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Chocolate change

IT made me think of Swiss chocolate. The news item said the Central Organization of Machine Vendors of West Germany had made a substantial donation to the World Hunger Relief Fund. It seems that the German who vacations in another country brings back coins and uses them in vending machines. This peccadillo amounted to almost two metric tons of foreign coins in the year 1985. A bank in Frankfurt put 15 people to work sorting and counting, and the World Hunger Relief Fund was given credit. That's what made me think of Swiss chocolate. Our motor tour of Europe some years back took us through a dozen countries, each with its own money. Until a traveler from the United States has made such a trip, he's not likely to appreciate the money differences. When you can go from Eastport to San Francisco on the same dollar, you are hardly ready to travel one-third of that distance and use 10 different dollars. No two alike -- and each on a separate rate of exchange. Thus when we were ready to come home we had a swag-bag loaded with unrelated money that needed some kind of common denominator. So we paused in Switzerland, the nation of bankers, with the plan to convert everything into German marks, which we could fritter away while waiting in Bremen for our boat to shove off.

It isn't necessary to find a Swiss banker for this -- almost every tearoom and gift shop has a sign offering to exchange money, so we pulled up at a roadside opportunity just before we were to cross the boundary into Germany at Konstanz. A pleasant woman advanced, sized us up with the usual acumen, and greeted us affably in grammar-book English. I'm sure she could have done the same for every tourist from Arabian to Zulu. So we asked for marks, and she nodded.

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We spread out our bills -- we even had a Scottish pound -- and she sorted, counted, figured the exchange, and handed us our marks. All in her head. Then we dumped the coins, and she held up her hands in a no-no. Folding money, yes -- but it was not practical to get involved with coins. So we looked at our coins, realizing they were a total loss, and she said she would take coins in payment for goods. ``Perhaps you might take some gifts?'' We had already bought all the gifts and souvenirs we meant to take home, but in this extremity we looked about to see if the woman had anything we wanted to add to our freight. And my wife said, ``Chocolate bars!''

So we learned that if you want chocolate bars, Switzerland is certainly the ideal place to be. The woman now sorted and counted our coins, applied the day's exchange (naturally including her own commission), and then began bringing out bars of chocolate. I don't know to this day how much our pile of coins was worth, and I don't know the retail price at that time of a bar of Swiss chocolate, but after she had brought out all the bars in her display cases, she went into a back room and carried in some wholesale boxes. She completed her count, seemed pleased with the transaction, and wished us well on our travels. We were dismayed at our sudden wealth in chocolate bars, but there was a whimsical amusement in our predicament, so we drove along.

Our little Beetle was well loaded with gear and souvenirs, so the array of chocolate bars was spread out on top of bundles, boxes, and valises. The rear window shelf was loaded with them. And this contributed to the only contretemps we had with customs officers on the whole trip.

When we came to the end of Switzerland and were about to cross into Konstanz, a young and stalwart German customs officer stepped forward to greet us pleasantly, offering the standard welcome to his country. We showed our papers, told him our plans, and he seemed about to wave us along when the profusion of chocolate bars brought a puzzled look to his face. He looked more closely. We presume he suspected we were carrying illicit goods with the commercial intent of opening a candy store.

``And what,'' he asked, ``will you do with all the chocolate?'' The only answer I could think of was, ``Eat them,'' and then I foolishly asked, ``Would you like one?'' So he detained us quite some time until a senior officer who knew some English could clear us of the preposterous suspicion of trying to bribe a federal officer. Using vending machines may not be such a bad idea.

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