Have you ever had two dinners in one night? I did, more than 20 years ago, in Budapest. My buddy Todd and I had gone backpacking through Europe, hitting 11 cities in 30 days. As students, we were careful not to overspend, staying at pensions and hostels and crashing at my former host family’s house in Germany. By the time we reached Budapest, our last stop, we’d saved more money than we’d anticipated. We were also tired of living on the cheap, so we decided to stay at a three-star hotel (for $50 a night) and, on a whim, ate twice in one evening.
The first meal was at a place called Pizza Jazz. As I recall, the pizza was decent, but not quite filling. Luckily, across the way was a Dairy Queen. That’s right—a mere five years after the fall of communism, Hungarians already had access to banana split blizzards. And how can anyone resist a blizzard? Of course, I’d forgotten DQ also serves burgers and fries, and I couldn’t help wondering if they tasted the same as they do back home. (They did.)
Admittedly, the image of two American tourists with nothing better to do than have a double dinner seems a bit decadent—especially in those environs. But we didn’t care. The exchange rate at the time was extremely favorable to the dollar. In fact, by the second day, it dawned on us that we had converted more of our money into forints than we should have—and they’d be worth so little in dollars that transferring them back was pointless. This is when our trip turned into Brewster’s Millions. We had more money than we could spend and not enough time to spend it.
So we abandoned the fast food (up to then, our culinary adventures had included Burger Kings in Munich and Paris and Pizza Hut in Prague) and hit the city’s finer dining establishments. We ate like Habsburg emperors, although the only dish I still remember is a goose leg platter. The comedian Larry Miller once mentioned his father’s sage advice to be a decent tipper, “but don’t tip like a gangster.” Well, we tipped like Al Capone and John Gotti. Everywhere we went, the Hungarians were gracious. At one place, called the Apostolok restaurant, our waiter was so grateful to get our business that when we visited a second night, he shoved aside his colleague who was just about to seat us. “Gentlemen, so good to see you again!” I recall him saying, or words to that effect (few of the locals we encountered spoke much English).
A few days later, we were headed back to Vienna, where I was studying and Todd would take a plane back to the United States. I remember sitting on the train with a slight sense of defeat, having failed to spend all my forints. (Perhaps I shouldn’t have wasted so much time in the hotel room watching reruns of The A-Team and Hardcastle & McCormick in German.) A few moments later, Todd entered the train car carrying something large, wrapped in paper. “A gift,” he told me, with a big smile on his face: a white Hungarian beer stein. It was enormous, unwieldy, and, frankly, not that attractive. He gave one of his sinister laughs, knowing he had triumphed by outspending me. And the last thing I needed was to try to stuff a giant beer mug into my 70-pound backpack bursting mostly with dirty laundry.
The unfolding crisis in Greece reminded me of this adventure. “First Sighting of Drachma in the Wild, Via Credit-Card Mystery,” ran the headline at Bloomberg Business: A reporter in Greece noticed on his credit card statement an expense not in euros but in that country’s retired currency. The episode was ultimately blamed on a technical glitch, but many wondered how a currency conversion would play out. The answer is not well. The drachma would be worth approximately half the value of the euro. Add to this spending levels that have already plummeted because of limited cash flow. Indeed, about the only people to benefit might be the tourists, whose dollars and euros (or drachmas) are desperately needed.
I’ve never been to Greece so I don’t have any drachmas on me. But in the event another European country decides to exit the euro, I do have a fair number of lira, guilders, pesos, francs, marks, and schillings, not to mention a giant wad of yet-to-be-retired Hungarian forints. During my backpacking days, I kept all these currencies in an oversized wallet I wore under my shirt (a variation on the money belt). Today, they can be found in my parents’ house, on a bookshelf in my old bedroom. They’re all crammed into a giant Hungarian beer stein.