Thursday, August 21, 2008

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

Foreign currency has always been a weak spot for me. I was never all that attentive to my spending habits in the U.S., but at least I developed a general sense of what something should cost based on how long it took me to earn that amount. A pair of jeans was $20.00, which took me about half a day to earn. Hey! Cut me some slack. This is 1976 I'm talking about!

My first experience with foreign currency was a riot. Greece, 1982. My first trip abroad and I've now turned my small stack of greenbacks into a mountain of indecipherable banknotes. Drachmas, spelled with a triangle! As I slowly woke up to the mystery of exchange rates, I had a wonderful idea. If I buy Draculas when they are cheap and sell when they are expensive, I make money. My next paycheck was converted at the incredible rate of 95 drachma to the dollar after I watched the rate soar from 75. All I had to do is hang on until the mighty dolllar fought back. Ten days later the Greek government did some financial sleight of hand and the exchange rate went to 125. Bad foreign currency! Bad!

From then on it was, "ignorance is bliss." I didn't want to know how much something cost in dollars. "An apple is 20 dracs? OK. A beer is 400 yen? OK. I just lost 200 pound and 14 shillings at the dog track? OK. A Turkish hooker is 650,000 lira? No thanks, not interested, but the price seems OK." For over 19 years all was well. The locals knew their currency, scrawled it on a piece of paper for me or pointed at the register readout and I paid. Then I landed in Albania.

I'd done my homework. A dollar was about 150 lek. On my first amble around Tirana, I passed the Rinia Park in the center of town. At that time the park was a shanty town of illegal buildings. Restaurants, clubs, pool halls, and a hotel sprawled in un-plumbed squalor. Passing by one of the forgettable restaurants, a young man sprang up from his chair and joined me on my walk. He spoke English and started peppering me with questions.

"Where you from? Where you going? What's your name? Have you seen the pyramid? Do you want to see Hoxha's villa?"

I tried to be polite yet dismissive. I'd been warned about crime and still was not comfortable in my new environment. Long story short: After pouring out his life story and offering to be my guide, friend, and confidant Genci starts telling me about his mother in the hospital and asked for financial help. In my head I'm thinking, "I wonder what the going rate for buying your way out of an uncomfortable mooch is here?" If I was still in DC I'd give the homeless guy a buck and be on my way.

I did the only civilized thing - I asked, "How much?" He immediately replied, "Two thousand."

Now my head is spinning. "How many dollars is that? Divide by .66. Or is that multiply? How much did I get from the bank today? Is that the big green one or three of the triangular bills? Oh, shit, what if he sees my wallet and tries to kill me?" I decided discretion would be the better part of valor and forked over two 1000 lek notes. Genci transformed from the misty-eyed supplicant to a Wal-Mart employee who just won the powerball jackpot and begged me to meet him again tomorrow. I declined and scuttled home trying to rationalize my generosity.

I told this story to an Albanian colleague a few days later and when the laughter stopped he said, "You got scammed. The guy saw you were a foreigner and decided to work you. There's no way he has a sick mom, he wanted 200 lek for coffee."

"So why did he ask for 2000?"

"Oh, he was talking old lek."


"Yeah, old lek. Most people still haven't gotten used to using the new lek values after the government devalued the currency by a factor of ten. It's very common to hear people refer to 1000 lek when they are talking about 100 new lek."

"So he really wanted 200 lek (about 2 bucks) and I gave him 2000 (about 20 bucks)?" I could feel the donkey ears sprouting on my head like you see in the Bugs Bunny cartoons.

"Oh, yeah. You made his day!"

"So when did this devaluation happen?"


I was speechless. The currency was devalued before the majority of the current population was born and they still use the old values? Unbelieveable. I could understand if there was still old currency in circulation showing the old value and people referred to it. It would seem reasonable if the change had only happened a few years before. The entire continent of Europe switched from marks, francs, piasters, lira, and good old draculas in just six months and now everyone talks in Euro and Albanians still refer to a currency which was phased out when Mick Jagger was just getting famous? What is wrong with this picture?

There are some advantages to this system. Every payday, I can be a millionaire again. All it takes is a trip to the ATM and the withdrawal of 1,000 USD. That's around 100,000 new lek, but thanks to the magic of time travel in Albania, I can call it a million. Even though the dollar is worth about the same as a wilted lettuce leaf, I can still close my eyes and imagine Regis Philbin asking me:

"Can you give me a million for my sick goat's medicine?"



nela said...

Good observation! :) Even for us, Albanians, it is sometimes confusing when speaking with
each-other about money. Some refer to new and some to old Lek. In everyday life, people usually speak in old Lek, but you read in new Lek, I mean the price tags. A lil'bit more confusing when you have to explain it to a newcomer foreigner. Keep up the great writing! :)

ante said...

This is so funny. I don't understand the reason why this nonsense goes on. It's clear it makes all things worse and complicated, but I like your lighthearted tone about it.

tabakhone said...

I think the reason is the desire of us Albanians to not look "new" in town, but to look "in the know". Conservatorism of my peeps shows itself in different forms and shapes. How many people called "Tirona" 17 Nentori? Only Lad Grillo, only ON AIR!
It is the same with the neighborhoods. The old names still stick around and nobody refers to the quarters by their numbers, lest they want to look like Army recruits from Gramsh, fresh in the Garda Garrison!

Andrea said...

This was so confusing for me when I was in Albania. My husband would always speak in 'old lek' terms and I'm like 'what is wrong with you!'.

It makes no sense whatsoever.