It is a noble thing, no doubt, to teach a child the virtues of saving, the alchemy of many coins transmogrifying into valuable banknotes. In Bulgaria, however, it is no easy thing.
For many moons now, that loose change that makes wallets unrealistically fat had been decanted into an array of creatively-labelled jars all in a row at the rear of our kitchen table.
Hand-lettered and piebald, they read, one stotinka, two stotinki, five stotinki, 10, 20 and 50; the lev coins remained in our leather-bound circulation, for depositing into metro rail and tram ticket dispensers. A few months ago, there was a division of labour among our family of four, a great counting of our accumulated wealth. A more recent attempt faltered among the tedium of it all.
The king sat in his counting house, counting out his money. Misguided fellow, had he no peasants he could trust with this menial if reassuring task? An abacus, an abacus, my kingdom for an abacus. So enchanting, those piles of coppers, so like the illustration of that fable in the book of distant childhood memory.
With silvers and coppers now close to piling to the top of jars that once held everything from honey to olives, it was time for this exercise in the virtue of saving to be transformed into the reality of spending. Money hoarded is of no utility in a European economy in need of stimulus (and if it needs my stimulus, the European economy is in straits direr than we had thought).
The separate collections were solemnly tipped into separate bags, solemnly sealed with rubber bands, and I solemnly telephoned the bank where the company which I am proud to own is numbered among its corporate clients.
In a litany I was hear to several times, a voice on the phone said in near-lament, “there’s a fee”, much as if I had inquired as to the monetary value of my soul, rather than what it would take for a bank to convert money into money. This fee, it seemed, was a minimum 10 leva – about five euro – which with the confidence inspired by the sight of those dully-glittering silvers and coppers, I accepted in principle as an acceptable loss.
My daughter’s hand clasped in one hand and my shoulders weighed by seven kg of coins in their appointed bags in my backpack, we set out on our quest. On the off-chance, we stopped at another bank, quite randomly, along our way. It was a branch of a Bulgarian-owned domestic bank, not quite a household name in the financial capitals of Europe.
The reaction to my request to transform coin into banknotes was a mixture of mournfulness, resentment and fatalism, as if the weight of my seven kg of coins would surely send their financial house plummeting into the abyss. “Try one of the big banks,” I was told. “We can’t weigh them.”
On we plunged, finally to the branch of the bank which I had telephoned. A vigilant security guard kept suspicious watch over the sight of a clearly deranged foreigner who wanted to turn coins into notes. The official we approached descended rapidly from groomed poise into polite incoherence, especially when, in response to her question, I confessed I was not precisely sure how much money we had.
“We can’t count the money. We can’t weigh it. Are you a client?”
I ventured that I was, in fact, a corporate client. “We can credit your account,” she replied. “We have lovely air conditioning here,” she said, waving expansively in the general direction of the soothingly cool air all around us, “so you and your daughter can sit here comfortably and count the coins. It’ll take about an hour (apparently she could tell this by looking at the sag of my bag, cunning devils, these bank officials) and then we’ll be happy to help you. There’s a fee by the way, at least 10 leva.”
I must have looked very doubtful, but to save any misunderstanding, I told her that I was very doubtful. “I have other things to do,” I pointed out, besides dragging around a 10-year-old to turn Bulgarian currency into Bulgarian currency.
Finally, she plumped for, “the only place that can do it is Bulgarian National Bank”. My goodness, I reflected, our loose change was of such moment only the Republic of Bulgaria’s central bank would be able to cope.
So we leapt into a taxi and made for the cobbled forefront of that imposing edifice, that landmark of the national fisc. My daughter had been there before, on a school expedition, and had come home proudly bearing a souvenir brochure of countries that use the euro. “Was it printed in disappearing ink?” I asked her at the time; one of those baffling things that fathers are wont to say.
We were intercepted at the revolving doors by another in a succession of slightly nervous bank officials, who told us that we were at the wrong place entirely. “We moved the cash facility to Tsarigradsko Chaussee, behind The Mall, three years ago,” she chided me. I did not say it, but I felt slightly silly; I had a dim memory of the then-prime minister grinning meaninglessly while jingling some freshly-minted change in his palm at some sort of awkward photo-op.
Into another taxi, and further diminishing our profit on this exercise, we sauntered past the shopping centre to a landscape of dusty expanses and newly-minted buildings. Then came the Eureka moment, the sight of a building labelled as the cash office. The barbed wire, plentiful security cameras, bars the thickness of a prosperous Munich wurst were something of a giveaway. Security greeted us gruffly, gave us the once-over, decided that a skinny middle-aged foreigner and a 10-year-old did not represent some sort of diabolical latter-day Goldfinger ruse, and admitted us to the presence, which as it turned out was his own.
In time, we were invited to pass through the metal detector (interestingly, they did not scan my bag, which with the said seven kg of coins should have prompted a screeching nervous breakdown in the machine) and we took our place in the inner sanctum.
In the short queue, I perused the list of tariffs, noting that I should expect to pay a lev or 0.7 per cent of the sum as a charge. I noted the few major cities in Bulgaria where I could avail myself of this service (people in lesser towns or villages either have to make the pilgrimage or simply drive local merchants dilly by persistently paying in coppers) and finally, was summoned to the thickly-glass-fronted presence. My Bulgarian identity card was requested and presented, my details laboriously typed into a computer (presumably to keep track of transactions by money-launderers of stupendously small scale or cringing lack of ambition) and my little plastic bags cut and ripped and my rubber bands handed back through the slot.
I invited my daughter forward to watch the show as the coins swirled giddily in the designated machine, like a jackpot in reverse, with the machine stopping as the occasional interloper was detected – the all-knowing machine has no truck with a 20 stotinki coin seeking to mix in with its lesser 10 stotinki cousins.
Finally, three A4 documents were presented, two duplicates for stamping and signing, the third to record the transaction. Our carefully-collected stash, it turned out, added up to just more than 113 leva and some change (duly handed back to me, the foundation of our next collection). Under the grille, I was presented with a lovely crisp 100 leva note, a tenner, a two-leva note and the said change. A one lev coin was withheld as the fee by the Bulgarian State.
Brightly, my daughter – educated in such matters during her school trip to BNB – held up the notes to the light to examine the security features, earning a sharp glance from behind the glass. Quickly, I pointed out to her that I sincerely doubted that the central bank was in the counterfeiting business.
We returned to the bright sunshine, chattering gaily about how we would solemnly set aside the notes for the noble purpose of petrol for our August trip to the seaside (for the record, we are by no means that desperate; this really was about the virtue of saving, along with not having to clean up coins and broken glass the next time Sofia exceeds five on the Richter scale).
Ahead of all of this, few if no Bulgarians of my acquaintance could offer any guidance about how to carry out such an exercise. As I mused that few foreigners living in Bulgaria would have any clue either, my daughter burbled happily, “Daddy, you should write a story about this”.
She’s always right.
(Photo: Alessandro Paiva/sxc.hu)