Weights and Measures
There is one advantage to not knowing the metric system: When I weigh myself in Italy, even after third helpings of tiramisù, I look at the double digits indicating kilograms and feel magra (thin). Everywhere else, from the supermarket to the gas station, I’m stumped by Italian’s ways of weighing. And so I’m grateful to Silvia Bascelli for this blog. Her original Italian version will be available on the “Students and Teachers” page of my “Becoming Italian” website. Here is my English adaptation:
Le misure (measures) are truly different from those used in the United States. Not a single one is the same. No, there is one: la misura del tempo (the measure of time). Le ore (hours), i minuti (minutes) and i secondi (seconds) are the same. But the others remain buio pesto (pitch dark).
Italy, like most of world, uses the sistema metrico decimale (decimal metric system), which is much simpler and more rational than that used in the paesi anglosassoni (Anglosaxon countries). You just multiply or divide by 10, 100, or 1000 -- which is much quicker than multiplying or dividing by 12 or by three. However, even a simpler system can be disorienting (far disorientare) if you’re not familiar with it.
Imagine yourself in the magnificent Piazza delle Erbe in the center of Padua, or Campo dei Fiori in Rome, or the historic mercato della Vucciria in Palermo. What would you ask the fruttivendolo (fruit vendor) if you want to buy della frutta (some fruit)? How would you evaluate il prezzo (the price)?
Fruit and vegetables are sold in "chilogrammi" (kilograms) or simply "chili" (pronounced keel-ee). "Mi da' un chilo di mele," you’d say. (Give me a chilo of apples.) A chilo is a little more than two libbre (pounds) and is divided into ten etti (one etto is about three ounces). If you want to buy some prosciutto, you would say, “Mi da' un etto (o due etti.) di prosciutto.” (Give me an etto—or two etti—of prosciutto.)
A chilo is divided into a thousand grams or "grammi," una misura piccolissima (a very tiny measure). If you go to a goldsmith’s (dall'orefice) to buy something, the weight dell’oro (of the gold) would be expressed in grammi.
Le misure di lunghezza (Measures of Distance)
The basic measure is il metro (the meter), which is a little more than a yard. A meter is divided by 100 centimeters. A thousand meters make un chilometro (a kilometer), which is used to indicate le distanze (the distances) -- say, between two cities. Un miglio (a mile) is about 1600 meters, more than one and a half a kilometer. Milan and Rome are about 600 chilometri or 380 miglia from each other.
If you want to prendere in affitto una casa (rent a house), you would want to evaluate its superficie (area), which is indicated in metri quadrati (square meters). Un metro quadrato roughly corresponds to dieci piedi quadrati (ten square feet)
L'altezza delle montagne (the height of mountains) also is expressed in metri. Monte Bianco (Mount Blanc), for instance, is alto 4900 metri e non 4 chilometri e 900 metri (4900 meters high -- not 4 kilometers and 900 meters).
Le misure di capacità (Measures of Capacity)
If you want to buy milk or gasoline, the measure to use is il litro (the liter). It takes 3,78 litri to make a gallon. (Attention: Italian uses la virgola--the comma-- where the United States uses il punto—the period.) With gas, it’s easy to get around this problem in two different ways: You can ask for “il pieno” (a full tank) or you can buy whatever quantity corresponds to the amount of money you want to spend. For instance, you might ask for 20 euro di benzina (20 euro worth of gasoline).
When you find yourself in these situations, you may be tempted to do what I do: stubbornly try to translate the unknown measurements into those that you know. Silvia’s advice: imparare le misure del luogo. (Learn the measures of the place.) If you do, you will feel a sense of satisfaction that is fuor di misura (beyond measure).
Words and Expressions
vendere a peso -- to sell by weight
vendere a peso d’oro -- to sell by the weight of gold or at a high figure
il peso degli anni -- the weight of the years
avere due pesi e due misure -- to have two weights and two measures, to be unfair
peso morto -- dead weight