When I was growing up, my mom had a tin full of coins from all over the world. She started collecting them in the 1960s during her travels in Europe. For years afterwards, family and friends visiting or returning from faraway places would bring gifts of krone, francs, pence, pennies, dimes, quarters, lira, drachma, marks and many more. Most were round, and silver, copper or bronze. Some, however, were hexagonal. Others had holes in them (like the washers we would use some years later to jimmy the Donkey Kong machines at the tearooms).
The tin itself was classic old Quality Street – a white cylinder with a lilac top. The tableau on the tin was of a lady in a purple dress, with a soldier saluting behind her. They both had the creepiest smiles and I would always try to get the coins out of the tin as quickly as possible so I wouldn’t have to look at it too long.
My mom would tell me stories about the countries where the coins came from – about the clothes their citizens wore, the languages they spoke, their famous people and attractions, the wars they fought and the links they had to our family or people we knew.
My grandfather sailed through Singapore to visit his brother in Sydney; we had the coins. My aunt studied in New York and travelled in North America, Europe and Asia; we had the coins. My mom herself had taken a gap year – an event so noteworthy at the time that news of her departure was published in the papers! – to spend time with family in the UK and visit “the Continent”; we had the coins.
I was fascinated by all of them and I wanted to go to each place in the tin (but definitely not the one on the tin!) However, at seven years old, it seemed impossible.
This was the 1970s. The Cold War was raging and South Africa was barrelling into a state of isolation from the rest of the world. I remember stories of Russian athletes defecting by slipping away from their minders at cultural or sporting events in the West such as ballet performances or the Olympic Games. I remember being a bit hazy on why they wanted to escape. The coin in my mother’s collection from Yugoslavia helped her to explain some rather complex ideologies to my seven-year-old self, and the impact they had on families, communities and entire nations.
The fact that a similar sort of oppression was happening right in our back yard was something I would only figure out when I was a few years older.
My mother’s coin collection triggered fantasies of visiting far-off destinations. The furthest we travelled as a family in those years was to Durban – which was exciting enough in itself. Now imagine visiting London, New York, Singapore, Sydney, Yugoslavia! As I write this I can still feel the excitement I experienced as I examined each coin – imagining the hands it had passed through and the route it had travelled to finally land in this disturbing-looking Quality Street tin in a suburban home on the outskirts of Johannesburg. At seven I thought I’d never see these places. They were so far! And probably quite expensive. Plus, who would take me there? And would I even be allowed in?
I have been extremely fortunate in the ensuing years. I’ve travelled a lot, relatively speaking of course, both in South Africa and abroad. I’ve seen and done some amazing things. I’ve met incredible people, fallen in and out of love, learnt loads about customs and cultures and language, developed massive confidence in myself and come to learn that people are people wherever you go – and that if you smile at a stranger, you will most probably be rewarded with a smile in return. (You just smiled, didn’t you?)
I am writing this blog from a friend’s flat in Singapore, after just having spent a most fabulous week at Club Med in Bintan, Indonesia. Soon after I return to South Africa, my brother and his family will be visiting us from the Cayman Islands. The day they leave, I head off to Bratislava*. Why am I telling you all of this? Because it’s a very busy time right now, travel-wise. And when I told an Austrian friend I was going to Bratislava, she said, “Isn’t that in one of those Yugoslavia countries?”… which triggered a memory of the Yugoslavian coin and made me realise how much we learn when we explore the world, even if it’s just by imagining it through a tin of coins.
*Bratislava is the capital of the Slovak Republic, or Slovakia– a country located to the east (and a little bit north) of Austria. The city itself is about 80 km from Vienna.
Back in the day, Slovakia was part of Czechoslovakia, along with the Czech Republic. Seven countries – Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo and Slovenia – made up the former Yugoslavia, which ceased to exist in 1992.