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For the week of January 9 - 15, 2002

  Opinion Column

Six of one and half a dozen of another

Commentary by JoELLEN COLLINS

Now if I can just stop mistaking 100,000 lire notes for 10,000, Iíll be fine! Thank god the conversion to the Euro currency is here.

Growing up in an era when it was believed women naturally possessed mathophobia and where math classes ignored the metric system has made it tough here in Italy. I am about to confess some embarrassing gaffes due to my lack of good arithmetic sense, but hope my ability to laugh at myself helps later when Iím given a dunce cap upon my return.

Let me hasten to say that my worst grade ever was in eighth grade algebra. Luckily I was rather sickly then, with severe asthma, so I was able to use my absences from school to account for my poor performance. Anyway, I wrote poetry and played the piano and had just learned how to sew in my home economics class, so I was in all other respects a perfect girl, suitable for the expectations of the time. My parents knew, somehow, that the hideous algebra grade would not deter me from eventually achieving a college masterís degree, the desired goal for all young women of my generation. I even got into a good school despite that grade and rather poor performances in science classes as well, because at that time colleges less deluged than now with applicants honored letters of fulsome praise. I was admitted to Occidental College conditionally, after first choice students decided upon other universities. My grades were OK in college, once I stopped flirting most of the time instead of studying, and my experience in graduate school was just fine. I was a late bloomer, academically.

Iím trying to justify my stupidity in things mathematical, of course. And just so you donít think I am totally hopeless, I must mention that when I moved back to California briefly a few years ago, I was required to take the CBEST test for teachers who had left the state or the profession for more than three years. It consisted of writing and language and a mathematics part similar to SATs. I had no review, was told by friends that they refused to return to the classroom because the test was so daunting and, you guessed it, passed anyway. If I managed not to fail it, that may say something about its level of difficulty!

So, with my background on record, let me tell you of two recent experiences with the metric system that have me roaring, retrospectively. One was the first day I had my small rental car and took it (on empty) to a local AGIP station. I knew something about liters/gallons, I thought, remembering in my panic at having to even find the gas tank of this car, decide whether it was diesel or gasoline, and communicate things in Italian, that there was about a 4 to 1 ratio of liters to gallons or vice-versa. I chose the wrong versa and ordered, in stumbling Italian, two (count íem) two liters of fuel. The attendant smiled, asked me to repeat my order, which I did, proudly, and went back to the pump for about two seconds. I paid and left, feeling smug, until I looked at the gauge and realized it hadnít moved from empty. By now, you mathophiles know the punchline: I had put in the equivalent of less than half a gallon of gas. Those service station attendants must have had some giggles over their espresso!

The same week I went to my local small market in Villastrada and asked for some coffee to be ground. I ordered what I thought was about a pound and wound up with (again) dismayed looks and some secret snickers from the butcher, whose job it is to grind coffee, since he has all the big and potentially lethal machines at hand. I did other errands elsewhere in the store while he finished, and when I returned he handed me a huge sack of coffee. I had ordered enough for Juan Valdez, of Colombian coffee fame, to hoist in a sack over his shoulders and plod on, a beast of burden. My only lame response to the counterman, as I handed him my weekís budget of lire, was "Iím here for 6 months!" By the way, I am a drinker of enough coffee that my supply is indeed almost gone after two months. I fear I will sneak to another store for more, like the alcoholic who frequents different liquor stores so the salespeople wonít know the extent of his habit. I donít think I can stand the looks when I order more!

I have a problem for you, my readers. I am sans calculator and feel inept at figuring out the equivalent of miles per gallon to kilometers per liter. (I also tell myself that reading profusely or memorizing Italian verbs is better for my soul than struggling with figures.) The other day I asked in Italian, for my tank to be filled ("pieno, per favore," I now say with a smile and a sense of great triumph). I had gone 515 kilometers and used about 30 liters of gas. I think Iíve figured it out. Am I getting good mileage?

Now if I can just stop mistaking 100,000 lire notes for 10,000, Iíll be fine! Thank god the conversion to the Euro currency is here.


The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.