Saturday, May 25, 2013

Still Life With Robin: Degrees of Comfort With Other Ways of Thinking

Photo by Thomas S. Mann

by Peggy Robin

It’s a valuable life-skill to be able to adapt to other ways of looking at the world. My goal is to start small, with something like the measurement of temperature. Everywhere but in America, people think in Celsius. While I am traveling overseas, I’d like to be able to hear a TV weather forecaster predict the highs and lows for the rest of the week and not have to perform the mental gymnastics of multiplying by nine-fifths and adding (or is it subtracting?) 32. I would just like to be able to hear “36 degrees” and think, “Wow, that’s hot!” or hear “-9” and think “Brr, that’s cold!” Instead, I’m reaching for my smartphone and punching in numbers.

Once I have finally and fully internalized the Celsius scale, I hope to move on to the major currencies. I have family members in both the UK and France, and I admire the way they operate in the multi-monetary global economy -- by which I mean, they can tell at a mere glance at a price tag whether something is cheap, moderate, or expensive, no matter if it’s in pounds, euros, or dollars. The reason this is a more difficult faculty to acquire than an appreciation for values in Celsius is that unlike the heat measurement scales that were invented and fixed by Anders Celsius back in 1742, currency rates are subject to change -- sometimes by giant jumps or falls within a relatively short period of time.

Here’s how it may affect you: You’re planning a trip to London with some side-trips to other towns, and you think a £100 train fare will cost you $140 but by the time you get to Paddington Station to buy the tickets, you’re shelling out $165. Actually, you hope it’s just $165, but in reality you don’t know what it will end up being until you see your credit card statement at the end of the month. With all the fees tacked on, it’s always more than you figured. (And yes, you should definitely switch to one of those no-foreign-transaction-fee cards.)

Even if I were to master the fluctuating conversion of currencies (and I seriously doubt that is going to happen), I am still and will forever be completely daunted by what may be the ultimate challenge to my sense of what’s what: the cost of a tankful of gas. There you are, let’s say on the M8 Motorway to Edinburgh, and you’re already madly trying to reverse the way your brain has always processed traffic information, given that everything is left-right reversed, and each time you try to use the turn-signal, you hit the wipers; it’s time to stop for a bit, collect your breath (which you left several kilometers behind you, when a car suddenly came out of nowhere, barreled around and passed you on the right, and you very nearly ran off into a ditch), and at the same time, fill the car up with, um not gas, but petrol. There’s a sign for a petrol station up ahead, and as you approach the pump, you find yourself attempting to perform a multi-variable equation in your head, multiplying the liters times not-quite-four to turn them into vague equivalents of gallons, while simultaneously converting the pounds to dollars. Sure, there’s an app for that -- but wouldn’t it be so much better just to be able to glance at the price sign and see £1.39 per liter and instantly understand that you will be paying about double what you’d pay in the US to fill up the tank?

Now all you need to do is guess which side of the car the gas cap is on (you’ve at least got a 50-50 shot at that) and you are so much more functional than I ever hope to be as an American abroad. But I am working on it!


Still Life With Robin is published on Saturdays on the Cleveland Park Listserv,, and All Life Is Local.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, Peggy. I recently realized that every car has a little indicator on the dashboard showing which side of the car the gas cap is on. Not sure when they started doing that.

    I can't even remember which side it's on with my own car, let alone rental cars, so that's been a great discovery.