Thursday, January 29, 2009

Metric Madness!

When moved to Ontario, I knew I’d have to adjust to the metric system. How much difficulty that would cause me is what I underestimated.

My car’s speedometer has KM per hour as well as miles per hour. This has been the least of my problems as I usually just drive as fast as I want to anyway and don’t really look at the speedometer at all. Filling up my car’s gas tank with liters instead of gallons has also not been too much of an issue as I usually just fill the tank. Buying ground beef in the store has been a little more tricky, but I’ve found that they tend to package the meat in quantities that are the metric equivalent of a pound or two.

I do feel like a bit of a moron asking for 300 grams of sliced salami at the deli counter. Every time I ask for something in grams, I feel really embarrassed as if as soon as I say, and try to say discreetly, “400 grams of potato salad, please” everyone in the vicinity will erupt into laughter. No one bats an eye. I’m usually surprised when I find out what kind of quantity 400 grams is. It always seems to be much less or much more than I actually wanted.

The real challenge with the metric system here relates to the weather. Perhaps you think that this should be a minor inconvenience and something I should adjust to quickly. But, before you dismiss my misery as whining about a miniscule obstacle consider how often you listen to or speak about the weather each day. If you haven’t paid attention before, start noticing how often it comes up in conversation. From a very early age, we’re taught that talking about the weather is a good conversation starter, an ice-breaker. Also, the weather is always on the radio or tv, listed on the side of the newspaper or web pages, and even if you’re not consciously paying attention, you’re subconsciously absorbing and processing the information. Most importantly, remember that wherever you go you take the weather with you! This means the weather is always there, influencing what time you leave for work, what you wear, your decision to go on a road trip, a choice of the highway or the back roads, if you should leave the house with wet hair, if your soccer game will be cancelled, how much hairspray you should use, if you should buy a house with a basement, whether you would invest in property in Florida, your grandparent’s visit and length of stay, the need for time to mow the lawn/shovel the driveway, the number of smoke breaks you’ll take, your need to find a babysitter, and whether you’ll be in a good mood. In other words, even though weather is often a side note in the news or just a forced conversation-starter, it really is important in our lives.

Here’s a calculation. Take the 35 years I lived in the US talking about and observing the weather in Fahrenheit and inches, and multiply that by the six months I’ve been living in Canada trying to comprehend the metric weather, factor in the Great Lakes weather in both places that creates the most dynamic, unpredictable, and tumultuous weather on earth, double that and add 32. Now you have an idea of the impact metric weather is having on my adjustment to Canada.

While in a meeting recently, someone commented that the room was very cold. Everyone agreed. So, someone went to look at the thermostat and remarked, “No wonder it’s cold in here. It’s only nineteen degrees!” I thought, “Yeah, I guess that does explain the chill in the air” and tightly clutched my class of water to try to keep it from freezing into solid ice.

This has been one of the worst winters I can remember, and the amount of snow has bordered on obscene. But, I do remember my panic the first time I heard a co-worker declare, “We’re getting 13 centimeters of snow tonight!” I started making a mental list of preparations for what would certainly be debilitating weather. I decided to stop at the store for water, bread, milk, batteries, and other emergency needs before I stopped and realized that I had no idea what 13 centimeters even looked like. My mind had heard “13” and translated into inches. I pulled out my ruler and found, to my delight, that we were only talking about 5 inches. Five inches of snow to a West Michigander is just a light dusting.

From that point on, every time a discussion of weather conditions involving snowfall arises, I sigh loudly and make a big display of pulling out my ruler.

Winter temperatures are a whole different complication. When winter weather first came in late October, I would overhear hear on the radio and at work that temperatures were going to drop to *gasp* ZERO degrees! I started wondering if I had made a mistake in moving to a land where November temperatures were that low. I figured that by January, all molecular activity would be ceasing. Then I remembered that they were speaking in Celsius and 0 C is only 32 F.

As the deep freeze this January settled in, my bemusement changed to amusement. “It’s going to be very, very cold this weekend,” the radio announcer said gravely and dejectedly. “Highs will only be around NEGATIVE FIFTEEN.”

“Holy iceberg, Batman,” I thought to myself as I pulled out my new Celsius to Fahrenheit conversion chart. Negative fifteen Celsius is. . . five degrees Fahrenheit. I don’t usually get too worked up about temperatures until they are below zero degrees Fahrenheit.

The first time I went to donate blood in Canada, the nurse took my temperature and told me it was 37 degrees. I desperately searched the room for a mirror so I could see my lips turning blue. Then they proceeded to take a half liter of my blood, which for all I know was enough to almost kill me!

Contrary to popular belief, the Canadians don’t use metric for everything. Unfortunately, they still use pounds for their own weight. I was looking forward to casually tossing around my lower numeric weight in kilograms while in conversation with my friends from Michigan. This would indicate that Canadians use metric when it suits them. And, it certainly suits them for describing weather because it makes the Canadian winter sound that much more scary and therefore makes the Canadians sound that much tougher. Consider the psychological impact of hearing that the forecast is for temperatures of negative ten with eight centimeters of snow and winds at 50 kph as compared with the impact of hearing the forecast is for temperatures of fourteen degrees with three inches of snow and winds of 30 mph. The metric system also allows Canadians to warn of one centimeter of snow. That’s less than one inch, an amount that wouldn’t even be mentioned in Michigan weather forecasts.

I’m only just starting to adjust to the winter metrics, and by the time I am adjusted, summer and rain will be here. At least I have been able to set my thermostat in my home to display in Fahrenheit and I’ve even found that I can change the settings on to display in non-metric.

For more information on the metric system, see .

1 comment:

Doris said...

Now you know how I feel when you tell me that the weather was nice in Michigan, about 83 degrees or that you were driving 00 miles LOL