09 June 2012

Paying with Plastic

 
A little over a year ago, we drove through Romania en route from Moldova to Italy. It was our first visit to the country and a brief one at that - less than 24 hours. We got a quick glimpse of the landscape (beautiful), the roads (treacherously sidewalkless), and the currency (like none we'd ever seen before). It's always a frantic thing to cross a border and then just drive and hope that an ATM will show up at some point. Once it does, you hear that heavy electronic shuffling of bills inside the box and then a stack is spat out at you. What will it look like?? Especially because the Eurozone has made this sort of thing a little more rare, it's exciting to try some new money on for size. Romanian lei are beautiful. Bright, flowery, shiny...? They are crisp, clean, smooth like wax paper or something else? In our hands, they slip around against each other.  In Romania, whether by cash or card, you're always paying with plastic.
Romania is one of about seven countries in the world who have completely switched to polymer banknotes, a plastic covered bill first developed and issued by Australia in 1988. The United States tried its hand at making this brand of currency, but smudgy ink turned people off from the tests. Last year, Canada switched its $100 bill to polymer. While polymer notes are more expensive to make, they are almost impossible to counterfeit. See that little transparent window shaped like the masks of comedy and tragedy (in honor of the man on the bill, Ion Luca Caragiale)? Try faking that. Oh, and the hologram. The higher the leu's value, the more security elements are in the design. This isn't the first thing someone will tell you about the benefit of polymer cash. Nine times out of ten, a comment about Romanian money will elicit this excited response, "You can put it through the laundry and it's okay!" The stuff is basically indestructible.
Seriously. We tried ripping it, washing it. It doesn't crease or wrinkle. It bounces back out of most folds and basically leaped from my hand when I tried to crumple it. See for yourself. No scotch-taped bills or sweaty summer money here in Romania. It can't even get dirty!
Polymer money is said to have a lifespan four to five times longer than paper money, which is mostly great. However, there are those times when a country's currency needs a little shape-up. In 2005, the Romanian leu needed to shave a few zeros off. From January to July of that year, they were officially the world's least valued currency unit. Gosh. After reevaulation, the 1 million leu bill became the 100, the 10,000 lei became 1 and all denominations in between. They kept the design of the bills basically the same, just with four less zeroes. They took the opportunity to re-size them a little, too, shaping them to match the euro banknotes. That way, when Romania switches to the Euro, they won't need to refit all of their ATMs.
People say that Romania is set to switch to the euro in 2015. Sure, their ATMs will be fine, but what about all the visually impaired people that depend on the polymer money's value specific texture? Really, I'm just sad to see this currency go. So darn pretty. Each note has a national figure, his corresponding window design and a flower. There's George Enescu beside a music note and a carnation. Nature and artists take the places usually reserved for architecture and politicians or royalty.
I feel like the money that's exchanged between hands within a country is part of that place's cultural identity. What it looks like, who is on it, remembering those days when a hundred was worth a million. It's also a part of travel, fiddling with a pocketful of coins and taking way too long to leaf through funny money. On the upside, polymer money is completely shreddable and recyclable. Its material is used to make plastic gardening appliances. So, if things go according to plan, Romanians may have themselves a whole bunch of brand new wheelbarrows in 2015.

No comments:

Post a Comment