Europe's worthless coins sweeten in value

Just before my wife and companion, and I, sailed from Montreal in 1966 for an all-points visit to Europe, the French franc was revalued, so when we got to France they had old francs and new francs. We were warned not to accept old francs, and we were told unscrupulous shopkeepers of Paris liked to work them off on American tourists.

We happened not to tangle with unscrupulous Parisian shopkeepers, if any. But we did run into the old francs and found they still had a use. We had left France weeks ago and were in the Black Forest of Germany, in a village named, according to my travel notes, Donaueschingen, or words to that effect.

The Donau is Europe's second-longest river, and has many names, ancient and modern, as it flows from Germany and eventually reaches the Black Sea. It is the river we call the Danube.

The source of the Danube is a stoned-up well, which is in Donaueschingen, if I've spelled it right, which I doubt. The well is not deep, and the water is clear, so a tourist could look down at the sandy bottom, which was covered with coins. This is one of the many pools, cisterns, springs, fountains, and so forth in Europe where one tosses in a coin and makes a wish.

We were not inclined that way, so we didn't supplicate or invoke the Tritons of the Danube to favor us, or is it the Nereids maybe. But my wife did exclaim, "Hey, look! Those are all old francs!" And so they were! The devalued French franc had found a new value. Why spend more when the Danube offers bargain rates?

I did inquire briefly about custody of the Donau well. Yes, there was a net somewhere that scooped coins, probably at the church. The proceeds, of course, went to some worthy purpose. The usual scooping was usually done, the man thought, just before Christmas. We pictured the sad little orphans of Donaueschingen dining sparingly this holiday on devalued francs. Sunt lacrimae rerum. We continued our tour, seeing the Danube here and there.

At Innsbruck we crossed the Danube for our last time and went into Italy, where the devalued franc may still be worth 5,000 lira. To the Danube we had called, "Flow on!" and, as far as we know, it has obediently done so.

We were not, however, finished with the European coins of the realms. We visited some dozen countries, precincts, and kingdoms, and in each we picked up money we didn't spend. We had a box on the floor of our VW, into which we tossed odd money as it accumulated, and the box got heavy.

Days passed, and we were in Basel, in Switzerland. We would pass across Switzerland leisurely, pick up the Rhine, and at Konstanz would cross to Germany, and then down to Bremen to board our freighter for home.

"Watch," I said, "for a roadside sign that says VEXEL." Switzerland is the land of the money-changers, and "Wechsel" is their sign.

The first vexel came in about 10 feet. The place was a gift shop with money exchange up front, and coo-coo clocks hung about to prove it. The lady, in meticulous English, said, "Good-morning-may-I-be-of-assistance?" I boosted our money box to the counter. She looked at it and said, "I exchange only paper; I do not take coins."

I said, "We have mostly coins."

She remarked, "A great pity."

I asked what one did with coins, and she said she'd take them in trade if I bought some gifts. She wondered if I'd like a coo-coo clock.

My wife said, "Better to toss them down the well!"

Anyway, she changed our bills, giving us crisp, clean US dollars, and handed them over with, "I thank you, sir!" We looked at her gifts, which were mostly coo-coo clocks. Then my wife said, "Let's take the coins in Swiss chocolate bars!"

"Splendid," said I, and the Wechsel lady looked in our coin box and began sorting and stacking by countries. I never imagined Swiss chocolate was so cheap. She stacked up chocolate, and when her shelf was empty, she went out back to bring in more chocolate.

We drove on with maybe two bushels of Swiss chocolate bars strewn atop our luggage. We came at once to the bridge, the boundary, and the German Customs.

The officer saw our chocolate bars and presumably decided we were in the candy business and had goods to declare. He said, "What will you do with the chocolate?"

"Eat it," I said, "would you like some?" Instantly I knew my mistake. I could feel his alert German rationality click into gear. There was but one possible answer! I was smuggling candy bars and I had attempted to bribe a sworn officer of the Federal Republik!

It took a good half-hour to establish our innocence, during which time several superior customs officers were called to consider our fate with wagging of heads, clucking of tongues, and several references in German to the crazy Americans, a phrase I well understood and with which, this time, I agreed.

We all shook hands, and we drove on toward Bremen. We handed out bars of chocolate generously, but still had more than enough when our freighter docked at Brooklyn. We had duty to pay on our VW Beetle, and the US Customs officer finally mustered enough courage to ask, "And what about all this chocolate?"

"We thought you'd never ask!"

"Well, curiosity got the better of me."

My wife said, "We already did that one. We're just coo-coo Americans."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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