European Numbers and Stumblers

By Rick Steves

Europeans convey numerical information differently than we do, from measurements to schedules and even dates. As simple as these things are, they can be frustrating barriers and cause needless, occasionally serious problems.

Time and Date

The 24-hour clock (military time) is used in any official timetable. This includes bus, train, and tour schedules. Learn to use it quickly and easily. Everything is the same until 12:00 noon. Then, instead of starting over again at 1:00 p.m., the Europeans keep on going — 13:00, 14:00, and so on. For any time after noon, subtract 12 and add p.m. (18:00 is 6:00 p.m.).

To figure out the time back home, remember that European time is generally six/nine hours ahead of the East/West Coasts of the US. (These are the major exceptions: British, Irish, and Portuguese time is five/eight hours ahead; Greece and Turkey are seven/ten hours ahead.) Europe observes Daylight Saving Time (called "Summer Time" in the UK), but on a slightly different schedule than the US: Europe "springs forward" on the last Sunday in March (three weeks after most of North America) and "falls back" the last Sunday in October (one week before North America). For a handy online time converter, try www.timeanddate.com/worldclock.

When it comes to dates, it's critical to remember — especially when making reservations — that European date order is written day/month/year. Christmas, for example, is 25/12/14 instead of 12/25/14, as we would write it.

Written Numbers

A European's handwritten numbers look different from ours. The number 1 has an upswing. The number 4 often looks like a short lightning bolt. If you don't cross your 7, it may be mistaken as a sloppy 1, and you could miss your train. Don't use "#" for "number" — it's not common in Europe.

On the continent, commas are decimal points and decimals commas, so a euro and a half is €1,50 and there are 5.280 feet in a mile. (Britain and Ireland use commas and decimal points like North America.)

The Metric System

European countries (except the UK) use kilometers instead of miles. A kilometer is six-tenths of a mile. To quickly translate kilometers to miles, cut the kilometer figure in half and add 10 percent of the original figure (e.g., 420 km = 210 + 42 = 252 miles). Some people prefer to drop the last digit and multiply by six: Quick, what's 150 km? (15 × 6 = 90 miles.) "36-26-36" means nothing to a European (or metric) girl-watcher. But a "90-60-90" is a real pistachio.

Here are some easy ways to guesstimate metric measurements: Since a meter is 39 inches, just consider meters roughly equivalent to yards. A hectare equals about 2.5 acres. A liter is about a quart (1.056 quarts, to be exact) — four to a gallon. A centimeter (cm) is about half the distance across a penny, while a millimeter (mm) is about the thickness of a penny.

Converting Temperatures

Europeans measure temperatures in degrees Celsius (zero degrees C = 32 degrees Fahrenheit). You can use a formula to convert temperatures in Celsius to Fahrenheit: Divide C by 5, multiply by 9, and add 32 to get F. If that's too scary, it's easier and nearly as accurate to double the Celsius temperature and add 30. So if it's 27° C, double to 54 and add 30 to get 84° F (it's actually 81° F, but that's close enough for me). Chilly 10° C comes out to 50° F either way, and comfy 20° C is about 70° F (actually 68° F). To convert Fahrenheit to Celsius, subtract 32, divide by 9, then multiply by 5; or take the easy route — just subtract 30 and divide by 2. A memory aid: 28° C = 82° F — balmy summer weather. And a rhyme: 30 is hot, 20 is nice, 10 is cold, 0 is ice.

Addresses and Floors of Buildings

House numbers often have no correlation to what's across the street. While in America, an odd-numbered house is usually on one side of the street and an even-numbered is on the other, in Italy #27 may be directly across from #2.

Floors of buildings are numbered differently in Europe. The bottom floor is called the ground floor, and what we call the second floor is a European's first floor. So if your room is on the second floor (European), bad news — you're on the third floor (American). In the elevator, push whatever's below "1" to get to the ground floor.