I was traveling through Europe during the financial crisis of 1998. While it was not the kind of crisis that was obvious on the streets of western Europe, there were stories here and there of how the froth of the markets — especially the currency markets — had spilled into every day life.
In Helsinki, I met a German motorcyclist who was making plans to return home by ferry. He’d made it through Poland, the Baltics and Russia, but with great difficulty: he couldn’t get any hard currency out of the banks at all during the last half of his trip, though everyone wanted to hand him rubles — as many as he could take. But no one would accept rubles from him, a non-Russian. Dollars, they told him. Deutsche marks. British pounds. You’re a foreigner, went the implied argument. You must have some real money.
He did, back in Germany. But the numbers in that account didn’t matter to a local bank in Latvia. They had no dollars or Deutsche marks to give. No one was willing to translate those distant numbers into a fungible, functional currency, though they were eager to give him all the local paper he could carry.
He told me of the relief he felt crossing into Finland, inserting his bank card into a machine, and watching it proceed with the transaction, as though nothing unusual was going on. The alchemy of the ATM seemed like a small miracle. The numbers in his account in Germany could be made real again, translated into paper that meant something, no questions asked or explanations needed.
A few weeks later, I was in Paris, and pensive photos of Bill Clinton had pushed the financial crisis to the inside pages of the newspaper.
As I reached the top of one of the towers of the Notre Dame cathedral, my eyes moved upward to look out over the city, and stopped at a newspaper resting on the ledge. It had been carefully folded to the section with stock quotes. Given the climate, I immediately began to imagine some poor soul who had read it one last time, then set it aside before jumping. I hadn’t heard murmurs of anything like that, so maybe this paper’s reader had the sense to set it down and walk away, life intact, regardless of financial status.
I hadn’t followed any details of how the crisis was affecting America at all during my travels. I had limited access to the internet, a very small amount of money invested, and there was just too much to see to be bothered or worried. But curiosity got the better of me. On closer inspection, without even turning the page, I noticed one of the minor tech stocks I owned: it had lost more than half its value since I had landed at Heathrow ten weeks earlier. I shrugged — not because I didn’t care. I shrugged, as my eyes looked out across the city again, because I was in Paris.
I slowly walked back to the youth hostel where I was staying for the week. It was autumn, and I wanted to change into warmer clothes before a night of wandering.
Returning downstairs, I noticed two of my roommates sitting at the bar, in a cloud of smoke and gloom. They were paying 12 francs each for bottles of Kronenbourg beer, and I counted at least six empties on the table in front of them. (This was before paper Euros, and 12 francs was about US$2 at that time.) I walked over for a chat, and before I’d finished my hello, one of them said “We’re so broke, and everything costs.”
This was actually a decent youth hostel, one of the better ones I stayed in during that trip. It was not as though they had been subject to the kind of humiliating delousing described in Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London or were shriveled by hunger with nothing but murky water and days-old bread to eat. They had blown through more francs in beer in one afternoon than I had spent on food and drink in two days. And still they thought themselves poor.
The places we go, the books we read, the films we see, the ideas that excite us, the culture we share, the beauty we perceive, the friends we make, the people we care for, and who care for us — that’s wealth. Some of these require money, and some don’t. But they all add to the richness of life.
Earlier that afternoon, I’d had a late lunch, sitting in the sun, on the tip of the Île de la Cité, as the Seine seemed to flow all around me. I had a loaf of fresh bread, still warm from the oven, that cost me three and a half francs, and a large bottle of Volvic water, which cost me two francs at a small grocery store in a neighborhood I’d meandered through earlier.
Bread and water — the old stereotype of prison food? Not on that day, in this spot:
I’d had a great day. I’d go so far as to say intoxicating. This couple had spent at least twelve times the amount of money I had spent, getting drunk and bemoaning their poverty, staring at the wall of a dark lobby in the city of lights. Their mindset was costing them more than anything else, because it prevented them from seeing the the beauty and potential all around them.
They asked me to join them at the bar, and I just smiled, politely declined and walked out. At that moment, it didn’t matter how many francs or centimes were in my pocket, or how many numbers were attached to other numbers in a data center on the other side of the world.
I had a whole city to see, and so many of the best parts were free.