Saturday, January 16, 2016

Ten Dollar Memory

The last time I traveled in  Europe with a group of teenagers was when I was a teenager myself--with a limited income and limited fiscal maturity. Before I left, Mom took me to the bank and we exchanged $500 dollars into traveler’s checks. Euros didn't exist and each country required an exchange, an exchange rate, and resulted in an every diminishing cache of vacation money. My parents didn’t even use credit cards, so it was never an option for back-up security. Five weeks—five hundred dollars. It was more cash and more time than I’d ever dealt with. Could I make it last? 

With only a few days left in Italy, before returning home,  we took a hydrofoil to the Isle of Capri. After docking, we snaked up the side of the island on a double lane road in an oversized bus. The bus let us off at the top of a stairway that led down to the sea. I’d heard of the blue Grotto, but couldn’t comprehend a sea cave where I would swim, and from which would emerge one of the most enduring memories.

We sat in the rowboats of old Italian men who paddled with the swell of the sea into the famed blue grotto. The water was technicolor vibrant; I was swimming  in a Disney cartoon. Once inside, the warm Italian summer drove us into the water where we dove, splashed and swam to white coral sea shelves.

 When our time was up, we rowed back out of the cave and ascended a hundred steps. Waiting on a stair landing were two young men selling two conch shells. The price for one was $10; in my pocket was the last $10 I had. I calculated the few days left, the few meals left to buy, souvenirs yet to be seen, but none of it mattered. The conch shell, the pinnacle symbol of the Isle of Capri had to be mine. I was broke in a foreign country, and I never looked back or considered my sacrifice to the Gods of youthful irresponsibility.

Over the next few days, while stuck in airports with no money to buy food (along with several of my fellow travelers), we lived off the candy and cookies intended for family presents.

Almost 40 years later, I am in Italy; I am now an adult with a salary, a savings account, a home, and an impeccable credit score, but I am still traveling with my fifteen-year-old self. The mentality of limited money, the memory of going without, lingers. I keep reminding myself I can spend money even though I’m running out of euros. I am not without ATMs or a credit card with a chip. 

But everytime I open my wallet, I have the same feeling. My fifty euro is now two twenties and soon it will be one twenty, a ten, a five and some change. If I can just hold on for a few more days, I think, but it's really not necessary.


Over the years I have mostly discarded the trinkets of my youth, but I have always held on to the conch I bought with my last ten dollars. It has rested in boxes, on bookshelves and now owns a place on the mantel among other shells collected on seaside paths. But when I see the conch, polished by an Italian boatman, purchased impetuously by the side of a friend while running up the stairs on the Isle of Capri, the last ten dollars becomes the best ten dollars I've ever spent. 

Even if it haunts me 40 years later.