Perhaps the three most divisive topics of conversation in the Western world are money, religion, and politics. They are like a dirty triad. At your next (post pandemic) dinner party, start a discussion about money, religion, and politics first; and then slowly merge into the issues of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, and observe which theme creates more tension among your acquaintances.
Travelers love to talk about money, about how much they are spending or not spending; comparing exchange rates; negotiating a balance between the cost of the high season, and the savings as locations transition into the shoulder season; and about which nations and regions offer the most opportunity for the least financial investment. Money is like air. It is not noticed until it is in dwindling supply.
In September, 2018, while sorting through my belongings in a hostel in Ljubljana, and preparing to store my valuable items in my locker, I noticed that another traveler was watching me unpack. The space was very crowded, and he was waiting for his turn at the lockers. He noticed as I tried surreptitiously to transfer a roll of random bills from my backpack to my locker, and he said, “Ah the United States…” with wide eyes. What he didn’t know is the cash valued maybe $75, and appeared like more than it was. It was mostly American singles and Hungarian Florint, with a few Euros on the top. Since my arrival into Europe, I have been spending from the same pile of “money” exchanged from US dollars into Hungarian Florint into Euro into Croatian Kuna. I no longer know how much that money is worth; I had lost track of the economic equation between my labor and its value. It had been exchanged too many times.
During my week in Ljubljana, I met a Bulgarian from Turkey, who was living and studying International Business in Slovenia. We met at a coffee shop when he noticed I was reading a book in English. He asked if I spoke English, and I responded that yes, I speak English very well, and he then wanted to practice with me.
Although I appreciated his intelligence and inquisitive mind, I fully disagreed with his attitude toward global capitalism. Most of his discussion involved how much clothes cost in Europe compared the the United States, and why the United States is the greatest country on the planet even though Americans as individuals tend to be lazy. I wanted to explain the complex nature of American society to him, but nuances are lost in translation.
At another point while wandering the streets of Bratislava, I noticed that everyone around me was very well-dressed, and their hair and skin were shiny and polished. I felt exposed and vulnerable in my Chacos and second-hand dress, wrinkled and worn after a long day of travel from Budapest. I began to search for other people who appeared more “common,” and finally I observed a group of four people seated at a lower-end restaurant in the central tourist district where most of the eateries are quite expensive. Their clothes were sloppy, and their bodies were a tad out of shape. As I walked closer to pass their table, I heard from their dialogue that they were Americans. Even if the United States government is the most powerful in the world, the American people are not the wealthiest. Even if some of the wealthiest people on the planet are Americans, the general “American” is not economically wealthy. Even if the US offers vast opportunity for some, that opportunity is not available to most. As we approach the 2020 election, this wealth disparity is even more apparent now.
After leaving Ljubljana, I traveled to Zadar, switching buses near the Croatia-Slovenia border. It must have been on the Croatian side because the WC required Kuna to enter instead of Euro. I was in a hurry, and would have given an entire Euro instead of the 3 Kuna it requested, but I was sent away in search of an exchange kiosk. Apparently, in 2018, Croatia still did not accept the Euro. After accomplishing that chore at an exchange kiosk, I returned to pay the price. I handed the attendant a coin that had a 5 on it, hoping for change and entrance. The man looked at what I gave him and said, “This. This is nothing.” “Nothing?” I responded. “No, nothing. 5 Kuna,” he repeated, holding up his hand to indicate five. “5 Kuna.”
Confused, I dug around in my pocket for other change, money that I guess is worth more than nothing. I found a larger coin with a larger 5 on it, and handed that to him. He laughed and said, “Yes, 5 Kuna. That other one, nothing. 5 Lipa.” Feeling foolish and way too American, I sneaked off to the WC, and then to find WIFI to learn about Croatian currency. Apparently, 100 Lipa equals 1 Kuna, so then five Lipa is really not worth much at all.
My experience with life in the US is that nobody ever has enough money. Even with a bank account of $100,000, ownership of multiple cars, a house, and with two incomes, a family will complain that they are broke. So much dialogue around money that I hear is spoken from a framework of scarcity. That leads me to question if it is ever enough. Our shopping lists are always growing, and new products are constantly thrust at us in an enticing array of flashing lights, colorful images, and beautiful people. It is the twisted truth that we are never among the singing, dancing ones, because they are not real.
Before leaving Budapest after three months in Central and Eastern Europe, a Romanian-Hungarian student enrolled in a PhD program in Physics showed me through some less traveled roads in the city. He was raised Catholic, and I was raised Protestant, and we both agreed that “God” is a far greater concept than the human brain can ever understand. After establishing that I understand both the theory of relativity and the theory of thermodynamics and how they apply in idea and practice within our version of reality, he described four other universes within the multiverse. The multiverse are the possible universes that parallel the one in which we live. One such universe maintains all the existing laws of our universe, but with opportunities for different outcomes following an action. Maybe this creates a possibility to redefine our relationship with value, meaning, and life in the Western world. Money itself is valued relative to the nation in which it is earned and spent, and currency is really only a number in an electronic bank account. If indeed other universes do exist and are accessible from ours, I feel like the first outcome we should begin shifting is from our philosophy of scarcity, toward a philosophy of abundance. Then we might see a new material reality, with greater value on life, relationships, travel, personal growth, death, and everything else that resides between it all.