Friday, April 3, 2009

To What Do We Assign Value?

During my recent trip I was in five different European countries in two weeks and made transactions using five different currencies. In Germany and Austria where my connecting flights landed they use the Euro which is the common currency among many EU members but not all.

One Euro equals roughly $1.35 US.

In Romania the currency in called RON or Lei and approximately 3.5 Lei = $1 US.

In Hungary the unit of exchange is Forints and 1000 Forints is worth roughly $5 US.

In Ukraine their dollar is called the Grivna and approximately 8 Grivna equals $1 US.

Fortunately, I like doing this kind of conversion math but even so it can get confusing, particularly given the language barriers and the fact that the exchange rates change daily and vary from one exchange agent to the next. The US dollar was being sold for 280 (I'm not sure 280 what?) at one kiosk in the airport and 100 feet away was being sold for 290 at another. I didn't need to buy any dollars so it didn't matter to me but it caused me to wonder once again, "What is it that we value in our world?" Certainly it shouldn't be this colorful paper we call money and hand one another in stores. But often it seems that it is.

An interesting event occured while sitting in Michael Palmer's classroom in Kiev one morning. Michael is doing a math activity that allots each student a certain amount of imaginary money to invest in the stock market. Students are supposed to research the companies and make smart investments. The morning I was there the stock market had gone up 6% and everyone had "made" money. The room was filled with happy sounds as the fifth graders checked their stocks on their Mac laptops. Everyone's spirits seemed lifted. Was it the fact that their investments had made money? Or was it the fact the good feelings are contagious and we lift each other up? In reality, no one had made any money but the sense of hope and satisfaction had soared. I think in some ways the current economic woes came about by so many people checking their investments and getting giddy thinking they had huge amounts of paper value.

Here's another short story on handling currency. The only night I went out on my own in Bucharest I employed the "point and hope" method of ordering dinner. I knew it had something to do with chicken because the owner of the small bar / restaurant explained that much to me. It turned out to be soup and it was quite good though the smoke from the bar was nauseating. Walking back to the hotel in the fading twilight, and listening to conversations in an unfamiliar language, I spotted a small store with bins of vegetables in front and a case with bottled water and other drinks inside. The Marriott Hotel where I was staying had 1 Litre bottles of water in the "in room" fridge which were marked 29 Ron which is an outrageous price of over $7 US. I went in the store and bought bottled water for about 20% of the Marriott price and felt rather pleased with my street smarts and ingenuity. As you read on you'll see I was a bit premature in congratulating myself. I often am.

Inside the store in addition to the cooler with drinks there also was a glass case with assorted loose cookies inside. I hadn't any carbohydated sweets that day and was craving some sugar. The cookies looked good so I ordered a couple of handfuls. The price was marked in a way I didn’t understand and when he told me the amount I thought he said 26 Ron, which would’ve been about $7 worth of cookies. Given the cost of the Marriott’s water, that didn’t register with me as being much too high. The clerk laughingly (and honestly) told me the charge was 2.6 Ron which was less than a dollar, and a heck of a good deal. He smiled and returned my 20 Ron bill.

I believe the overwhelming majority of people are honest, even in hard times. I thanked him, laughed at myself, and went back to the hotel reflecting on what a privilege and blessing it is to travel, meet strangers who are willing to help you, and to learn from our mistakes. Of course we need the colored paper to do these things too so this ramble doesn't answer the question except to offer that "value" comes in many forms. Thanks for taking time to read this. I "value" your friendship.

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