SUMMERTIME OLD AND NEW IN SPRINGS
While many are making plans for long trips to exotic destinations, I stayed close this summer and decided to try staycation. You can consider yourself on vacation even if you stay home. There are some obvious differences from the rest of the year: no need to shovel snow or putting on layers of clothing when going out, life can be simpler and filled with new sensations, say what about just admiring the new green, a feast for the eyes, or listening to birds sing, a feast for the ears, or eating fresh vegetables or smelling flowers, these are among the joys of the new season.
Although travel is good this year I was tired of it and of taking my shoes off at airports so my vacation would be some form of staycation. After all one could simply pick up a book by Jules Verne, perhaps Around the World in 80 days, a poem by Cavafy, such as Ithaca, or Gulliver’s travels, or the diaries of Lord Byron’s, with the “pencil and the sword” … traveling in a comfy armchair!
My vacation would be something simple and could double up as meditation: staring at the horizon, for instance, or at night, at the stars, which reminds me of a couple of silly yet funny stories about two friends who vacationed, one in California, the other in Greece. The one in Greece sends a postcard to the one in California: “Here I am lying on the sand looking at the stars,“ and the one in California responds with “ Here lying on the stars and looking at the sand “… and there’s another story of travel about one who was trying to impress a friend with tall tales of people he met in Sweden, Germany, Spain and Egypt, in that order, Scandinavians, Teutonic, and the Iberians, presumably something to do with opposite sex attraction, but when it came to Egypt, he found that the Pyramids were not what he thought they were.
Being the doer-type and since my gardening days on hold, one day I turned my attention indoors where I found in the depths of an old briefcase of my father’s a few coins that nobody took the trouble of fishing out, it was an antique by now, he had used it for many years after he left Cuba with it and It is a classic of early 60’s business attire. Today it contains the kind of family papers that need to surface on occasion for the renewal of a passport or the proverbial records that are sometimes asked for by such or such an office or the curious. There were little things or trinkets that somehow nobody cared to dig out, until now. After throwing out a couple of small containers of aspirin, made of tin or something similar, I found a treasure trove of old coins, immediately reminding me of the kind that, as kids, we used to fish out of the sides of old armchairs that the elders sat in, to their bemusement. Those coins bought us an extra milky way, or an ice cream. After 50 odd years at the bottom of their hideout, however, these coins, culled from the best of circulation, were not only obsolete but they had acquired over time a new importance. They had nothing to do with my formal collection of coins that included the same coins in circulation but also some special Olympic issues and the necessary Silver Dollars and some gold coins as well. These coins were for the most part from Europe, where I had lived for ten years, and consisted mainly of French, Spanish, and British coins, although there were a few silver dimes too, which dates me of course. They were Pesetas, French Francs, all pre-Euro, and some British Pound denominations as well. The American dimes were almost pure silver, which was being phased out through the 1960s.These responded right away to my scrubbing efforts, revealing that stunning silver shine, thus the noblest and understandable means of exchange. The others were Copper, Brass, and alloys except for the “old Francs” aka French Francs, referred to for a time as Anciens Francs. These were made of a sort of tin so light that it felt like it was going to break in your hands but didn’t. It was the same for the sub divisions of the peseta. By the end of the 1960s no coin contained any majority precious metal except perhaps for the US penny, which was becoming more valuable for its copper than for its face value and people were starting to hoard it! The Anciens Francs had an interesting history: emerging from the second world war, France’s currency was much-devalued, and as my father told me, President and national hero Charles De Gaulle had the smart and slightly wicked idea of multiplying its currency’s denomination by a hundred, by simply eliminating zeros, thus the one-franc coin became one centime, and 100 Francs became 1 Franc. For the bills, beautiful new issues were created with color pictures of famous French minds like Balzac and Voltaire, and a NF prefix was printed on the bills, standing for “nouveaux francs”. Later of course the NF disappeared and although the bills showed the amount in New Francs, people took their time to adapt to the new denomination, perhaps out of habit, or nostalgia, or snobbism, so the same thing could cost one franc or hundred, in conversation, 100 or 1000 francs, for instance a car could cost 100 000 francs which was only 2000 dollars, or 10 000 Nouveaux Francs, and an apartment could cost one million, or ten times less, depending on whether you called it the old way or the new one. … it would not be unheard of today to call the value of an apartment that! One million old francs was called a brick. It depends who was talking.
On the same day that I found my future treasure I had to start removing the dirt so thick that one could not tell what they were. I knew however that old things such as bibelots or decorative items can become treasures with time, even heirlooms, so I was going to give these coins a new lease on life. They all looked almost the same from the patina of age that had formed, I couldn’t tell what they represented until I worked hard at restoring them. I worked with the word degreaser in its name, but also with ajax, twinkle and silver polish. It was a frustrating task and I was running out of elbow grease. On an up note the silver dimes were looking wonderful, which spoke volumes about this metal. It was funny…my collection of gold coins never needed any polish! Perhaps it takes thousands of years, not decades, to tarnish those. I had to ponder the fact that real gold circulated as recently as in the time of our grandparents. Finally, and after a week of dunking and scrubbing the engraved relief started to emerge in resplendent versions of the (former) currencies: plus one could read all those patriotic words that countries live by: Fatherland, Peace, Liberty. They often overlapped whether they were Francs, Pesetas or Quid. It was even a Shakespearean feast of silver, bronze, copper alloys, and nickel too! In the end the white vinegar proved to be an invaluable ally.
It is summertime, and garage sales galore on the roads in the Springs, with countless items that can become treasures too. Our fascination with such items is not new. There are Television shows about it such as Antiques Roadshow and American Pickers for it is normal to have such fascination with old things, even more, with the stories that accompany these objects. One rainy day long ago my mother sat me on the floor with the pieces of a poor broken up white porcelain polar bear and a tube of glue and asked me to put it together. Doing this was a learning experience I will never forget and it passed the time as it was not possible to play outside. I enjoyed the three-dimensional puzzle idea and the beautiful result. I understand that there is an old Jewish adage that says that broken china lasts longer. Some time ago on one such rainy day as well I read a story in a Sunday Magazine about a correspondent who was leaving Paris and decided to go to the famous “Marché aux Puces” or “Flea” (Antiques) market, as it was popularly called. He was hesitating between two pairs of candlesticks, one looked older than the other, and was more expensive, but he sensibly decided on the newer ones that were more affordable. He was going to bring them to America as a souvenir from his stay in old Europe. The salesman who could read his mind, kindly said : “they will grow old” – ils vielliront.
Rafael VG Rodriguez