I’m in Canada right now, waiting at the Calgary airport for my return flight to Los Angeles. I’m here early, and you can’t go through Customs until two hours before your flight, so I’m sitting here staring at a wall. That’s okay, though. I don’t mind waiting. Because I accomplished something amazing this afternoon, something I’ve never successfully managed before. It relates to currency exchange.
I’ve been to Canada several times over the last few years, and each time I make a little money in Canada, the same question comes up: How do I convert that Canadian money into American? I can’t spend Canadian money in the U.S.; people look at me like I’m an idiot. I conceived of a comedy routine once based around trying to spend Ukrainian money (left over from my honeymoon) in U.S. shops. Ukrainian-money hijinks are 100% comedy gold, but attempting to do anything in the U.S. with Canadian money just gets you stared at, because to most Americans it is indistinguishable from novelty money you would put in a piñata. Anyway I probably do not need to further elucidate the reasons why I would want to convert foreign currency into the currency of my native land.
The first time I was faced with this problem, I exchanged the money at a U.S. bank when I got home. They gave me a horrible exchange rate and took a fee that left me naturally expecting they would break my kneecaps next. The next time the situation arose, I was lucky enough to have a Canadian friend with a U.S. dollar bank account who performed an exchange for me. While helpful, this is hardly a reliable method — even though I am convinced that it is totally legal, Your Honor. And last time I was in Canada — a few months ago — I just kept my Canadian money to bring back on this trip. Today, I had to get rid of it all.
I’m pleased to say that the dramatic question of What To Do With These Colourful Notes was solved absurdly easily: I was advised by Sam Logan to just go into a Canadian bank and ask for U.S. money. I did this, and it was fine. It made all the bizarre financial contortions I engaged in earlier seem ridiculous, like a guy who locks his keys in his car, and then commences trying to break into his car for hours before realizing that the back door was unlocked the whole time. In this analogy, I am the guy, obviously. The keys are…my earnings. Which would make the car…international monetary exchange? The World Bank? NAFTA? It’s an incredibly robust metaphor.
So the exchange went fine. What happened next is the interesting part.
The bank did the exchange-rate math, and I gave them a precise amount, such-and-such Canadian dollars and cents, to result in a nice round number in American, to make it easier for everyone. In practice this meant that I was left with a few bucks Canadian jingling in my pocket.
I didn’t want to go back to the U.S. with Canadian money; it’s useless there, and I was sure I’d misplace it before my next visit to Canada. I probably still have a few loonies and toonies left over from previous Canadian trips, all rattling around the couch or lurking in bottom drawers or stinking up the freezer. The Canadian quarters I probably spent in the laundry, or hid in the center of a roll of U.S. quarters. It IS occasionally possible to use Canadian coins for the purposes of fraud. But in most cases, any Canadian money I come home with is wasted money.
Today, though, I knew I’d need a few bucks for incidental expenses, so having some left over from the exchange was fine. I bought some breakfast and a cup of coffee, and later on bought a postcard. Each time I counted out the change, the stack of coins got slightly smaller, and I got a little more excited. Would this be — COULD this be — the time I left Canada with ABSOLUTELY NO leftover Canadian money?
I put the thought out of my mind. Impossible! I didn’t want to get my hopes up. Surely I’d land in L.A. with 43¢ of unusable cash in my jeans. Who the heck was I to think I was so special, that I could zero out my Canadian before leaving?
But I WANTED it, friends. I wanted it SO bad. Because I am the type of person who wants things to work out. I want puzzle pieces to fit, and I want objects to be aligned. I once sorted a stack of bills by serial number because I was bored. I stack coins by size, take exhausting and overlong trips because I can make the itineraries mesh like beautiful gears, and before every trip I agonize over which suitcase will most exactly fit the things I need to pack. I HATE the idea of 43 Canadian cents burning a worthless hole in my pants as I cross the border home.
So I won’t lie and say I didn’t get a little quiver of excitement when I paid for bus fare and made that stack of coins a little smaller. I arrived at the Calgary airport having counted and recounted my remaining coins several times on the bus — it was three dollars (in a loonie and a toonie) and nine cents (in a nickel and four pennies). One of the pennies was especially shiny and one was especially tarnished. They were from 2006 and 1973 respectively.
I entered the terminal and found myself by the Mac’s convenience store where I’d bought a cheap hot dog the night I arrived. Feeling hungry for lunch, my heart beating with anticipation, I reviewed the prices on the hot dogs. You could get two of them, dear friends, for three dollars and tax. I didn’t know how much tax would be, but I remembered my first transaction there, days before. I had noticed the Take-A-Penny-Leave-A-Penny tray.
Fate, in that throwaway moment days before, had made my decision for me. My hands trembling on the ketchup dispenser, I prayed that there would be some pennies there to take if I needed them.
I did need them. The total came to $3.15. I don’t know that I’ve ever taken coins from one of those trays before, my lovelies, but I did today. “I have three-oh-nine,” I sniffed at the clerk. “You mind if I do this?” And I shamelessly helped myself to six copper discs. Clink-clink-clink.
I had done it.
The hot dogs were disgusting and I now I feel totally gross. It was probably the worst lunch in the history of Calgary. But I was happy — nay, eager! — to suffer them. Because some things are more important.