Sunday, December 03, 2006

"That clinking, clanking sound

Can make the world go 'round"

Consolidating some of my older website essays to here where Google can have its merry way with them. Also, as an acknowledgement that it was my company's IT department that made my Horslips addiction possible, these old travel stories are fair game for inclusion here. This was originally written in Autumn 2003 and recounts


Part the First in a series of at least Two

On January 1, 2002, twelve countries sharing the centuries of common history that comes from proximate geography, apposite culture, and occasional bouts of intra-nationalist animosity took it upon themselves to unite behind that symbol of humanity which we all value.

I refer to, naturally, money.

And so as it was written, so was it done that Mac and PC programmers were set to the task of creating a ALT key shortcut, which – when executed – delivered the following:

And, lo, the Euro was born.

Yes indeed, for the Yank tourist traveling between Belgium, Germany, Greece, Spain, France, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Austria, Portugal and Finland, life was no longer the border-crossing ritual of learning new coinage, new denominations, and new terms. Harder it was for the locals to hide the fact they overcharge for the regional warmed-over variant of cerveza; easier it was for the cosmopolitan traveler to breeze through the airport not passing the Monetary Exchange booth and not collecting 200% in currency conversion fees.

Twelve countries. It could have been a baker’s dozen…but for one nation state that decided it would opt out of the new currency and remain with the monetary unit that saw it through the glory days of the Empire and the no less glorious, if slightly refracted through the prism of Washington D.C., days of New Labour.

I refer to, naturally, England.

Sure, Denmark and Sweden opted out too. However, as they aren’t directly responsible for my nightmare Friday night in Counties Cork and Kerry in Ireland, this rant is dedicated to the one nation in the three that does NOT contribute significantly to tasteful interior design or the international porn industry. In for a penny, Chancellor Brown, in for a Pound.

Now I’ll be the first to say that there’s something pretty damn satisfying about walking into a pub somewhere down in Sussex County and slapping a fistful of Pound coins down on the bar. Their weight, their thickness, that Latin or Welsh scratched into the edge like some Elven inscription waiting for Gandalf to decipher – Spend Friend and Enter – the Pound coin can take you back to the age when six people hauled trunkfuls of similar stuff ashore to some Caribbean fever-ridden swamp and only one person returned to the ship tucking up his sleeve the freshly drawn map made from what the rest of the crew hopes is just vellum and red ink. Why just the ring of those coins on the counter at the Dorchester Arms or the Prancing Pony! “Rum, Jim, rum!” I’d bellow. “Tell me when I’ve worked my through THAT, woman,” I’d say, throwing the leather coin purse at the landlord’s doxy. Yarrrgh….

And when pub talk was dull, nothing could kill a few minutes of time like lining up all the coins in chronological order and tracing the sag of the Queen’s chin line through the years. I think they should do one more coin for each monarch showing their final corporal state. A memento mori, if you will.

True, America’s got this one quarter for every state thing happening now, but it doesn’t compare to the fun of wondering exactly what that Welsh phrase is saying about its role in the United Kingdom. What is the Welsh word for Langer, anyway?

But for every pleasure, there is a price. And in the case of those of us who work a week in England followed by a weekend of vacation in Ireland, that price is carrying around TWO separate pirate hoards of coin and currency.

And for God’s sake, Europe...why so much coinage? Both Euros and Pounds have a TWO DOLLAR coin! Lovely, yes, and fit for presentation as a medal, but haul around a pocketful of them and you feel like some Vegas granny that won’t cash in her chips because she thinks it’s more valuable that way.

So, after my fourth business trip, I had a small haul of both pounds and Euros which I kept in separate bags for obvious reasons. Also, when leaving England, I kept a portion of the pounds with me in carry-on, but checked the other two bags of surplus poundage and the Euros in my check-in luggage.

Why would I do that, you ask? Let’s review the situation. Solitary American tourist, late Friday night weekend flight from island to island, and – why, what’s this on the X-Ray? - a mass of metal bits in a loosely shaped container hiding in the carry-on luggage. Spent a lot of time at the ‘special search’ area getting acquainted with security guards those first few trips that way.

So the routine was: taxi to Heathrow with trip and tip in pounds; one last English beer at the airport’s hostelry, a competitor with TGI Fridays for charm and authenticity, again in pounds; candy bar and paperback at the last English airport newsstand in the Irish departure terminal with the astounding collection of porn (and what’s up with THAT, Mr. Irish business traveler?), once more in pounds. Fly to Ireland, claim baggage, and commence the Euros.

It all works like a charm, until one bank holiday weekend in June 2003 when the Cork City Airport tells your pilot that he can’t land until the runway lights are fixed. And then, after two hours of circling get the fuel to the point where a side trip to Shannon commences, a long evening of wandering around the deserted Shannon airport terminal teaches you the lesson of what Ireland would be like if there were no pubs at all.

A handful of English pounds, a planeful of fairly grumpy people who are not living up to that Tourist Board image of welcoming Yank strangers like myself and enfolding them to their bosom (or just maybe sharing their goddamn package of crisps, anyway), and a terminal full of shops and restaurants that closed hours ago. "Still," I thought, "at least you get a chance to see another part of Ireland" and I hurried over to the windows to see what could be seen before the gloom of darkness dropped its curtain. No lights, no hills, no buildings, no features of any kind except Vladimir and Estragon hanging out under a blasted tree. And at that moment, I knew their chances of having a fulfilling evening were better than mine.

It gets to the point where I eat all the cough drops and breath-mints that I have. I make a half-hearted effort to get the flight attendants to go back to the grounded plane and get something from the cabin kitchens, but since this was supposed to be a fifty minute (HA!) flight, there’s nothing doing with that. Then, on my way to the bathroom, I spot a vending machine with that universal red and white logo of carbonation and caramel water. "Don’t know what good that will do," I say to myself, "because it’s just going to want a Euro" but wander over any way. There’s a whole bank of vending machines back there it seems: peanuts, Oreos, candy bars, fruit drops, cheese-its, licorice...a bacchanalian vision that Epicurus would savor. O, for a Euro!

Then, I see him! Engraved near the coin slot--showing the direction his paper banner is to be inserted—is the father of my country, the only George to hold a certain leadership office with any merit, that old cherry-tree chopper himself: General Washington.

Here, in the farthest western reaches of air travel in Ireland, with the dark wilderness of bog and mountain held back by the thinnest veneer of late-twentieth century plate-glass windows, is a vending machine that Takes U.S. Dollars!

And, Mark or Yen or Euro or Pound, I ALWAYS carry Uncle Sam’s greenbacks! Five of them later and I was fit and full, ruminating comfortably over my paperback porn in an airport row chair, waiting for the announcement that Cork Airport found their D-Cell batteries and we could all get on that plane and back to our weekends.

A weekend in Cork, I thought, will more than make up for this unfortunate beginning.

Stay Tuned for Part the Second: Blarney Stoned Again...

No comments: