It just happened recently while in transit between Lisbon and New York. The comment just sprang out of my mouth when the shop’s attendant was returning the change at London’s Heathrow airport: “What do I want this monkey’s money for?”
The answer came with the expression on the woman’s face, which was actually worth paying for. She did deserve the pounds and pennies change for my Euro banknote, as a tip.
Actually, nobody should even care to carry paper money anymore, with the ubiquitous availability of plastic cards. But sometimes it is difficult to break the engrained habit of paying with a bill for a magazine or a bottle of water.
That disparaging reference to any currency other than the dollar as “monkey’s money”, by that meaning “worthless”, came to mind out of the past as a repeated complaint of a former work colleague, one member of a small group that for a while crisscrossed the globe on a most interesting mission, every time we left a country with a pocketful of local currency.
Gil was his name, pronounced “gill”, like the fishes’ respiratory organs. A character, the oldest of the team, stocky, bronze-black skin color, the face and straight shoulder-length black hair of an Indian chief of Hollywood’s golden age. Ah, and blue eyes. According to him, inherited from an Irish-American earlier colonist who had lassoed an Indian woman for a wife. Their child married a former slave from Africa.
“All these lucky events to a produce a distinguished American specimen like myself”, he would say before happy hour at one of the multiple hotels where we stayed. Later in the evening, after sitting at the piano and singing a couple of his favorite operatic arias, his glass of bourbon kept full by thankful bar managers, he would go straighter to the point and invite any single women still hanging around “to find out how such a mongrel was made”. There was usually no lack of takers to the offer...
The man had been married to a famous opera singer of the seventies and eighties. While helping her to repeat, he memorized entire librettos of Wagner’s operas and thus considered himself a fluent german speaker. His tentative conversations with miscellaneous and unwarned Germans, puzzled by the vocabulary and accent, were pieces of laughing legend during Company parties.
These reminiscences were brought up with the belated understanding of how Americans felt in those times, which explains why they would utter such naive enormities. Coming from a nation the size of a continent, with no political borders and the same currency, the rest of the world looked intricate and backward.
Now, those living in the Euro zone have the surprise of feeling the same way when traveling around. How strange it was to have lived before in a fragmented Europe, in that distant and dark age when people had to change currencies and use passports to cross the borders inherited from a barbaric past of tribal warfare. These days, have Euros and you are welcomed everywhere. Just stick to the plastic cards...
The new generations do not even understand why some European countries still remain outside the Euro. The older generations may understand the reasons but do not forgive the shortsightedness of the politicians responsible. Some countries within the Euro zone have economic and financial problems, but this is one consequence of the Euro’s success as a strong currency. Not being able to manage from the center, the abuse of that success by some stray nations at the periphery is due to the present lack of both vision and sense of opportunity.
Giscard d’Estaing said, when presenting the draft of an European Constitution, that those responsible for their approval would get statues in their countries’ squares named after them. Unfortunately, very few of the present European statesmen and stateswomen will deserve such recognition.