Monday, September 28, 2009

In for a penny, out for a pound

Among the more blatant price grabs in this city are the £7.50 kim chi jjigae, the £3-per-hour Internet access at this hostel, and the £16 express train to Gatwick airport. The less blatant one is seen at the countless money changing outfits here. At the St. Pancras train station, my 100-euro note was worth £79. Two hundred metres outside the station, they gave me £85, and if I'd walked another 30 minutes, I would've gotten about £90. I wanted to ask the nice woman at the train station if she was aware that walking another 2 minutes was worth £6, but of course she knew that, just as anyone who knows that kim chi jjigae goes for about £2 in Korea probably has it for next to nothing at home.

The most amusing price grab I saw was outside Hyde Park, the place that convinced me today of London's enduring, neverending ability to offer something interesting to do, even if the food does suck. There was a stall selling old books and foreign currency. There was the Bible in Latin, a 1995 travel guide for something called Northeast Asia, and a four-volume guide to learning Russian. Since I'm already hauling far too many books in my bag, and I bought Kafka's The Trial and Herodotus' Histories the other day for £2 apiece, I passed on starting to learn Russian.

I went for the currency instead. I saw bills from Saddam's Iraq, the former Yugoslavia, Japanese Burma, Mobutu's Zaire, and even the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. Most were genuine curiosities that I think are worth a pound or two, though any numatists reading this are free to correct me. What was certainly a ripoff was the collection of Chinese 1-yuan bills dated 1999 with large portraits of Mao on them, on sale for £1 each. Having a handful of these somewhere, I laughed. Granted, it was a Sunday, but if you waited until tomorrow, one pound would buy about 12-15 of those 1-yuan notes at a bank. Five pounds will buy a crisp red 100 with a nice portrait of Mao. Come to think of it, just about all Chinese currency has Mao's portrait (I've heard it has to do with preventing counterfeiting, and the fact that Mao's is the best-known face in the country).

I can't condescend too far because I spent my pound on 10 North Korean won. It's a crisp reddish-orange note with a picture of a cartoonish revolutionary in overalls, dated 1998. I'm not too sure about its origins, though I know that for a long time North Korea maintained separate currencies for foreigners and its own citizens. For those familiar with South Korea, 10 North Korean won are not as insignificant as 10 South Korean won. This is perhaps the only area in which the North makes more sense than the South.

The actual value of this note is purely an academic question. Travelers to North Korea, with maybe the exception of Chinese merchants, will either pre-pay for everything or deal only in Euros. Even for North Koreans, currency isn't terribly useful, and the official exchange rate differs wildly from the black market exchange rate. I think in reality, 10 North Korean won are probably worth the same as 10 South Korean won, which is to say about a penny. In South Korea, 10 won pieces are tiny coins that you only come across when dealing with infinitesimal amounts like the surcharge for a grocery bag or the precision of exchange rates at a bank.

Anyway, I walked into and across the massive Hyde Park to Speaker's Corner, where I had thought about delivering a prepared speech. It wasn't anything like I'd expected. I imagined a quiet corner with maybe a handful of people sitting on benches. Instead, there were a half-dozen religious fanatics and one calm, elderly member of the Socialist Party surrounded by crowds ranging from 10 to 200 people. The advantage rested with whoever could scream loudest or argue coarsest. I admitted defeat and after reading in the sun, went off to watch Kerry Collins throw something like 13 straight incompletions in a 24-17 defeat to the Jets. And that's how this trip ends.

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