Simanaitis Says

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WHAT’S THAT IN FRANCS? BUT WHICH FRANCS?

THE EURO took a lot of fun out of European travel.

This less than profound thought came to me recently when sharing a tale of currency exchange with friends Kathy and John Sanborn. These days, credit cards are used around the world. They’re almost as acceptable as coin of the realm; whichever realm.

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Five European coins of the realm, not all that long ago. From left to right, the Austrian schilling, Belgian franc, French franc, German pfennig and Portuguese escudo. Beginning in 2002, the euro below replaced these and coins of 18 other countries.

However, not all that long ago, a trip through Europe involved a multiplicity of realms, each with different coinage. What’s more, their comparative values changed seemingly hourly.

This was in marked contrast to the old, old days. To wit, each of my turn-of-the-century Baedeker Handbooks for Travellers includes a Money-Table of equivalents for a variety of currencies.

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Baedeker Money-Tables. From left to right, 1900, 1909 and 1913.

American, Austrian, English, French, German and Italian exchange rates showed remarkably little fluctuation between, say, 1900 and the onset of World War I in 1913.

All bets were off post-war, especially when the Weimar Republic’s Reichsbanknote plummeted into the utility of wallpaper.

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A Weimar Republic 1000 Mark note, over-stamped with Eine Milliarde Note; that is, to us, 1 billion, 1,000,000,000.

Things were rather more settled by the time I started European travel in the late 1970s. Travelers cheques were swapped for local currencies in each country at offices of exchange, cambios, or in major hotels. Credit cards worked at the latter, but generally not elsewhere.

Not, for example, at smaller gasoline stations. I recall an Italian adventure reported in R&T, April 1986, wherein we followed the Mille Miglia route in six sports cars (a tale worthy of a complete telling here anon). As Engineering Editor, I was responsible for the gasoline station routines, including invariably cash payments. Partway through the trip, I started phoning the office for more money to be wired to our next hotel (no mean feat, as it was different every day for a week).

Long before cell phones, even telephoning in Italy was non-trivial. Public phones didn’t take lira coins.

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A gettone telefonico, the diameter of a quarter, but three times as thick. (Gettone is Italian for “token.”)

The phones needed gettoni, tokens that were purchased just about anywhere (200 lire, about 15¢, in 1986). These thick, clunky objects filled one’s pockets, especially until international hookups were attempted.

Colleagues reported another incident where they kept getting lost and caught up in toll booths until they exhausted their local cash. Encountering the next one, they proffered dollars.

You can imagine the response of offering euros at the George Washington Bridge entering Manhattan.  But the European toll taker was a player: He opened his day’s newspaper to the Currency Exchange page, computed the rate long-hand, accepted U.S. cash and returned the change in local currency. My colleague later calculated that the toll taker withheld only a modest (and fair) commission for his endeavor.

On yet another trip, R&T’s Richard Baron and I were in Milan and in need of cashing some travelers cheques. There was nary a cambio in sight, so, being the worldly fellows we were, we asked in our best Italian, “Per favore, dove banca?”

The response was in Italian, but it did lead us to an imposing edifice labeled Banca.

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Italian bank, Milan. Image from Reuters/Stefano Rellandini.

We walked in, only to be surrounded by three guys toting Uzi machine guns.

Curt warnings in rapid-fire Milanese followed. Then one of the guards, sensing our harmless ineptitude, explained, “In the U.S., you’d call this place your ‘Federal Reserve.’ ” ds

©  Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2014

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This entry was posted on August 30, 2014 by in Just Trippin' and tagged , , , .
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