conversational magic, brine, and 32 degrees fahrenheit

Being an expat can be magical. Yup.  And not in any sort of “it was the best of times” way.  No, as an expat, you’ll find yourself performing conversational feats you never thought possible. Because the grass is, if not greener, at least a lot more interesting on the other side, you, as a diplomat from another side, will find yourself able to make descriptions of the most banal, commonplace daily activities interesting. Your friends at home will listen intently to stories that, when told in their home country, put them to sleep. But because you went grocery shopping/used the toilet/bought bread on foreign soil, your life is suddenly full of conversational masterpieces. You could base an entire hour-long conversation around the design of toilet bowls that both you and your conversational partner will find fascinating. If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.

In turn, the details of your everyday life back “home” will be just as interesting to your new, in this case, German companions. If there is one thing that is almost universally fascinating, it is the details of cultural difference.  While this means you will find yourself having a lot of really interesting conversations, it also means that you’ll find yourself having the same conversations again and again. Even seven years into expatdom, I’m still having the same dozen conversations on a monthly basis.  If you tend to meet a lot of new people as par for the course, you’ll be having them weekly.

It all starts with the story of why you moved. After a couple of months you’ll be an expert at telling it. And after a couple of years you’ll find your story shrinking. You’ve told it so many times, you can, and do, tell it in just a few sentences in order to prevent boring yourself to death. Mine these days goes something like this: “I was working a desk job in the States and hated it. So I got a job as an au pair in Frankfurt. Once that was over I just decided to stay. And seven years later here I am.”  At this point I’ll point to the baby in my arms, as if to explain in one gesture why I’m still here.  Short and sweet.  Room for questions if people are interested, and room to move on if they, like I, are not interested in hearing more of those practiced lines.

Other topics that get covered often, and conversations I’ve had hundreds of times, at least, include “why Germany?”, how I learned the German language, and the high cost of an American university education. But recently—as the weather has been rollercoastering between summer and fall temperatures on a daily basis—there’s been a lot of talk about Fahrenheit, the measure of temperature in the United States, and Celsius, the measure of temperature just about everywhere else.

I’m only just getting used to the Celsius system.  Because, until Baby Pickles arrived and several nurses scared us into worrying about the importance of a consistently temperatured environment for babies, we didn’t have a thermometer.  So I hadn’t figured out that 25 degrees Celsius was incredibly pleasant, and 15 degrees Celsius was going towards one-hoodie weather.  And while I’m try to get a grasp on the fact that 19 degrees Celsius is rather warm (as it is below freezing in Fahrenheit), people here are asking me to explain the Fahrenheit system. For a conversation I have on a regular basis, I’m surprisingly ignorant on the subject. Or was.  Enter the internet.

So we all know that the Fahrenheit system is kind of ridiculous. Unlike its cousin Celsius, water doesn’t freeze at a neat zero or boil at an easy-to-remember 100 degrees.  Like many other units of measurement used in the United States (inches, feet, gallons, etc), Fahrenheit temperatures seem to make no sense at all.  Water freezes at a seemingly arbitrary 32 degrees and boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. And Germans, whenever we start talking about temperature, usually poke fun at the Americans for using such a strange system, and then they want to know why.  As if there might just be a logical explanation behind Fahrenheit that will put their queries to rest and clear the Americans on all charges of stupidity.

Well, guess what?  It turns out that a German created the system.  As the shape and sound of the word “Fahrenheit” might indicate, it was a German physicist named Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit who came up with it. I don’t entirely understand the reasoning, but his numbers are awkward simply because of the method he chose to define his units (something to do with brine preparations). And according to one source, part of that method, the method that determined the final scale, was deciding that zero would be the freezing point of salt water (which freezes at a much lower temperature than fresh water, or even ocean water) and 100 the temperature of Fahrenheit’s own body, which turned out to be a bit hotter than the average Joe.  Ha! I might say.  Ha!  Looks like the Germans are the ones with the wacky measurement system.  But no, wait, that’s not right either.  After All, it is the Americans who have decided to keep using it.

0 Comments on “conversational magic, brine, and 32 degrees fahrenheit

  1. Well, when using a us-american baking oven, I learned it hard way: You’ll stay hungry much longer if you think 250 degrees is good temperature to turn frozen lasagna into something nice, hot and eatable …

    (Sound recommendation of the day: Adam and his package, “Lord it’s hard to be happy, if you’re not using the metric system”)

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