Friday, January 27, 2017


Here's a post I wanted to write a while ago.  I let the opportunity pass, but today it came back with a vengeance.  The post is about Switzerland and money, but it's not what you think – no matter what you think.

This morning, like most mornings in winter when it's cold and foggy, I bought a ticket at the train station for my commute to work.  For some reason my card wasn't working, but a ten-franc note did the trick.  Among the pieces the machine spit out as change was one particularly dark and grimy.  Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be minted in 1884.

ten cents
spot the difference

I give you some time to digest this.  A coin (like anything else) from 1884 is 133 years old.  The little ten-cent piece has been circulating since the time the first Gotthard tunnel was dug through the Alps, doing duty like any one of its much younger cousins that gather in wallets and registers.  If it didn't look exactly the same, it would be on display in a museum.

Some of the trams in Zurich or Basel could also rightfully claim their place in a museum, maybe the Swiss Museum of Transport in Lucerne.  Some regional trains might also make the cut, not to say anything of the historic mountain railways.  A casual visitor might infer that Switzerland is too poor to afford modern transportation.  A better explanation is they're taking good care of things and don't need to replace them so often.  The money saved helps make them rich.

They might take good care of their coins, but care of coins is not what makes them last more than a century without being replaced.  The 133-year old coin tells you that there was no change of economic systems that required new money, no devaluation, and essentially no inflation.  It sounds like the world's most boring places from a historian's point of view.

As such, the ancient little coin is an apt symbol for the country.  Switzerland is a collection of villages.  Though painstakingly on time, things move slowly.  Not much is happening.  And even a coin minted 133 years ago probably doesn't have all that many stories to tell.

The reason I wanted to write this post a while ago is that I found an old coin in my wallet before – and before.  The first one was a twenty-cent piece from 1919, from right after the end of the First World War.  The second was another twenty-cent piece from 1926.  These two identical coins neatly bookend a period that saw twelve zeros slashed from the currency just north of the border.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

dead cows

This year again, the highlight of our trip to Argentina was the time spent in Uruguay.  This is not something I would like the folks I, not being married, like to call my outlaws know.  They have welcomed me as a family member and put much love and effort into our now annual two-and-a-half-week stays with them.  We celebrate Christmas and New Year's like Argentines do, let our daughter discover the second half of her identity, eat ourselves silly, and do family time.  For my benefit, we also go out and travel a bit.

Last year, Flucha and I took the boat across the Rio de la Plata to spend a day in Colonia del Sacramento, one of the first European settlements in the Americas and now a World Heritage Site of considerable beauty, by the Rio de la Plata and under the full sun of a perfect summer day.  We explored the old town, had a few drinks, rented bicycles to check out surroundings that rewarded with a relaxed vibe and friendly locals, and cruised back to Buenos Aires late at night with few concrete memories but a desire to return.

The opportunity presented itself this year when the outlaws gave us for Christmas a night in a hotel in Fray Bentos and a car with a full tank of gas to get there.  Fray Bentos is another World Heritage Site but nearly completely under the radar of international tourism.  We didn't even see Argentines, and they'd just have to cross a bridge to get there.

The first thing we saw after crossing the bridge was a huge paper factory on the right side, on the bank of the Rio Uruguay.  For many years, the flames of protest burned high on the other side of the river.  Argentines feared pollution would destroy tourism.  Uruguayans were excited about the jobs, especially since Fray Bentos's traditional industry had died decades earlier.  The atmosphere between the countries became toxic.  The river continues to run clean, if the Uruguayans swimming in it happily are anything to go by.

Fray Bentos was the site of the Anglo meat processing factory, a huge facility where the industrial production of beef extract turned the world's finest carrion (before, cattle were raised in South America primarily for the hides) into something to be sold in Europe, where millions of cows were stuffed into tins as corned beef and where, after the second world war, a cold chain was developed to make the worldwide shipping of fresh meat possible.  Four thousand people worked there during the busiest years, and nearly half that many cows were chopped to pieces every day.  Today, the abandoned complex, nearly fully intact, is preserved as a museum.

How I came across Fray Bentos in the first place is outside my memory.  It might be as banal as reading the corresponding section of the Lonely Planet guide to Argentina that has a chapter on Uruguay as if it were a renegade province.  Why I was enthusiastic is easy to explain.

I am a sucker for industrial heritage, the more outrageous the better, and we had come for the tour.  At slightly more than an hour, it was a bit on the short side but impressive nonetheless: A cavernous hall full of engines and generators used to turn charcoal into electricity for power and refrigeration.  The slaughterhouse resembled what Eric Schlosser described in Fast Food Nation 60 years later.  Huge iron vats, now slowly rusting in the humid air, held minced cows that were stewed until all the goodness has been released.  The juice was then vacuum-evaporated to leave the extract behind, much like you make instant coffee.  It was vivid and real, but I wish I could have explored more.

On the drive to Las Cañas, a low-key resort were Uruguayans who can't afford the Atlantic coast (or want to avoid the craziness) spent their summer holidays, each turn in the narrow road revealed another picnic spot occupied by a family sharing mates.  Trees cut though the worst of the heat, and from the river came a refreshing breeze.  We found a spot by the water and got our own mate out.  Across the river, the sun set in a flood of orange and gold.  Time passes slowly in Uruguay.  There's no better place for a vacation.