Pennies and Pesos

foreign coins

When in junior school we were expected to write essays, to develop our mastery of the arts of communication.

As I recall, they were to fill at least two pages – in normal size handwriting to avoid the clever dicks who could make three sentences cover the whole surface – no two sentences were to begin with the same word, none was to begin with ‘I’, the use of ‘nice’ was forbidden and spelling was to be impeccable. Dictionaries provided.

We were held to be too old for pencils, so the oeuvre had to be written with a dip pen and there were to be no blots on the page, which required careful assessment of  the passage of the ink monitor. If he or she had remembered to fill up the inkwells before registration then the ink was all too fluid; if not, it was sludge.

If not depressed enough by these instructions, the titles on offer were hardly inspiring: the first week of the autumn term would inevitably offer us ‘What I did on my holidays’ where we were all aware that a bowdlerised version would be the best policy – Janet  and John rather than the fifties version of ‘Trainspotting’ for kids – if the wrath of betrayed elders was not to descend on us after examination of our books on parents’ evening.

Another thriller was ‘How to light a fire’: best to stick to the authorised version there too rather then relate a third hand version of what Dennis’ elder brother had managed to do with a Bunsen burner in the chemistry lab of the local grammar school. From what I recall, texts mentioning the technique of setting fire to the spills of newspaper with father’s cigarette lighter were particularly frowned upon….marks would be deducted… as matches were held to be more appropriate for children. Bringing glowing coals on a shovel from a fire already burning was regarded as cheating (marks deducted)…but not, apparently, dangerous.

Then were was, finally, ‘A day in the life of a penny’, where the imagination could be given full rein – unless, like one disgruntled schoolfellow upon whom the muse did not  smile, you decided to place the penny immediately into the slot on the door of a public loo and then describe its gloomy incarceration until liberated by the attendant at the end of the day. Marks deducted for not entering into the spirit of the thing.

Our pennies had a lurid time…those donated for the class Christmas party went (allegedly) to fund an orgy of crisps and ginger beer for the school staffroom; others went wild on the shove ha’penny board at the fair. They were reclaimed by pressing button B in a public ‘phone box and were spent immediately upon sherbet fountains and gobstoppers in the nearby sweet shop…

button B

They dropped into the leather satchels of bus conductors and emerged at exotic locations like Leatherhead bus garage; they even entered bank vaults whence they were liberated by masked robbers while corpulent bank managers writhed helpless in their bonds.

These were, of course, proper pennies. Two hundred and forty to the pound pennies, not the decimal abomination which was foisted on us in the seventies with the result that junior school maths lessons no longer included the calculation of the price of one and seven twelfths of a yard of cotton at eleven pence three farthings the yard while showing your workings, which was a means of separating the strong from the feeble minded in double quick order. At least there was some point to this example……you could see yourself measuring and paying for cloth while you could most decidedly not see yourself performing that other gem of maths lessons i.e. removing the bath plug and then opening both taps while you calculated the rate at which the bath would fill – or not. More likely to be calculating the risk of the thunder of parental feet on the stairs as the hot water boiler swallowed coke like a thing possessed.

But at least we were only dealing with one currency.

On my recent trip to Europe I found myself juggling with several, thanks to finding a relatively cheap flight which meandered its way from Costa Rica via a stop off in Toronto before heading for Amsterdam, whence there was a direct flight to Southampton.

No one wants to know Costa Rican currency which rejoices, to the Anglophone ear, in the name of the colon. Yes, I know it refers to Christopher Columbus, who called himself Cristobal Colon when he moved from Genoa to Spain, but its other connotations are irresistible and probably account for the reluctance of currency dealers to have anything to do with it at close quarters.

Thus I needed to provide myself with foreign currencies for my trip, if only to keep hunger at bay for the duration of the twenty four hours it would take to leave point A and arrive at point non plus..

I had notes and coins left over from previous trips, separated in different sections of my travelling purse and kept in my no. 1 carry on bag for easy access.

Fine in theory, but all went awry in Toronto Pearson airport.

After a five hour flight I had a five and a half hour stopover and was tempted to seek nourishment. The only sit down offerings were a place which appeared to serve doughnuts though closer inspection of the poster at the entrance showed them to be dim sum and a burger place with queues stretching out into the main concourse of the terminal.

Having checked the doughnut prices I could see why there were such queues at the burger bar.

Neither appealed, so I thought I would check out the snack bars. To my dismay they were all run by the same firm with the same offerings…ciabatta resembling a reclaimed nappy, finger sandwiches which an old rugby playing friend would have described as ‘society sandwiches – six to a gobful and you only get five’ – and filled rolls which would have needed a probe to find the contents while the roll itself promised to pull out every filling you possessed.

Or sushi. As far as I am concerned you can stuff sushi where the monkey shoved its nuts at the best of times…and this was not the best.

And the prices! I know Toronto Pearson Terminal 1 provides hundreds of chained down iPads for the use of passengers free of charge, but given the Scots heritage of Canadians I would have thought a few defibrillators might have been a good idea….two dollars ninety five for a small bottle of Perrier with orange!

Which is bad enough in Canadian dollars. But you can also pay in U.S. dollars…if you will accept change in Canadian.

I worked out the relative exchange rates, which turned rip off into tear apart , but, with some four hours still ahead of me, succumbed to the Perrier and put a two Canadian dollar piece into my purse which, in a state of shock, I managed to upend.

Moneys previously segregated made joyous reunion….the rainbow purse came into being.

I managed to navigate Amsterdam Schiphol without recourse to money….but on arrival at Southampton, having eschewed the rip off taxi for twenty quid, tried to pay  the bus driver ten quid for a week’s season ticket with money including Euros….firmly declined.

Glasses on and a rummage through the purse produced the necessary pounds sterling and I was on my way to my mother’s.

That night I tried to reorganise the rainbow purse, happily chucking coins featuring the royal bonce to one side and coins without on the other.

Infallible.

No. As I discovered when trying to feed the printer in the local lending library, Canadian coins also have the royal bonce on them and the machine discriminates against coins from the ex colonies….

But I am at a loss to know how I managed to put this

mexican peso coin into the pounds sterling pile.

I discovered that I had done so at H.M. Passport Office when I went to renew my papers.

The very helpful chap on the desk said that my passport photographs – taken in  Costa Rica – would not do. The background was glaringly white instead of being a discreet cream or gray. White upsets the recognition devices on the DIY passport machine at airports apparently.

Since most of them seem to be put of order there must be a lot of white backgrounds about…

Not to worry…there was a photo booth in the entrance……he would keep my place open while I took the necessary mugshots.

You know these photo booths…the revolving stool is always set for midgets and then spins out of control….you are still trying the read the instructions when the thing goes off and on the next try it catches you mouthing obscenities as you try to fit your eyes into the rectangle outlined on the screen….and it helps if you do not try to feed Mexican pesos into its maw.

Especially if its maw is situated in H.M. Passport Office.

Hot and bothered I eventually returned to the kind gentleman and only when I handed over the photographs did I glance at them.

I am accustomed to passport photographs which make me resemble the Missing Link…they have done so since I first had a passport….but this one was special.

With wild hair and glaring eyes it bore a close resemblance to whatever abomination it is that adorns the Mexican peso coin….

He perused it with that lack of visible emotion which used to be the mark of the British civil servant and looked up.

‘Well,’ he said. ‘The proportions are right. It’ll do.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Flowers That Bloom in the Spring, Tra La..

I have just returned from an unexpected trip to England and blearily reviewing it a day after my return the images that remain have been those of the flowers that bloom in the spring.

When I left, the trees were blossoming here.

The llama del bosque

flamboyant tree llama del bosque

The roble

roble

The cortez Amarillo

cortez amarillo

On arrival in England the roadsides were covered in gorse in full flower – though its coconut scent was dulled by the chill – while  swathes of Spanish bluebells were taking over  from  tulips in the suburban gardens. Trees displayed that freshness of leaf undulled by the summer heat to come, the structure of their branches still visible under the sheen of green and, to my surprise, the horse chestnuts were coming into flower in the London parks where clouds of blossom were cast into relief against the Cambridge blue skies.

 

hyde park in spring

I remembered then Browning’s ‘Home Thoughts from Abroad’..

OH, to be in England now that April ’s there
And whoever wakes in England sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough         5
In England—now!
II

And after April, when May follows

And the white-throat builds, and all the swallows!
Hark, where my blossom’d pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover         10
Blossoms and dewdrops—at the bent spray’s edge—
That ’s the wise thrush: he sings each song twice over
Lest you should think he never could re-capture
The first fine careless rapture!
And, though the fields look rough with hoary dew,         15
All will be gay when noontide wakes anew
The buttercups, the little children’s dower,
Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!

There spoke the exile in his Florentine retreat – though goodness only knows what he found to be gaudy in the flower of the melon, that most unpromising  harbinger of sweet delight.

I was happy to see England in the springtime again, but cannot feel the regrets of an exile. I was privileged to have grown up with it, to have known it, shall never forget it, but cannot say that I hanker for it, any more than I hanker for England itself.

There were other flowers in evidence during my trip: those laid by people in memory of the policeman murdered at the gates to the Houses of Parliament.

Poor devil: he died, as have so many of his colleagues before, at the hands of a deranged person while doing his duty – in his case, guarding an entrance whose gates had to be left open to permit ministers to be driven to the Commons in time to cast their votes in a division.

Perish the thought that a minister should wait for an instant at a gate closed in the interests of the security of all those working in the Palace of Westminster.

They might be shot at if kept waiting? Good. The world would be a safer place if ministers were forbidden to have protection. Might give them pause for thought before putting the rest of us in peril and I suspect that – to paraphrase another song from ‘The Mikado’ – they’d none of them be missed.

In the aftermath of P.C. Palmer’s death we had the politicians braying that ‘terrorism’ had not succeeded in bringing down British democracy….

Of course terrorism hadn’t brought it down: the same politicians and their ilk had already done for it with their slavish adherence to the dogma of ‘public bad, private good’ when it came to principles of government, with the gerrymanderings of the Boundaries Commission, with their interests (paying) outside the House.

Such a parcel of rogues in a nation.

Currently, like Ko-Ko in the second verse, there are plenty of people whose attitude to the flowers that bloom in the spring is to say that they have nothing to do with the case.

The Prime Minister has called a snap election, putting her trust in the British media to depict her as a female Moses who will bring her country to the promised land…..the land promised to private enterprise, where access to health care and education will depend on the ability to pay for it; where those thrown out of work will be demonised; where those too ill to seek work will be driven to suicide.

Given her proven ability to change tack while at the Home Office I imagine that once she has gained victory the new Moses will reveal herself to be Aaron, presenting the golden calf  for public worship.

I cannot fathom people….more and more of them are living with the effects of unemployment and the resulting lack of tax revenues to fund proper services and yet the turkeys still vote for Christmas at the bidding of the butcher.

Flowers in France too, for the policeman killed on the Champs Elysees as the country goes to the polls in round one of the Presidential election.

The outgoing President Penguin congratulates himself on his record…yes, well done, thou good and faithful servant of thyself. As first secretary of the Socialist Party you sabotaged the campaign of that party’s candidate (and the mother of four of your kids), Segolene Royale, to gain the presidency and now as President you have sabotaged your entire party and given your support to the bankers’ candidate, Macron, whose chief claim to expertise in economic management seems to lie in having transformed the millions he made while working at Rothschilds bank into wallpaper for his flat.

Panic in the dovecotes at the thought of Marine Le Pen gaining power or, probably worse for the powers that be, Jean-Luc Melenchon  who said of the press reaction to his growing presence in the polls:

“Once again, they are announcing that my election win will set off a nuclear winter, a plague of frogs, Red Army tanks and a landing of Venezuelans,”

Roughly the sort of thing that the British press says about Jeremy Corbyn.

One thing is sure…if the British vote for May and the French for Macron then both countries can forget the years of social justice…..the golden calf will be a full sized Minotaur before they can blink and the hopes of themselves and their children will feed its maw.

Thoroughly depressed I set off on my return….U.K. to Costa Rica via the Netherlands and Canada. Yes, I know….but Scots blood will out: the fare was less than half that of the direct flight.

A change of flight time at the last minute left me with an overnight at Amsterdam Schipol, guarding my luggage like a broody hen its egg as the check in would not open until morning.

It was a salutary reminder of how nice people are: a young woman offered me one of her biscuits and accepted a cucumber sandwich in return; an armed policeman looked after our bags while we went to the loo and the gentleman at the coffee stall brought our drinks over to us to save us  from moving our mound of cases.

And then the flowers that bloom in the spring reappeared. As the dawn broke, the tulips in the tubs outside the Departure area began to glow with what looked like an internal light…strange, other worldly and utterly beautiful.

A good note on which to leave Europe….a reminder that while all seems dark there is yet hope.

And to greet me on my return….sitting on my desk….this little orchid. A true welcome home.

IMG_20170421_150525

 

 

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