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.


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.’












37 thoughts on “Pennies and Pesos”

  1. I liked the days when travel, especially of the foreign variety, was exciting and fun.I think I’m now too far beyond the barrier of good manners to suffer any more rude airline staff, fellow passengers or bus drivers.
    But I loved the idea of penny stories.(And of course you would not have dared write about the flattening of said coins by thumping great steam engines! No canny Scot would e’en dare tae think o’wastin’ a guid penny!)

    1. Travel could be a bit rough and ready back then…but I think I prefer the smell of drains as the ferry approached Calais to the slick airports that exist to rip you off.

      Steam rollers! Now there was something! I don’t remember pennies being fed to that particular juggernaut, but my cousins lived near a railway line and would put pennies on the track to be flattened by a steam train…

  2. Your post illustrates how far we stray from ease and comfort when traveling…there is a movement here to rid our national currency of the penny entirely. I do wonder what would happen to those in existence now…

    1. I gather we are all to be using cards soon …no cash at all…so that Big Brother can see what we get up to.
      Not a happy prospect.
      I could have taken a direct flight…but it would have cost two thirds more….

  3. Oh my I remember the ink well. And oh yes the days when a penny meant something, meaning it had some worth other than now being a pocket nuisance. And we have a stack of useless coins here, from all over the world. They’re fun to look at and reminisce but also sadly like the penny worthless. Another very enjoyable read.

    1. I hope you did not have pigtails…mine ended in the ink well behind me on more than one occasion.
      Leo is wonderful with loose change…he counts it out at tills in all its glory of tiny almost worthless coins….but his eyesight is better than mine!

      1. I had one tail, pony. 😉 I didn’t mess my hair but just about everything else: clothes, skin, furniture, the list goes on including most likely a dog or two. And my Terry’s eyesight is better than mine. Another thing we have in common.

        1. My mother issued me with pumice stone to remove the ink from my fingers….I have always been a mucky pup….
          Yes, we do have a fair bit in common, don’t we!

  4. . . you have reminded me of why I love sci-fi – all those time and travel portals and virtual visiting via holographic images – Bliss! As for the rest, the decimalisation – I am of the opinion that this is what has led to the moral and political decline of the population. You only have to recall table on the back of the school exercise books to realise that encapsulated there is the codex that led us dominate the known world! Who could stand against us when they had no idea how many cwt. made a ton or how many 1d to a £. As for distance, the Charge of the Light Brigade was measured in furlongs and chains not those pathetic metre things. Just as an aside, here in Turkey pipes are still sold by good old Imperial ¼”, ½”, ¾”, or 1″ – it’s a hangover from the days when the only place to import your pipes from was – you guessed it!

    1. I remember those back pages of exercise books…I would like one now to remind me of the mysteries of rods, poles and perches….
      Pipes here too come in quarter, half and inch sizes……colonialism has not quite died yet!
      Decimalisation is for dummies…it is so inflexible compared with systems which use twelves. Easy, yes….no wonder the continentals like it so much.
      There are times when I would like to be teletransported…not so much because of the flights – they are a haven where no one can get at me for a few hours – but the airports, where, I notice, there are less and less bookstalls and more and more ‘juice bars’.

  5. Ah yes pennies, they are considered historical in the museum and many adults have had no experience of them. This makes me feel old!

    Your next book ‘Rough Guide to Travel’ will touch the hearts of many. Last time I was in Stansted airport (about 8 years ago) bottled water was £1:50, normally it was 50-75 pence outside. You might have got a cheap one in Toronto. There again I would consider expensive donuts more likely to provide nourishment than a burger!

    I remember being taught ‘joined up writing’ with thick square-nibbed pens dipped in inkwells. Today my writing is so bad I might have to go back to them. We do however stock your actual ‘Janet & John’ books in the museum! Most had them until the late 60’s when PC gave Janet a boat and John became a gay boy! The fractions I do not miss, trying to work them out took reams of paper and much disgust from the teachers, teachers with little humour for my efforts I remember.

    So glad you enjoyed the trip, so glad it went much smoother than before.
    I note however mother has not been mentioned, this indicates another post is in preparation. 🙂

    1. Least said of mother the better! Between her and her friends, the Naughty Nineties, I needed a rest cure on my return…

      Ah, the delights of the dip pen and joined up writing! We were supposed to have handwriting lessons but for some reason this did not happen: my offerings have been accurately described as looking as if a spider fell into the ink well and crawled over the paper….I think the secretaries at work nearly bought champagne when I bought myself a little Amstrad word processor!

      I carry an empty water bottle with me when going through security…it drives them potty but at least I can then fill it from water fountains – where they exist. Lost it at security in Toronto where they were in a flap about the bags of coffee in my carry on and raked everything out to examine this dangerous substance – dumping my bottle in the rubbish before I could reclaim it.
      What was wrong with the coffee? It was an organic substance and terrorists use organic substances….so I should stick to tea at the museum if I were you to avoid a police raid.

  6. A lovely piece. But I confess I was disappointed not to see the passport pics. I was imagining something resembling one of the warriors you see in Japanese prints.
    Your piece also reminded me of my own grouch last time I visited Canada – yes, the most lousy food in airports and also actually in museums. (Some vile concession called Tim Horton I seem to recall.) And yet mostly the food in Canada was fine, they obviously don’t believe in giving captive consumers a break.

    1. I thought it impossible that I could have passport pics worse then my usual ones…but these were special….I must remember to glare when going through those appalling DIY immigration machines. And make sure my hair is on end…

      Oddly enough the food on the Air Canada flight was jolly good….but the airport wouldn’t give the traveller much enthusiasm for visiting Canada as a gourmet destination. That ciabatta haunts me still.

  7. Ha! Passport photos are such good punishments for vanity!
    Your picture of the phone box reminds me not just of happy days pressing button b at every box I passed, but a recent-ish television ‘period’ drama in which a young chap entered a lovingly accurate phone box and proceeded to dial …. with his thumb!!!
    Ink, blots, all things that we use in language and which are nothing but words to younger generations no doubt. But they still have sherbet fountains.
    I know this sounds rather worthy, but I make a loaf of nuts and figs and seeds and slice it up and wrap 2 or 3 pieces in tin foil – great food for long journeys! Nourishing, filling and then all you need is that really expensive bottle of water.
    But I think this post proves the point that it is better to arrive than to travel, where air travel is concerned, don’t you?

    1. I take sandwiches – needed to on the first flight which was Canada Rouge where they charge for food and anything more elaborate than water – and an empty bottle to fill at water fountains, but, as I explained to Tynecastle, my bottle was seized and dumped by Toronto security staff….
      The ‘planes are generally fine – depending on how crowded and how anti social your travelling companion – but the airports are the utter end….

  8. Great stories, Helen. I believe that pennies these days end up on the floors and kitchen work surfaces of casinos and private houses. A life after the programmed death…

  9. Love this post. Why is it so difficult travelling through different countries and trying to buy at airports, When we went to the USA we bought a card at Paris airport from Travelex that had $ on it, we though it would make life simple! I guess it did to a degree, but why can’t anyone tell us how much is still on the card, apparently we have to return to Paris airport to find this out, only they can tell us. We have tried a number of other travelex places and they all say go to Paris. We used it for a few things in RSA and it worked, but of course we have no idea how much the extra charges are!!! Maybe when we go to Nevis we can try and spend what is left on it how ever much that is as we do not go near Paris!! There was no point in using it in RSA as we have a RSA pension that has not been touched as the exchange rate is so useless. Spend Rands when in South Africa!!
    Hope you are both well, have a good week Diane

    1. I really do not like using cards….and your story of your Travelex card reinforces my prejudices!
      Leo has had endless trouble with his broker in RSA…since it all started the Rand has plunged but you can bet your boots he won’t be compensated for the losses!
      The rainy season has started…so it’s time to plant trees….and we have about seventy to go…

  10. Dear Helen, I just found your posting by reading the blogs listed on another blog I used to follow. I’ve been away from this blogging world we inhabit for over two years. I return and find your posting of today, which is a real hoot! Everything about it–the memories from school, the travel, the passport photo. the coins–everything I saw brought an image to mind that both amused me and provoked me to consider my own travel and writing. You have a fine sense of the ridiculous and a great respect for words.

    Thank you for the laughter this posting bequeathed to me. I’ll be returning. Peace.

  11. We have bags and bags of coins from all over the planet labelled for trips since husband trots around so much. It has been known for him to pick up the wrong one and get into all sorts of bovva. Your post mostly brings back lovely memories of the old British currency. I was 10 when we went decimal (appropriately) but in all the ensuing years I have never managed to embrace the ‘new’ system!

    1. I hoarded the silver sixpences as a child….but lost them in a burglary. I still cannot get used to coins which feel so light and flimsy.
      Leo used to globe trot when younger….we still have some of the coins he did not manage to spend and it does bring back memories – and stories.

      1. My father used to pay me 3d to weed the rose beds (quite a task may I say) but if Granny was staying I got 6d. They lived, of course in a piggy bank and I regret spending them now. I find Euros even worse than British coinage. They all look the same to a myopic bat like me. You are so right though … coins do evoke memories of travel and memories provoke stories!

        1. Visiting relatives would leave a tip…usually half a crown. Into the piggy bank they went almost before I could touch them!
          You are right, so many coins look so much alike – well, that’s one of my excuses, anyway…
          I wish I could persuade Leo to write his memoirs….in full and unexpurgated!

          1. Perhaps you could sneak a dictaphone into the room and get him talking …. I have absolutely no doubt that a book of his life would make fascinating, hair-raising and side-splitting reading!

          2. It certainly keeps me entertained….from frolicking with the son of Franco’s chief of police to having the engineer on the one and only ‘plane of Air Sierra Leone working out the direction of Mecca then bowing in prayer in the aisle before lifting the hatch to descend to the underbelly of the ‘plane in order to wind down the landing gear by hand…not to speak of the promised delights of the lady with ‘grapes all over’…

          3. Helen! This MUST be written … in a world where every Bozo-Joe thinks he has a story to be told there are occasional gems that really do need to be spoken. I was once a Literary Agent and I can still smell em to sell em 😉

  12. Come on, show us the photo! 😀

    Lovely post, brought back all the horrors associated with school, maths, ink …….

    Bring back the farthing with the little robin on. The florin and the guinea, the half-a-crown and the thrupenny bit. Proper money.

    1. You know not what you ask! Accustomed as I am to the Missing Link persona this is enough to strike the observer to stone!
      The art of leaving a blot over dubious workings was one well known to us….the modern child has to cross it out, or would do if they knew what workings were…
      And why not the groat and the rose noble while we’re about it. Proper currency…one worth clipping to melt down for its metal content…

  13. So many memories of The School Magazine when we were forced to write something in a special double period as they were not getting many – or any – voluntary pieces.
    On the money front, a few ’emergency’ £5 notes have had to be repatriated as the E. Fry paper things cease to be acceptable, while news is telling the story of the new £1 coins not being man enough for the job.

    1. Mother tells me the centres are dropping out of the new coins…
      ‘Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold
      Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world..’

    1. It might have been better had I not been flustered by having the first set turned down. Thank goodness the chap was very decent and helpful….if the booth was not.

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