From Useless Coins Come A Chocolate-Lover's Dream

Perhaps you read back in June a squib in this newspaper about the nine tons of foreign coins the New York City department of transportation has in storage without any notion of what to do with them. Motorists have worked them off because they fit parking meters just dandy. The banks won't take this loot, accepting for exchange only foreign bills. It seems to me, as a place to start, New York might sell them at 16 for a dollar and buyers could use them in parking meters. The city would get that much return, and the buyer would get a bargain. Another thought might be the soft-drink machines and the laundromats.

Or how about Swiss chocolate?

It seems impossible that 32 years have passed since my wife and I toured 10 European countries and came home again greatly wiser about many things. But they have, and as vivid as any recollection is that of exchanging our money in Switzerland, just before re-entering Germany on our way home. We would sail on the MV Breightenstein from Bremen to Brooklin, Maine.

So we had considerable money from all the other countries, including England and Scotland, and it was our intent to change the boodle to German marks, and then on sailing day to shift the German money to US dollars. The Wechsel lady in her small gift shop, barely into Switzerland from Konstanz am der Bodensee, smiled a money-changer's smile and said, in precise Oxford tones, "No coins, no Pinkepinke." Pinkepinke, we knew, is German slang for small change.

So we flattened our bills and got German marks, and we foolishly asked what to do with a slather of mixed foreign coins. Our exchange lady seemed to have a sudden splash of inspiration. "Perhaps," she said, "I might show you some of my souvenirs and objects of art?" She would take our foreign coins only if we bought something.

A number of the items she offered us would have made excellent gifts for folks back home, but we had already taken care of gifts. The smart way, it seemed to us, was to get some Swiss chocolate. Did she have some?

But certainly! She began counting our coins. She was Swiss, and she knew her values of money. Nimbly she divided the countries into piles, and shortly she had a column of figures to total. She said it would take a moment.

We had no idea how much a chocolate bar would cost, in any currency, but it seemed to be extremely cheap as she piled our purchase on the counter. She excused herself and went into a shed behind her shop, and returned with wholesale packages of more chocolate. The pile grew, and as she laid out bars by the threes and fours she would sweep some coins off the counter and drop them in a basket, I believe with scrupulous honesty.

We bade her farewell, thanked her, and she thanked us. And she helped us carry several bushels of Swiss chocolate out to our automobile. By rearranging everything else, we were able to get our chocolate inside and stowed. It was just a few kilometers from that chocolate shop to the German boundary at Konstanz, where we drew up before the customs office and waited for the man with his green cap to look at our Green Sheet.

At that time, the Green Sheet was better than a passport. It was proof that insurance prevailed, and we found that border officers usually didn't ask to see a passport if we had a Green Sheet. So when a young man appeared in official German headgear, I waved our Green Sheet and he smiled and was about, I thought, to wave us along when he spied our chocolate bars in all directions atop our cargo.

He wasn't suspicious so much as he was puzzled and curious. He asked how many we had, and I said I didn't know. This was not a good thing to say. If somebody asks you a question, an answer is in order. Our customs officer was now suspicious as well as curious.

SO he asked what I intended to do with all this chocolate. I said I expected to eat it, but not all at once. Then he said something I didn't understand, and I said my German stinks. I had been saying this everywhere when I got stuck. Verdorben is the word, I think. And I said, "Would you like a stick?"

At that he bristled, became extremely embarrassed, and told me sharply to stay where I was. He went in the little customs bureau, and reappeared at once with an older officer who said good day gruffly and looked at me, us, as criminals. It seems I had tried to bribe an officer of the German Federal Republic! This just isn't done. Would I please show my papers?

The older man knew some English and was able to help me explain, and it was shortly agreed that we were all right and, although Americans, we meant no harm.

But while we had no welter of foreign coins, we were loaded with chocolate we didn't need or even want.

But as there is no accounting for coincidence, so are the uses of adversity sweet. We approached a small-town family inn that afternoon where the proprietor suggested we try some other place. His little boy had been kicked on the kneecap by a soccer opponent, and was at the Krankenhaus. They were all about to go to the hospital, so taking guests at the inn was impossible.

So we loaded them with chocolate bars for the lad, and for other patients, and told them we would mind the inn. Then my wife and I made our supper, and fed some transients, and the little boy came out all right. So I suggest the New York City people take a ton of money at a time to Switzerland and "proceed as in multiplication."

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