My wife Helena and I are travelling in Europe. We spent four days in Prague and now we’re in Krakow, Poland.
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It’s Tuesday following Pope Francis’ visit to this former Polish capital and although he’s gone back to The Vatican, little armies of Catholic teenagers from around the world still parade through the narrow streets.
Many sport red and blue Catholic World Youth sashes but they’re more easily identified by the spring in their steps, their cheerful expressions and evangelical Catholic zeal.
By my reckoning, I wager that come next Mother’s Day, a lot of multi-ethnic babies will be popping out all over the planet.
But today, I have more immediate concerns and by that I mean my very own international currency crisis. It has already exacted a painful toll and things are about to get much worse before they improve.
Let me explain.
Before leaving Toronto six days ago, Helena and I consulted several neighbours and two TD Canada Trust staffers.
“How,” we asked them, “should we deal with currency when we’re in Europe?”
They gave us the same answer Mr. McGuire had for Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate: “Plastic.”
We should simply use our Amex, debit cards and ATMs. That way we would not ruin our vacation fretting exchange rates. I believe one of them actually said, “Easy peasie.”
My response? Difficult, emotionally draining, and complicated enough to make a grown man cry, more like.
Just 72 hours ago, I stood at the check-out counter of a Prague delicatessen with my right hand outstretched. On my open palm sat a small mountain of crumpled-up bills, about seven or eight coins of various shapes, colours and ethnicities, and—as if to giftwrap my pitiful state of addled-brainedness—a wad of pocket lint.
I had no idea how much any of it was worth. I was at the store clerk's mercy.
When we had arrived a few days earlier, we followed our neighbours’ advice. We located an ATM at the airport and confidently extracted 10,000 Czech Koronas, which we determined was just over $500 Canadian.
Riding the shuttle from the airport to town (the tickets for which we bought using a debit card) we did our financial homework. Take away two zeros, and 100 Koronas translates to five bucks, give or take.
For the next two days, using—variously—plastic and our 1,000-Korona bills, we had a splendid time, dining Bohemian-style on goulash and dumplings and roast duck and Czech beer and making wonderful jokes like “Hey! Czech out that statue,” to much laughter, much of it my my own.
After each cash deal, I pocketed change but I only spent big ATM-issued bills. I never so much as glanced at any change I was given.
How uncool would it be to stop and pore over every little coin?
Then I woke up Sunday morning.
After all our restaurant dining I thought that instead of eating out, I’d nip over to the local deli and buy breakfast fixings. We could dine in our rooms and wait for a murder.
(What I mean is, we were staying in a splendid 11-room, several-hundred-year-old apartment hotel called The Oasis. Our third-floor window opened out over a courtyard surrounded by balconies and shuttered windows. It looked like the set of an Italian murder mystery in which the writer hero sees somebody attack a beautiful nearly naked victim in an open window one storey down and just to the right from where I was sitting. Maybe my imagination is getting the better of me. But I digress.)
The deli was next to the hotel. It didn’t take long to find what I needed: A bit of smoked cheese; two yogurts, some freshly cut baklava and a slice of very European-looking black jerky something.
As I shopped, I considered the prices: 110-Korona this and 25-Korona that. All told it came to under 500 Koronas.
I got to the cashier and handed him my 1,000-K note.
“Any chance,” he says, “you got something smaller?” (A surprising number of Czechs speak English.)
I reached into my Levis and extracted that mittful of multi-coloured-and shaped money: Czech and Canadian coins, several wrinkled-up bills, a TTC token, and lint.
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I looked at the clerk. He understood perfectly.
He leaned in, flung the lint aside and extracted what I believe to be the exact price of my purchase.
I felt three and a half. And thought:“If you want to get rich quick, find out what country Peter’s visiting next, rush there, find out where he’s staying, and adjacent to that property, open up a convenience store, and wait.”
After I got back from the deli encounter, Helena and I did some currency drilling.
Her: “Say I have 10,000 Koronas and that’s like $50. What if we go to a restaurant and don’t want to spend more than $40 a person. What would that be?”
Her: “What about we knew something should cost 55 cents, how would we calculate that?”
Me: Tears of frustration.
Do you see where I’m going with this? It is in fact easy peasie to keep track of the huge bills, but once I’m down to the 50 cents’; the coins and other smaller currency—important everyday money—I’m completely out of my depth.
What’s worse is, the crisis has only just begun.
It’s our first full day in Poland. We’re here for two weeks.
When we arrived last night I picked up some Polish money from the ATM. We bought some shampoo afterwards so I have some change.
So right now, I have, in my pocket:
$57 in Canadian currency;
50 Czech Koronas;
329 Polish Zlotes;
10 Polish Grozes, a.k.a., 10 pennies or so;
A subway token.
I better go find some of those Catholic kids and get them to pray for me.