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.’