Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Don't get your wires crossed!

Over Memorial Day weekend I had the wonderful chance to meet a friend and his fiancée from Lille, France for dinner at my favorite Chinese restaurant here in my hometown! When they arrived last Tuesday the weather had gone unseasonably cold and rainy, which is highly unusual. Normally we don't get rain until June. It wasn't a good start for a vacation here but by the next day it cleared up- which is also typical and they had sunny weather during most of their stay.
Besides getting to know each other a little better we discussed their daytrips they had made- we have a lot of natural sights for sightseeing and mountain town casinos- and my trip to the movies to see Paris, Je t'aime. We had a great time getting to know each other. Since they are French-speaking I gave them a chance to use their English which they both spoke very well with their charming accents, of course. I didn't use much of my French because I feel like I sound like a child and then I lose confidence if the conversation is long term. Quel dommage!
Somehow we got onto the subject of the price of gas here, and I was surprised to learn that it's even higher in Europe and significantly. Somehow, I thought maybe they had escaped the increases. Not the case, in fact, they said the taxes were high on the gas (as much as 20% !)
When I mentioned that our prices may go up to four dollars a gallon I saw an unusual amount of surprise on their face but not for the reason I thought. Eventually the fiancée of my friend asked me how many liters there were to a gallon. My brain stalled, of course. Doesn't every American get this way any time we're asked to actually convert the "old way" (which not a soul ever gave up, truth!) to metric ? I tried to do a rough conversion in my head starting with what I knew.
"Hmmm. Okay it's ten liters to 2.64 gallons. Divide ten into 2.64.... no , that won't work ! Uh. Start over. Divide into five shares to correspond with 2.64 gallons and you get... would it be four parts making it 2.5 per share or five parts making it two per share?? Augh."
I think I came up with something like 1 and a half liters to a gallon. We all looked confused. Probably none of us came up with the right numbers in our heads.
Today I finally sat down with pen and paper and didn't quit trying to figure it out until I was sure I came up with the solution. The closest I could get was that a quarter of a gallon corresponds to one liter but it's not accurate. I realized (for the first time) that customs of a country are intrinsic and really cannot be changed. I remember when I was going to elementary school the principal and teachers said they were dedicated to getting our generation to use the metric system and drop the old method of measure. However, I still hear people, much younger than myself, talking about inches, feet, yards, gallons, miles etc.
Now try to think of this as a language and you have a pretty good idea of what is so difficult about learning the subtle nuances in a language. How about strange words that escape people trying to learn a foreign language, or worse yet, master it? As Mozart said in the movie Amadeus, in some parts of the world people talk backwards. Not literally, mind you, like he meant, but more on an etymology basis. That is to say- the meanings and reformations of words. Black Americans talk backwards. They say things are good when they mean bad, and they say things are bad when they mean they are good. That's just the start. My favorite English usage is to say "that's no joke" and basically mean it's not quite to be laughed at but you're laughing anyway because it's amusing. Confused? That's because English is not your first language. Try to hang, will you? ; )
The Castle Lady will smooch away your blues!

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