Funny money – The Final Word – foreign currency encountered by sailors during travels

Funny money – The Final Word – foreign currency encountered by sailors during travels – Brief Article

Joseph Gunder

One of the great things about being in the Navy is the money. I don’t me an that 6 percent pay raise last January (although that was nothing to sneeze at). I’m talking about all the variety of leftover foreign bills Sailors accumulate after a cruise.

Whenever I came back from one of the cruises in the Mediterranean Sea, or “Med,” aboard my old ship, USS La Salle (AGF 3), I always brought back some unused foreign currency from wherever I went. Over the course of three years, I brought home to Gaeta, Italy, (La Salle’s homeport) lots of Moroccan dirhams, Tunisian dinar, Turkish lira (with lots of zeros, almost enough for lunch at a local McDonald’s) and even some Russian rubles, not to mention a dozen other colorful types of currency.

To me, my collection of foreign money is like a history of my three years on La Salle. It represents what Sailors do; see the world. To thumb through a wad of foreign bills and sift through what’s probably a 10-pound coin collection brings back memories of all the ports the ship visited and what I bought (or didn’t) to come back with all that change.

Med money is fun to look at. They have all kinds of anti-counterfeiting measures. Almost all of the bills have a watermark on one side of some famous individual. Some have a little rainbow stripe down one side. With others, like Italian and Maltese lira, you can lay them flat, same side up in the same direction, and take another bill of similar denomination and butt it up against the first one, and the patterns and colors will match, no matter which sides you place together.

I even have coins with Arabic writing I received as change from a taxi cab driver in Tunis, Tunisia. To this day I have no clue if I got gypped or not. I just handed him a bill to cover the fare for myself and three liberty buddies and was handed back some funky coins, with no apparent numbers on them. “I guess it’s the right amount,” I thought.

What I’ll treasure the most is my collection of Italian lira, Spanish pesetas, French francs and Greek drachmas, as these are four of the 12 European currencies that have been replaced by the new Euro. I’m not knocking the Euro; this new currency might just be the unifying factor for a region that saw both World War I and World War II.

When I go through my old lira, pesetas, francs and drachma, I am reminded of the true meaning of being “in the Navy,” and seeing something unique outside the United States. In Italy, La Salle’s homeport, you could find the best pizza, just don’t go into a restaurant and expect to be served before 7 p.m. Spain had the city of Barcelona and the bullfights. France had the Riviera and those “smash sandwiches.” Greece had the (unofficial) No. 1 sought-after port — Rhodes, plus the island of Santorini (also known as Thira), rumored to be the site of the lost city of Atlantis.

The most fun about Med money is how you haggle with it. Any Sailor who’s been to an Arabian port has had to contend with the obnoxious storekeeper who tries to get you to check out his wares. “My friend, my good friend … come into my shop.” Then he won’t let you leave unless you buy something (anything!). “I give you better deal,” he suggests. You feign disinterest to get him to lower the price to one half of what you were first offered.

Haggling is all part of the game. Sailors get to have that kind of fun when they see the world. And even a trillion Turkish lira couldn’t buy that.

Gunder is a photojournalist assigned to All Hands

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