Now that I’m back in the United States (but still traveling), I’ve been thinking about impermanence. That is to say, when you plan an international trip you like things to be somewhat familiar. At least I do. For example, when arriving in customs and immigration anxiety can run pretty high. Having once been stopped at the border of Canada, I have bad memories of how even friendly nations can treat one with suspicion. Upon arriving at Heathrow, however, entering the United Kingdom was simply a matter of scanning my passport and smiling for the camera. (It was much more difficult getting back into my native US, ironically, in both these cases.) Believe me, I don’t mind the improvements, but I didn’t know to expect them. The same was true of the change in currency. I even learned that all those pound coins in a box at home, so solid compared to American money, we’re no longer good. Money for nothing, or nothing for money?
Currency is highly symbolic. Retiring a form of currency, of course, disadvantages those who live abroad. And I’m not picking on the UK here. When my wife and I visited what used to be Czechoslovakia (which is now no longer even a country), our Deutschmarks exchanged for fistfuls of colorful crowns. This was shortly after the Velvet Revolution, and times of uncertainty tend to devalue the symbols we use to represent buying power. Although we went from Prague to Vienna, we didn’t have to change all our Czech currency to Austrian. We didn’t exchange it all, knowing that it was very likely that Czech money would change before we ever got back. Indeed, the country we visited is no longer a political entity and we’ve not had the opportunity to return. Who can see the future?
Impermanence is part of being human. Apart from issues such as global warming, which is creating a more and more inhospitable climate for all species, these changes are based mostly on human culture. The British currency system was only decimalized in 1971. Some forms of currency were then no longer legal tender. I used to collect coins, and constantly changing money is a boon for those who stay with it. If you keep old coinage long enough, its symbolic value increases beyond what it’s face value ever was. That’s probably not good investment advice, but for me it was a matter, at least in part, of believing in permanence. If I take a wheat-back penny from 1909 and hand it to a clerk (where pennies are still accepted), it’s legal tender. It would have, however, bought much more back when it was first minted. The symbol itself, it seems, has changed. And that applies even at home.