I went driving a lot in Sweden, so I knew that the speed limit of 90 km was about the same as 55 mph, and I've been able to do the math in my head.

Not too many writers can combine an educational landmark from the 1790s with a Subway outlet. As always, I learn a lot from your post.
The Sandwich System of measurement-- an idea whose time has come. =o)

I can't quite fathom the metric sytem either, so you're not alone, Alysa.
GeeBee - Kinda glad to hear about the Canadian who slowed down. We generally hear about the Americans who come up here and SPEED UP!
Interesting. I thought you were talking about gauges when I saw "meter" in the headline. For me, the unit of measurement will always be "metre" -- the proper French spelling. Don't particularly like the metric system, since I was raised on Imperial measurements, but there you go. A chacun son gout....
I seriously still haven't figured out the American system yet. I lived in Israel for 2 years and after about 23 months I figured out the kilogram, but that is it, other than knowing that if I had temperture of 39 celsius I had fever.
Post modernism killed the metric system in the US.

The big push in the US was around the time of the US Bicentennial -- 2 times 10 squared, FWIW.

The US was basically a big real estate deal. The Country was developed section at a time -- one square mile. 640 acres.

So, no wonder that the metric system never really got traction here.

Cigarettes went metric and then back again.

In the UK, people seem to go around quoting their weight in stones, whatever that means. Other than if you got an extra stone or two, you got problems. With weight.

I suppose you got your quarter pounder and your Royale with Cheese. You have to wonder whose culture is debasing whose in a situation like that.

But, 1/2 inch wrench is close enough to a 13mm to get the job done.

And 60 mph is close to 100 kph, and 160 kph is roughly 100 mph, which comes in handy if you are on the Autobahn.

And google will do unit conversions for you. As well as work as a calculator. FWIW.
I guess the illicit drug trade in the US was an early adopter of the metric system.

A kilo was 2.2 pounds, with 28 grams to the ounce. Rounded of course.
nick brings up a weird point that even my mighty brain
cannot deconstruct (tease:false narcissism):
drugs are in kilos.
when in big bulk.
still, half an ounce did it for me once.

HI Alysa, back reading therapists have branched out into color wearing recommendations!?? : )
You do look good in purple.
I had the same trouble with metric -- the visualization. I guess you do get used to it if you are immersed and thus forced to convert. In high school my husband was friends with an exchange student from France (they are still in contact), and the friend was astounded by the distances between various cities, just the vast wide open space and that you could travel in a car for many many hours and still be in Florida.