On the face of it, the metric system is a wonderfully practical and doubtlessly universal concept – a metre is a metre in Luxembourg, much like a similar if completely different metre in Australia is also a metre. While their circumstances may be very different – perhaps the metre in Luxembourg is a bit wetter; the one in Australia a bit more prone to surfing and wearing shorts – they are both, when it comes down to it, a distance of 100 centimetres, or 1000 millimetres. To argue otherwise would be scientific folly, but that’s never stopped me before.
As it turns out, a Luxembourgish metre is considerably longer than most metres I have encountered elsewhere. I first visited Luxembourg in 2013, and was surprised to hear that someone lives “far away,” or “in the North,” when in reality the distance between the two points in question might be as little as 20 kilometres. For someone who grew up in Sweden, a country constituting a great many more metres than does Luxembourg, 20 kilometres is next to nothing. I’m pretty sure I’ve had to walk that far to retrieve a frisbee that went astray. But in Luxembourg, 20 kilometres is an almost unimaginable distance.
I must admit that I spent a couple of years deriving great pleasure from making fun of how Luxembourgers seemed to perceive distance. This isn’t necessarily a personality trait of which I am particularly proud, but it certainly is one that I possess. So it came as quite a surprise, a mere six or seven months after moving here, to find myself thinking that Ettelbruck (where I had to drive three times a week for French class) was “quite far” from Lorentzweiler (where I live). The distance, as you may have guessed, is 20 kilometres – 20.4 to be exact, but I don’t think the .4 is what makes it seem far.
Complaining of a 20km commute in my native Sweden would be akin to crumbling under the overwhelming weight of a plumb; it’s nonsense, unless you happen to be standing on the surface of a planet far, far away with gravity many times greater than Earth’s. And that’s the crux of my argument – the weight of an object is relative to the circumstances that surround it; a man on the moon is lighter than a man on Earth, at least for as long as he stays there. The metric system is flawed in that it doesn’t take such circumstances into consideration – and I, for one, can attest to the fact that a metre in Luxembourg is considerably, if subjectively, longer than elsewhere. In reality, I suspect that a Luxembourgish metre is about three international metres, making the distance between Ettelbruck and Lorentzweiler about 60km.