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].

Free lunch

Next best thing to free beer is a free lunch. Unfortunately, both don’t exist.
That’s according to free market economists who continue to insist — with some fair amount of logic — that air, water, and perhaps even love has a price.
But these theoretical concepts only apply to the real world, which — fortunately or unfortunately — exclude certain facets of my life, depending on circumstances.
Take this Saturday.
Contrary to the laws of nature and social convention, I was invited to lunch.
Yes, an invitation. For lunch. From actual people (as opposed to entities passing themselves off as pretty women who follow me on Twitter).
I accepted it without thinking — something I am famous for doing — for reasons mentioned below.
Not only was lunch free, it would be held at a place that was just a tricycle ride away from where I lived.
I had absolutely nothing else planned for the weekend, save for staring at the ceiling, one of my favorite office pastimes.
On top of all that, the invite came from Alan and Raissa Robles.
Besides being two of the Philippines’ sharpest journalists, the couple has been known to serve the most delicious lunches this side of Metro Manila.
Or at least that’s what comments on their guest book indicate.
Some of their previous guests — journalists Vergel Santos and Paulynn Sicam and television host Pia Guanio — all attest that the meals prepared, cooked, and served by none other than Alan himself were fantastic.
Now, when did I ever become part of such esteemed company? How did I ever finagle an invite to the famous Robles luncheon? And, most importantly, why did my name even come up?
I don’t know and I don’t even intend to find out.
Ever the gracious guest, I told my hosts to cancel the limousine service and expect me at the appointed time.
And as soon as I sat myself at the table, I knew that lunch would exceed my expectations.
I was correct.
The midday meal began with a bottle of champagne, slices of salami and cheese, and pieces of french bread.
It was followed by breakfast sandwiches — meat and melted cheese in between toasted pieces of bread — from a recipe of Harry’s Bar in Venice, Italy.
These items alone were worth more than the price of my tricycle fare, I can tell you that.
Next came three other courses, this time, predominantly Asian.
Hainanese chicken, shrimp sambal, and fried squid were served, accompanied by all manner of sauces, enhancing various flavors heretofore unknown to people such as myself whose taste buds were blunted by canned goods and fastfood.
Our chef, Alan, talked as he cooked, dispensing professional advice, witty one-liners, and difficult pop quizzes in one go (i.e., Question: What drink was invented in Harry’s Bar? Answer: Bellini’s.)
In the meantime, Raissa paid attention to everyone’s needs, bringing plates and various other dining implements.
She even sliced parts of chicken for me while telling me that she once managed a cafe called 222 Baker Street along M. H. del Pilar in Manila.
If food was exceptional, the quality of the conversation was not far behind.
Joining me on the table included three other guests — a co-worker, an award-winning female journalist who now runs her own real-estate company, and her companion.
We talked about particular demands of our craft and the pressures we were all willing to live with, if only to get the job done.
The lively discussion was accompanied by fruit salad topped with strawberry ice cream, a fitting end to one of the best meals I have ever had in recent memory.
Thanks again, Alan and Raissa Robles.
And yes, I’ll remember to bring a bottle of wine next time. That is, if I ever get invited again.

The Locked Restroom Mystery

C. in Milano

THE police officer didn’t understand the word “trapped.”
“What is trapped?” he asked me, giving me a slightly amused look, gesturing with his hands, which were wide apart, as if emphasizing a point in a high school declamation contest.
“Trapped,” I said, nodding, returning his gaze. “What indeed is trapped?”
I looked at the pigeons in the square, thinking how easy their lives were.
Every single day without fail, these birds got by on leftover pieces of bread people fed them.
Meanwhile, here I was, at Italy’s famous Piazza del Duomo, grappling with a quandary rarely experienced by anyone, both in Manila and Milan. No, I wasn’t hungry. Nor did I have to go to great lengths to get my next meal—it would come from my wife who held our cash and planned our no-frills vacation.
Despite the privilege of being in Europe, I still felt that the pigeons were luckier than me.
After all, as I was contemplating the various synonyms of the word “trapped,” my wife was locked inside a nearby restroom trying in vain to get out. So how do I tell a carabinieri in very simple English that my wife was trapped inside a cubicle with a jammed lock?
I was stumped.
But only temporarily.
After all, I was an English major.
And this was my one chance in a million to prove to everyone that a Bachelor of Arts degree—or at least the one that I had—was useful in real life.
It was very easy. All I had to do was to process the knowledge I gained in college and put them to good use. Except that I had extended my stay in college because I was always drunk and/or sleepy, which, by the way, explains why I also dropped my basic Italian language class.
Had I known that ditching Italian would prove crucial some fifteen years or so after college, I would have completely aced it, just like the time I got a 1.0 after taking a Philosophy course the second time around.
But then again, as the Romans say, praemunitos, praemunitas, a phrase which I occasionally use to show that I understood Latin. I don’t.
Which explains why I didn’t rely on my tertiary education when my wife called out my name the minute she discovered that she was locked in.
Like all neanderthals who mistakenly consider themselves heroes, I rushed into the ladies’ room, knowing that I was venturing into unknown and dangerous territory.
Fortunately, it was still early in the morning and the area wasn’t congested.
Of the three women using the facilities, only two were able to exit their cubicles with ease. None of them happened to be my wife.
To justify my existence inside the ladies’ restroom—and to avert any attack from formidable Italian women armed with thick leather handbags and stilletoes—I went to the cubicle in question and assisted my wife with the lock.
After a few minutes of fiddling with it, I gave up and told her that I would be back with someone to help us.
This now brings us back to my original quandary.
“Trapped,” I told the carabinieri. “My wife is in the restroom and she can’t open the door.”
Restraining his smile, the officer agreed to accompany me.
However, when we arrived at the scene, my wife had already escaped the clutches of the stubborn door lock. How she did it, I will never know. After all, she was the acclaimed poet in our family and I was just the useless English major.
“Grazie,” I told the police officer as he left, grateful that I didn’t have a hangover the day the professor told us how to express thanks in Italian.

Photo above shows a cheerful Conchitina R. Cruz posing at a statue located at the Piazza del Duomo, unaware of the dangerous consequences that would befall her while inside a Vittorio Emanuele restroom a week later.