Tuesday, April 21, 2009
The Numbers Game
This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 27 May 2005.
Who knew there'd be so many numbers to keep track of? And I'm not talking about useful numbers that I ought to memorize (like the one on my Israeli ID). I'm talking about small, everyday numbers that we use for measuring, weighing, and even telling time. There's nothing like having to stop and calculate every time you look at a clock to remind you that you're not where you used to be.
In Israel we use a 24-hour clock. After ten years here, I'm pretty fluent in 24-hour time, but for the first couple of years, I had to stop and think before it would sink in that 16:30 meant half-past four in the afternoon. Even now, I insist on wearing an analog watch, because I don't want to have to make that minor adjustment every time I glance at my wrist.
The names of the days of the week are actually ordinal numbers; Sunday is Yom Rishon (First Day), Monday is Yom Shaynee (Second Day), and so on. This, of course, comes straight from the book of Genesis, when God created the world. Sometimes the days are not referred to by name, but by a letter, so that Sunday becomes Yom Alef (the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet), etc. Imagine getting an announcement from the school telling you that your meeting with the teacher is on Yom Hay (the fifth letter) at 17:20. It's enough to make your head ache until you become completely familiar with the system. Having to stop and figure these things out reminds you that you're not in step with everyone else.
Grades in school are also referenced by letters of the alphabet. First grade is kitah alef and it goes right on to kitah yud-bet (twelfth grade). It's embarrassing when someone asks you what grade your kid is in, and you have to stop and make the calculations. Of course, as the year goes on you get used to saying it, but there's always next year, when you have to memorize a new grade.
Probably the worst part of the numbers game is getting used to the Metric system. You buy gasoline by the liter and fabric by the meter. I may know that it is 100 kilometers to my in-laws' house, but I won't really "get" it until I know what that is in terms of miles (about 60). And it's lots of fun to step on a scale and see a number below 100, until you realize you must multiply your weight in kilograms by 2.2 to figure out how many pounds you weigh. Over time, I have gotten used to these numbers, but some of them still don't really sink in until I've translated them into terms I know.
What's the forecast for today? Partly cloudy with a high of 29 degrees. The middle of winter? No, it's a lovely summer day in degrees Celsius. What is that in Fahrenheit? Heck if I know; it's hot but not unbearable. I have never bothered to learn the calculation for temperature. If I really feel I must know the exact temperature, I look at the thermometer (with markings for both Celsius and Fahrenheit) that's stuck to my kitchen window.
Shopping brings its own hazards. How did I go from wearing a size 7 shoe to a size 38? European sizing in clothing is another adaptation I've had to make. In America, I would know right away what size jeans to buy for my seven-year-old daughter; here I either have to ask for help or take a peek at the tag in the clothes she is wearing. If I don't have a list of proper sizes tucked into my purse, I can't buy anything unless the intended wearer is with me.
I've always had a better relationship with words than with numbers. This constant need to calculate before I can process information frustrates me, and serves as a constant reminder of the "otherness" of everyday life here in Israel. When I reach the point where a lot of thought is no longer necessary (as with the 24-hour clock and the days of the week), I feel that much closer to being acclimated.