Besides having to learn a foreign language when I moved to Italy, I also had to adjust to using a completely foreign system of measurement.
In fact, my unfamiliarity with the metric system coupled with my overwhelming fear of speaking Italian with strangers (or anyone, really) prevented me from experiencing some of the best foods in Italy.
If I would have known how to order using it I could have gotten the freshest cheeses and meats and made the best sandwiches of my life.
My home country (the United States) is one of only three countries in the world that doesn’t use the metric system. Three. Come on, U.S., Liberia and Myanmar. Get with the program.
For those of us who live in one of those three countries, I’ve compiled this short article about how to use the metric system.
It probably won’t be of any use to you at home if you live in the U.S., but when you want to order food or anything else that’s measured by weight abroad, it will come in handy.
The easiest way to understand the metric system is to memorize the prefixes of the measurements.
Here are the ones you’ll likely use most often:
– Chilo: 1.000
CPF: Italians use periods where Americans would use commas in numbers, so something that would look like 1,300.80 in the United States would be 1.000,80 in Italy.
– Etto: 100
– Deca: 10
– Deci: 1/10th
– Centi: 1/100th
– Milli: 1/1.000th
These prefixes are combined with units of measurement to create metric measurements. This system is super easy (and would be easier for me to grasp if I would have been taught it in elementary school…)
For weight, which you’ll use to order mortadella, the basic unit of measurement is the gram, or in Italian, il grammo.
Simply add the prefixes mentioned previously to make measurements in bases of 10
– Un chilogrammo (one kilogram) = 1.000 grammi (1,000 grams)
– Un milligrammo (one milligram) = 1/1.000th grammi (1/1,000th of a gram)
For reference, 1 pound is equal to about 450 grams.
To get a better idea of how to use the metric system in a butcher shop in Italy, read this article.
For length, which you’ll use to navigate the Italian countryside, the basic unit of measurement is the meter, or in Italian, il metro.
Again, add the prefixes from before to make measurements in bases of 10.
– Un chilometro (one kilometer) = 1.000 metri (1,000 meters)
– Un millimetro (one millimeter) = 1/1.000th metri (1/1,000th of a meter)
For reference, a meter is equal to a little less than 3.5 feet (3.370079 to be exact).
Here’s a mini-dialogue that shows you how length in meters might be used.
You (lost, addressing a policeman on the street): Mi scusi, dov’è la stazione di Porta Romana?
Poliziotto: Da qui, cammina per circa 10 metri e poi gira a destra. Vai sempre dritto per 25 metri e troverai la stazione.
You: Grazie mille!
You (lost, addressing a policeman on the street): Excuse me, but where is the Porta Romana station?
Policeman: From here, walk about ten meters and then turn right. Go straight for 25 meters and you will find the station.
You: Thank you very much!
10 meters = 30 feet; 25 meters = 82 feet.
If you need a refresher course on how to ask for directions, click here.
For volume, which you’ll use to buy milk and other liquids, the basic unit of measurement is the liter, or in Italian, il litro.
Same as before, add the prefixes to make measurements in bases of 10.
– Un chilolitro (one kiloliter) = 1.000 litri (1,000 liters)
– Un millilitro (one milliliter) = 1/1.000th litri (1/1,000th of a liter)
You probably won’t be ordering 1,000 liters of anything, unless you want to produce some parmigiano at home.
For reference, 1 liter is about ¼ of a gallon.
For temperature, you’ll use Celsius instead of Fahrenheit.
I remember being taught this formula many times in science class throughout my childhood, but I could never remember it.
For those math whizzes out there, here’s the formula:
Temperature in Celsius = (Temperature in Fahrenheit – 32) × 5/9
For the rest of us, there’s this handy website you can use when trying to describe the temperature to an Italian friend.
You might not always have access to Internet in Italy though, so downloading a conversion app might be a good idea until you get a good grasp on metric measurements.
Here’s a mini dialogue that shows you how degrees in Celsius may be used.
You: Fa freddo fuori?
Your friend: Fa abbastanza freddo, sta per nevicare. Ci sono 0 gradi.
You: Odio l’inverno, fa troppo freddo per uscire. La mia temperatura ideale è 22 gradi.
Your friend: A me piace quando nevica, ma quando le temperature scendono intorno a -10 gradi, inizio a desiderare che arrivi presto la primavera.
You: Is it cold outside?
Your friend: It’s pretty cold, it’s going to snow. It’s 0 degrees Celsius. (Which would be 32 degrees Fahrenheit.)
You: I hate winter, it’s too cold to go out. My ideal temperature is 22 degrees Celsius. (Which would be about 71 degrees Fahrenheit.)
Your friend: I like when it snows, but when the temperatures fall below -10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit), I start to want spring to come early.
If you need a refresher course on talking about the weather, click here.
Getting used to a new unit of measurement is tough, but like all things, it just takes a little practice.
Try telling us what temperature it is where you live in Celsius in the comments below, or try to figure out how many liters of gas you’re getting next time you fill up!