In Switzerland Know your Metric System

IMG_3116A word to Americans, brush up on your Metric System before you come to Switzerland, or go anywhere in Europe. Things here, especially food, are sold using metric system measurements. Fruit is measured in grams. Beer is in deciliters on the menu. Just knowing the basics and some conversion formulas will help keep you out of embarrassing situations.

Like this one.

For Christmas dinner last year I planned to make a roasted beef loin. My parents were visiting so I wanted to do something special. My American recipe called for 3 pounds of beef tenderloin. I had seen some wonderful beef loin in a butcher shop so I was confident that this was going to taste fantastic with my herb and spice crust on it.

I hadn’t had to deal in kilograms since my 9th grade science class with Charlie Hardt, Mr. Science. He was tough as nails with a voice that could grate carrots. He had fought in WWII and seemed to be a hundred years old to us “little punks,” as he called us. We adored him and did our best to learn what he taught.

[Fun story: One day he rolled up the sleeves on his lab coat to reveal some kind of wrinkly green blotch that covered most of his forearm and resembled South America. “What is that, Mr. Hardt?” we asked. He looked down and said, “That? Is a stupidity mark!” He pulled his flesh taught and South America became a smiling pin-up girl with one arm thrown jauntily into the air. “If I ever catch you little punks with a tattoo I will pound you into dust and keep you in a jar on my shelf!”  He is one of the reasons why my tattoo is strategically placed.]

So anyway, it had been awhile since I had to convert things between pounds and kilos. And I didn’t quite know what a kilogram of stuff looked like. Really, the only concept I had for what a “kilo” was came from foggy memories of drug bust news footage and episodes of Miami Vice.  In my mind a kilo was not a huge quantity.

I also knew that the number 2.2 factored in there somewhere. So knowing what a pound of meat looks like and “knowing” what a kilo of heroin looks like (only from TV, Mom), I decided that the conversion formula was probably multiplying the 3 pounds I needed by 2.2 to get how many kilograms I should order. And then of course I would round up. You never want to run out of food at Christmas.

Armed with this information I marched confidently into the butcher shop and asked for 7 kilos of beef tenderloin.

The butcher’s mouth literally dropped open. In utter disbelief he looked at his assistant who whispered, “Seben kilos?!?” as if no one in the history of the world had ever wanted 7 kilos of meat before. It was a minute or two before they spoke so to break the awkward silence I helpfully explained, “I have a lot of people to feed.”  What I actually said in German was “Ich habe viele Freunde essen.” (I eat a lot of friends.)

A conversation ensued between the butcher and his assistant that, I believe, went something like this.

“My God! 7 kilos?”

“Did you hear her awful German? She is clearly American.”

“Totally. And she wants 7 kilos? Americans are gluttons.”

“She can’t possibly know what she’s asking. Americans don’t bother to learn the metric system, you know.”

“Well then, I will not sell my meat to someone who can’t even do simple math.”

They turned back to me. I had a sheepish yet charming smile on my face. I had not yet learned the Swiss do not smile so I had unwittingly just confirmed all of their suspicions.

“Go!” they said. “Wir haben nichts für Sie!”

When I didn’t move they waved their arms at me in a “shoo-shoo” motion. “Auf Weidersein,” they said, probably hoping I understood a Goodbye when I heard it.

I slunk out of the store, my face burning with embarrassment.

I got a chicken instead. It was delicious and humiliation free.

It’s been over a year since this happened. I am now suitably handy with kilograms and conversions. I even have an app on my phone.

And I haven’t ever gone back to that butcher’s shop.

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