high-minded drivel

high-minded (adjective) - refined; cultured; particularly civilized. drivel (noun) - senseless talk; nonsense.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Summer Vacation Part V: Bartering Abroad (or, Playing With Monopoly Money)

I live in Paree and I am quite le wealthy.  That is why I have
a sculpture just standing out on my balcony!  Hoh-hoh-hoh!
As we continue on in our bloggy jaunt into France and the United Kingdom, we shall focus today on that most prevalent of staples of the modern world: beaver pelts.  Or, their substitute.  I am of course speaking of currency.  Cash.  Coin.  Money.  That stuff that you give to a person in exchange for some item, rather than simply taking the item, to effectively avoid a confrontation with the police.  It's that great medium through which we value things, and feel fairly traded with when we offer some of it up, often accompanied with a hearty "Thanks!" returned by a corresponding "Thanks!" from the person on the other end.  Or, if you're in France, "Merci!"  Or, in certain parts of England, "Fanks!"

Prior to traveling over to France, I had heard many times that things were much more expensive in Europe, and especially in Paris and London.  Thus, as I set about purchasing train tickets and making the few reservations we would need, I came to rely on Google's handy conversion calculator.  Of course, I couldn't use one consistent calculator for the trip, because the United Kingdom chooses to do the equivalent of biting their thumb at the rest of the continent, conducting exchanges in their traditional "pound sterling" rather than the newer euro, despite the many attractive features of the euro, such as anti-lock brakes, CD player, and moon roof.

But despite having to switch back and forth between Google's dollars-to-euros calculator and the dollars-to-pounds calculator, it was fun to do business in two types of currency while abroad.  Riding the Eurostar from Paris to London really brought it all together, as they conducted transactions in both euros and pounds.  However, whether the metaphorical oil lubricating the engines of the economy was euros or pounds, it was all foreign to me.  It looked roughly the same as American currency in that it consisted of coins and paper, but it also looked different.  Rather than a standard greenish hue, the money came in different shades.  The paper money was not the same size as our dollars, and instead of Andrew Jackson grimacing back at you, there was Queen Elizabeth, smiling pleasantly.  In short, going to the ATM and making a withdrawal in Paris or London was like replenishing your supply of play money.

I live in Paree and I am quite le wealthy. That is why I can
spend the day walking my pet turtle in the park!  Hoh-hoh-hoh!
Now, an experienced traveler probably isn't so bound by the concept of dollars and cents like I found myself to be, more easily flipping back and forth between currencies, just as they are probably able to flip back and forth between languages.  These travelers are "fluent" in both dollars and pounds/euros.  Or, some travelers may have a slightly different mindset, one which is more attuned to American currency but is quickly able to do conversions and assess the real value or cost of things.  And although these conversions aren't overly difficult (my reliance on Google's calculator was due to convenience, not necessity), who wants to spend their time abroad doing math all the time?  Nobody of course, especially when it's just for the sake of pinching a few pence.

No, in the moment you just want to spend and enjoy.  The time to do the tallying is after you return and are figuring out your credit card bill.  Then you start to see the true cost of things, made all the more complicated because each transaction performed with a credit card results in an extra processing fee (unless you have a card that carries zero international fees).  And balancing the bills did indeed reveal that things are more costly in Paris and London.  For example, pizza for two in Paris was somewhere around $37.  Some coffee would probably run you around $5.  A downtown apartment in Paris or London comes out to around......uh......sorry, Google's conversion calculator just broke.

(Aside #1: The particular pizza shop we tried in Paris had an added element of conversion because rather than ordering a small, medium, or large, or telling them how many slices you wanted, you ordered the pizza by weight, like at a deli.  They had various sheets of uncut pizza laying out, and you were supposed to tell them approximately how many grams of pizza you wanted.  So in addition to converting euros to dollars, you had to convert grams to pounds (that is, pounds and ounces, not pounds and pence).  Or, you could just do as Jen and I did and use hand gestures to demonstrate approximately how large a piece you wanted cut off.  As an interesting aside within this aside, they cut the slices of pizza with kitchen shears, not a pizza slicer.)

So some of the costs on the trip were just a little higher than I was accustomed to, and some were quite a bit higher.  But here's the thing - it doesn't matter when you're playing with Monopoly money!  Having currency in your hand that is foreign and that requires some extra thought to tell exactly how much you're spending very easily loosens the purse strings.  How much is that dinner?  Some amount of euros?  Sure!  What's that item from the gift shop cost?  A few pounds?  Alright, why not!  There is a non-reality sort of feel to it, where it doesn't seem like you're truly spending your money.  You've just been given this allotment of play money, and you can spend as much of it as you want!

I acknowledge the very real possibility in all of this that I'm just a damn fool when it comes to spending abroad, but I wouldn't change a thing, because it was all worth it.  You know those "priceless" commercials that some credit card company used to do?  It's like that.  Train tickets in England: 212 pounds.  Pizza in Paris: 26 euros.  Bog snorkeling entrance fee: 20 pounds.  A summer vacation to remember: Priceless.

(Aside #2: There is a slightly altered version of the commercial that could be done if you were a real fan of the Louvre.  It would go something like this:

The Nike of Samothrace: Priceless
The Venus de Milo: Priceless.
Michelangelo's Dying Slave: Uh....priceless....
Seeing famous sculptures in person at the Louvre: Uh.....well, maybe not quite as priceless....but, you know, totally worth it.)

"Look, we give you these three swords in exchange for your
finest pastry!"
"Done!  What a great deal! Hoh-hoh-hoh!"
Before going on, let me just say that spending all this money is worth it assuming you get something in return.  Because that isn't a gaurantee.  There were two instances on the trip where this was the case, both in London on our way back through at the end of the UK portion of the trip.  The first was when we were traversing by foot between train stations and thought it would be fun to ride a double-decker bus instead of walking the whole way.  A standard London experience, right?  Well, in London you don't pay the fare when you board the bus.  Instead, prior to the bus arriving you purchase a ticket at a little sidewalk machine that looks like a parking meter.  Jen and I inserted some coins into the machine, followed the instructions for which buttons to push....and got nothing in return.  We hit the coin return, got the money back out, and tried again.  Same result, except this time we didn't get all the money back.  We thought that maybe some of the money had been recorded, so we inserted some of the returned coins again, pushed some buttons, and not surprisingly, ultimately ended up losing a few pounds to this hostile ticket machine.  In this scenario, you still have a moment where you say "Oh well!"  But you also have a moment where you say "Hey!  That's messed up!"  Because you realize that you haven't just lost a few quarters (despite the fact that you've only been inserting coins), but rather have just lost the equivalent of a few dollars.

The second instance where we netted a goose egg for our ROI was when we were trying to grab a bite of dinner before boarding the Eurostar back to Paris.  We stopped in at a suitably pubby-looking pub called Mabel's Tavern, obtained a couple pints, and ordered a tasty-sounding steak pie and sponge pudding dinner.  We waited, and waited, and waited, right up until the time that we couldn't linger any longer or we would miss the train, which really would have been an unacceptable cost to incur.  We regretfully walked out of Mabel's, and the cost of that unenjoyed dinner was high enough, conversion or not, that for some time after I had thoughts of mounting a boycott of Mabel's, with headquarters for the subversive operation located in Columbus, OH.

One other incident comes to mind where there didn't seem to be much value gained for an outlay of coin, and that incident was in Cardiff.  In the Cardiff Central Market there is a barbershop.  It is a traditional barbershop in the sense that you can get your hair cut there, but you can also get a shave with a straight razor.  There was a certain appeal to the prospect of getting a nice shave while in a foreign country, and so Jen offered to pay for me as a bit of a treat before we left Wales.  You know, a little indulgence, because it's just a few pounds!  Stopping and getting the shave ended up indirectly leading to one of our several running-for-the-train adventures, and in retrospect, it is ironic that going to the barbershop resulted in a "close shave."  Because the shave itself wasn't too close.  Certainly the barber went through all the motions, starting out with a warm, moist towel around my face, lathering me up with mug and brush, and then expertly wielding his razor so as not to cut me.  In fact, my impression was that I was getting a very close shave, and the placebo effect prompted me to nuzzle up to Jen shortly after it was over, fancying myself freshly shaven and accordingly very desirable.  However, upon later inspection in a mirror (now safely on the train back to Paris) I realized that there were patches of hair remaining on my neck, not to mention whisps of hair remaining on my lip and upper cheek!  What was the barber doing with his straight razor that whole time?!  Well, I suppose the answer is obvious: He was using it to skillfully wipe the shaving cream off my face.

Because the barber was a nice fellow, and because he did at least give me an experience, if not a smooth face, he doesn't come close to earning the same vendetta that is reserved for places like Mabel's.  No, I would quickly recommend going to the barber on the second floor of the Cardiff Central Market.  You just might want to try to negotiate the price down a bit.

(Aside #3: You can see on the wall behind the barber that there are a great variety of things displayed.  Many of these are shaving implements, not surprisingly.  It's a barbershop, so he's got shaving stuff.  But it really is quite a collection, and it makes you wonder - At what point in life do you turn that corner and just acknowledge it: "I am really into shaving."

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