CASH OR GOLD BARS?

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GUEST COLUMN

By Caroline Donahue

As an American in Berlin, even as I get more settled living here, I am still amused at the discrepancies between the two cultures. One that has stood out over the years of visiting Germany is their strong preference for cash. And when I say strong, I mean that despite having the ability to receive payment via card and cash, they will often reject anything other than the latter.

I’ve had arguments with the post office about paying with a card, even when I had brought my German bank card to overcome any objections. Once when shipping a package to the UK, I was rebuffed and told the transaction had already been rung up as cash and it was too late. They have a machine to accept cards. I didn’t have time to get to a cash machine to take out the amount to pay and explained all of this in German. No matter, they said. We’ll hold the package for you and you can come back later with cash when you have time.

Why is it so difficult to pay with a card in Berlin? We have cards you can tap on the machine here, making the transaction nearly effortless. Go to London and you can tap to your heart’s content, but in Berlin you’ll have to be prepared to pay mit Bargeld.

This, for me, is where it gets interesting. As a writer and teacher of English, the first place I go when dealing with a cultural conundrum is the language. My German is good enough to get by, but still a work in progress, but I find this makes me less likely to skim over its differences from English.

When talking about cash, English speakers refer to cash or “paper” money. The word ‘cash’ comes from the 16th century and references the box that paper money and coins were kept in—the cash box, which we still use today. We have many phrases that imply that cash might not always be on the up and up—you get paid in cash in order to avoid records or tax. And if you “cash in” on a situation, you’re getting the full benefit, but possibly via less than honorable means. No wonder English speakers prefer cards, where all is tracked and clear.

When talking about hard currency in German, however, the connotation is entirely different. Bargeld is the word used for cash, and “Bar” in German references gold bars and can also refer to purity. If you define cash as pure money that’s as valuable as gold bars, then I can begin to see why Berlin prefers to be paid that way, rather than messing about with tapping plastic cards on machines.

I’ve also seen how this subtle shift has changed the way I spend money here in Germany. When one has to go to the Geldautomat (cash machine) whenever you need to get more money, it makes you more thoughtful about how this money is spent. I’ve come to enjoy paying in paper and coins when I go to the farmer’s market, exchanging physical money for produce and other treats.

In much of the world where we are quick to use a card, we’re also quick to check out and let our money disappear almost mindlessly. Haven’t we all gotten to the end of the month and wondered where it all went? I’ve found that this tendency has reduced significantly when I have to count out physical money and pass it across the counter. What an opportunity that is! To use the counter the way the word implies: a place to count out what you pay and for the salesperson to count out your change.

After spending a weekend in London recently, I was struck at how much my relationship to my money changes when using the ‘tap’ function a European card allows: you can simply tap the card to pay without even entering a pin and “poof” it’s gone from your account.

To Germans, this kind of sorcery is seen as anything but progress. Credit cards are harder to use here because they are less popular. Germans are taught to save from an early age and would, on the whole, rather save longer and pay in full than have a shiny new possession if it came with debt attached.

This is something I have learned to find charming about Germany as well­­––that they aren’t afraid to cut to the heart of the matter. They would rather talk about topics English speakers find scary, like politics and personal philosophy and deep values, than just staying on the surface with the weather. Perhaps the riches they dive for in conversation mirror their desire to hold the real thing in their hands rather than just spending the idea of money.

This is one of my favorite aspects of living in Europe: another language and culture is always close by and this presents us with so many chances to inquire why we do things the way we do and what the impact of these choices is on our day to day life. Even something as small as the words we use to discuss everyday concepts can shape the way we live.

So this month, pay attention to how you use your money. Do you prefer to pay with cash or is it more convenient to use a card? Does it change your view of money to think of it as numbers in an account, or to think of it as standing in for the gold bars that used to make up our gold standard? Despite my initial frustration with the need to use cash, I am now a happy convert, pleased to see where my money goes and to use it more consciously. This has reminded me that prosperity can be achieved not just by accumulating more money, but also by creating a more meaningful relationship with it.

Caroline Donahue is an American writer, podcaster, and English teacher living in Berlin. She is the host of The Secret Library podcast and co-host of GTFO pod. She is the co-editor of I Wrote it Anyway: An Anthology of Essays, and the author of Story Arcana : Using Tarot for Writing. She is currently at work on her first novel.  Learn more at carolinedonahue.com

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