June 07, 2008

Coin of the realm

I know times are tough when I break out the coin jar and start rolling its contents. Today's effort yielded $47.00, almost enough for a tank of gas (if I buy it in the next eight hours).

As I rooted around in the coin jar, which is not really a jar but a repurposed plastic sherbet container, I found a few Canadian pennies. I remember the old days when the Canadian dollar rang in at about 78 U.S. cents and bank tellers, when you proffered your paper sack filled with rolled coin, would crack a few random rolls to ensure you weren't threatening the banking system by infiltrating it with Canadian money. Before rolling, I'd pull most of the Canadian pennies out of the jar, but when I felt like a walk on the wild side, I'd sneak a few of the foreign species into the mix and feel a mischievious thrill when they went undetected. Daredevil.

Now, the two countries' currencies are pretty much on par, so I didn't bother separating out the Canadian coins. The way things are going, banks might even welcome them, perhaps putting them aside in a new investment vehicle, the Currency Futures Speculation Coin Jar.

After I played with the coins in the sherbet tub I played with my foreign coins, collected since the '70s and kept in a glass bowl I picked up in Budapest. There's nothing special about the bowl other than I picked it up in Budapest.

Postcards and coins have always been my number one souvenir, harking back to my poor student days when they were the only souvenirs I could afford. Postcards were a quarter or less and, well, you already had the coins in your pocket.

Both collections have mushroomed impressively over the years, and I love occasionally rummaging through them.

I turn the coins over in my fingers, studying their symbols and signs, etchings and markings, pictures and portraits and learn, imagine or remember something about the place they came from.

In my Budapest bowl I have coins of all sizes. The smallest is the size of a pea, the largest a healthy cucumber slice. My coins are round, square, hexagonal, octagonal and scallop-edged. Many, most but not all from Asia, have holes in their middles. They're silver, gold, bronze, brass, copper, tin and two-toned in color, and they weigh from next to nothing to several ounces.

They depict kings and queens; explorers and revolutionaries; philosophers and poets; musicians and scientists; conquerors and peacemakers. Crests, seals and flags adorn them, as do buildings and birds, boats and trees, harps and horses, fish and crabs. Some are uninspired and utilitarian. Others, like Italy's, are works of art.

I have coins from countries that no longer exist, denominations that no longer exist, and currencies, like those from pre-euro Europe, that no longer exist.

My Budapest bowl is a gathering place. Small, sparkling things that chronicle peoples' hopes and histories, achievements and dreams jingle and mingle in that bowl. There, all coins are equal -- baht and bolivianos; lire and jiao; pesetas and kopecs; rupees and rubles; colones and kroner; dollars and drachmae.

I sift through the bowl and bring up handfuls, each yielding an assortment different from the handful before. Will I bring up soles and centavos? Yuan and bani? Pfennigs and groschen? Sucre and francs? Dinar and marks? Shillings and cents? Pesos and pence?

It's always a rich surprise.