Goonie Map #2

Remember that cheesy moment in movies where the hero makes his speech to a dead-silent crowd, and then there’s that one guy who stands up with the slow clap that eventually builds till the whole place is roaring with applause? Whoever chose me for the Freshly Pressed feature yesterday is my slow clapper, and now I’m thinkin it’s not so cheesy.

Five days ago I was genuinely thrilled when this site hit 100 views. Those three little digits warmed my heart. Then a wand-tap by my fairy blogmother and voila: 1,700 hits from 70 countries in a day, and still counting. They say discretion is the better part of valor, so I’ll be brief but have to give a huge thank you to everyone who took a moment to stop by, subscribe, make a comment, press a Like button, etc. While relocating to a foreign country is a dream in many ways, you can feel isolated at times and this blog is my connection to a language, culture, and family that keeps me grounded. You’re all part of the crew now, and I’ll do my best to keep it going.

Ok, back to business…another Goonie Map stop. If you need to catch up you can do so here. This one took me to Place Vendome, a large open square conceived during the time of Louis XIV. Amid the ritzy hotels and high-end boutiques an intriguing piece of French history sits softly tucked away, barely visible until you’re close enough to touch it.

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This is a metre étalon. We always associate Europe with the metric system, but it wasn’t always so. During the monarchies of France, measurement (like most everything else) was a reflection of the king. Therefore the king’s thumb = an inch, his foot = one foot. When the French Revolution arrived folks went nuts on anything that looked like, smelled like, or remotely resembled royalty. The only part of a king they enjoyed was the part rolling away from the guillotine.

Included in the overhaul was the adoption of the metric and decimal system in 1795. Problem was nobody knew exactly how long this new meter was, so the government installed several carved étalons, or standards, in pedestrian-heavy zones. This is one of only two remaining in Paris. For any American readers that might not be convinced by the metric system, try dividing something by twelve. Then, when your blackout is over, try ten.


  • The award is well-deserved. After I checked out your site, I spent the next several hours reading your posts from the beginning. I kept chuckling and laughing and finally had to start read certain passages out loud to my husband. Your sense of humor is magnifique! Thanks for letting me tag along on your most excellent adventures.

  • OK, I discovered your site yesterday, and I am already hooked! I am putting together a “best of” to print it out for my Dad (ex Fulbright student at Bowdoin and English teacher) who will love that I am sure. It’s good for a Parisian on an exotic and thank God brief assignment (yes, you wondered who the hell would read your blog in Mongolia, look no further… ) to somehow reconnect with his base like this.
    Nice piece on the mètre étalon. I am surprised though, knowing your twisted mind, that you haven’t told your non-francophone readers that “étalon” actually means “stud”, with all the fine jokes that one could derive from this translation…
    And last thing about monarchy time measurements: the problem was not so that they were “a reflection of the king”, it’s that, fair and square, there were about as many units of measurements in France as there were provinces. So a “pied” in Paris wouldn’t be the same as one in Toulouse, “une livre” in Lyon wouldn’t wiegh the same as a pound in Nantes. Mind you, neither of these people spoke the same language, so it didn’t really matter…
    Otherwise, the story of the mètre étalon is a crazy one, that would make for a great novel/movie: in the mid 18th Century, La Condamine, some loony French aristocrat, went to South America, down the Amazon river, discovered quinquina, etc. and started measuring the Equator (currently, the lycée français in Quito, Ecuador, bears his name – as well as a drab street in the 17th arrondissement, but that’s another story). He is the one who decided that 1/10 000 000 of 25% of the Meridian would make for a handy measurement unit, and this “mètre” was officially declared “étalon national” by Louis XVI in 1766, even though this bold move was never implemented (story of my country… ). It then took a bunch of crazy Revolution era scientists (whose names were used to christened streets around the Observatoire in the 14e: Méchain, Delambre, Cassini, etc. ) to “triangulate” the new meter, by foot, inch by inch if I may say, between Dunkerque and Barcelona. It took them more than a decade to complete the stretch, but in 1799 the mètre étalon was officially adopted.

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