Enzenberger’s 10 most popular, if mythical explanations for the coin shortage that took place in Italy from 1975 to 1979

1. ‘There was no metal left’ (bank employee, Venice, 1977).
2. ‘In Japan and Singapore, they made buttons out of our fifty-lira pieces, and that’s why the coins disappeared’ (theater critic, Rome, 1983).
3. ‘It’s the trade unions’ fault. They’ve ruined the whole country with their demands. That’s why the mint doesn’t work either’ (taxi driver, Milan, 1976).
4. ‘The foreigners who came for Holy Year took away our small change as souvenirs’ (the finance minister of the Italian Republic, 1975).
5. ‘It’s a conspiracy by the banks, which are making a huge profit at the expense of the little man’ (Communist trade unionist, 1977).
6. ‘Coins cost too much, and Parliament didn’t want to pay’ (assistant in shoe shop, Como, 1983).
7. ‘The 100-lira pieces were taken to Switzerland in huge trucks, and the companies there made watchcases out of them’ (La Stampa, 1976).
8. ‘The coins are just stuck in the vending machines, which aren’t emptied often enough’ (waiter, Naples, 1976).
9. ‘In the mind’s present facility it is impossible either to increase production adequately or to guarantee minimum conditions for the health and safety of the work-force’ (Senate Committee for Finance and Treasury Affairs, 1976).
10. ‘What do you expect? That’s just how we are…Siamo negati per queste cose (We’re hopeless at things like that). You can’t do anything about it. It’s all a mess, un paese di merda (a shitty country)…All these politicians and civil servants from the south. Actually, it was a mistake to throw out the Austrians.’ (vox populi, 1975 to 1983).

— From The Extravagance of the Italians written by Hans Magnus Enzenberger published in Granta 26, Travel issue, explaining the shortage of coins which forced residents and tourists alike to use caramel candy and chewing gum to pay for small items such as stamps and coffee. The coin shortage also prompted an Italian company to develop the world’s first prepaid phone card in 1976, a year after the shortage was reportedly solved. Better late than never. [See: Prepaid phone calling cards Italy].

Bryson on his grandmother’s crank telephone

From Corbis images

“It all seems long ago now. And it was. It was so long ago, in fact, that my grandparents had a crank telephone, the kind that hung on the wall and had a handle you turned and said: ‘Mabel, get me Gladys Scribbage. I want to ask her how she makes her ‘Frosted Flakes ‘n’ Cheez-Whizz Party Nuggets.’ Everybody listened in. My grandmother often listened in when things were slow around the house, covering the mouthpiece with a hand and relaying to the rest of the room vivid accounts of colonic irrigations, prolapsed wombs, husbands who ran off to Burlington with the barmaid from Vern’s Uptown Tavern and Supper Club, and other crises of small-town life. We always had to maintain the strictest silence during these sessions. I could never entirely understand why because if things got really juicy my grandmother would often butt in. ‘Well, I think Merle’s a real skunk,’ she would say. ‘Yes, that’s right, it’s Maude Bryson here, and I just want to say that I think he’s an absolute stinker to do that to poor Pearl. And I’ll tell you something else, Mabel, you know you could get those support bras a dollar cheaper in Columbus Junction.’ In about 1962 the telephone company came and put a normal phone without a party-line in my grandmother’s house, possibly at the request of the rest of the town. It drove a hole right through her life from which she never entirely recovered.”
— From More Fat Girls in Des Moines written by Bill Bryson and published in Granta 26, the Travel issue in Spring 1989