Money can be as tough to translate as language, if not more so.
A couple days after I arrived in Russia, I had a momentary panic when my bill at a restaurant came out to a thousand rubles. Up until that point, most meals had cost a couple hundred. I paid it and walked out, feeling a little nervous, until I recalculated and sorted out that my bill had been essentially the equivalent cost of a mid-range chain restaurant bill in the U.S. My blood pressure went back to normal, and I went on with my day, suddenly feeling pretty good about getting a three-course lunch for the equivalent cost of a trip to a Midwestern Applebee’s or Chili’s.
It gets easier as you have a chance to adapt to the currency—sort of.
Other variables have a way of creeping in. Based on current exchange rates, that meal wasn’t unreasonable for me, but it was still a bit out of the norm for most folks in my region, and so that’s something to take into account. When eating with friends, something that’s might seem perfectly within budget on a stipend that’s impacted by a historically distorted exchange rate. But to the other folks at the table, the thing I want to eat might be a bit over the top. So there are social reasons to consider what I spend and how I spend it.
There are cultural thoughts, too: tipping is handled differently in every country, and so it can be difficult to form an idea of exactly what you’re saying to a server, cook, or other service professional when you leave a tip. There’s a thin line, apparently, between, “Hey, thanks for the great service,” and “I love you and want to produce children with you.” I don’t think I’ve run afoul of that line yet, but if it happens, I’ll offer a complete description of the aftermath here.
Then, there’s the simple idea of cash. Russian culture demands lots of coins. Merchants love—and even expect—precise change. In fact, if you hand over a 50-ruble note on a bus, you can pretty much expect the conductor to passive-aggressively hand back your change in the most irritatingly small denominations possible. I despise carrying coins, so I make sure my transit card is always charged up for bus trips. My credit card provider charges no international currency exchange fees, so I try to use it whenever possible, as opposed to cash, for which I must pay both international exchange fees and out-of-network ATM fees. Legally, American debit cards and Russian ATM machines are not technically compatible, and most banks (including mine, much to my pre-departure horror) claim cards will not work at all within the country. I’ve found this to be truer than expected. In fact, there are exactly two ATM machines in the city that will allow me to withdraw cash. An attempt at any other machine run by any other bank leaves me with yet another frantic call to my bank’s international assistance office in order to unlock the hold on my card—a call that, depending on my phone’s disposition that day—may or may not feel like ringing through.
But even when using the credit card, cash is still necessary: Russian credit card receipts don’t offer the addition of a tip, so cash is a necessity in any service-oriented location.
There are internationally political reasons why the exchange rates rest at their current levels, and I won’t evaluate or comment on those here. But the fact that exchange rates do shift is another reason why money is a tough translation.
Language is difficult, but at least it’s not a moving target: you get what you get. You learn the standards of letters and sounds and grammar, then piece those tools together and try to communicate.
Money is not so simple, especially since mid-January. Prices fluctuate, and sometimes drastically. So not only do I need to compare an item’s value across two currencies before making a purchase decision—I also need to be aware of changes in how those currencies talk to each other on that particular day.
The price of the Ruble has a lot of connection to global oil prices. To cut out some of the geopolitical specifics, let’s just say that the less expensive your fuel is back in the U.S., the more it costs me to buy the amount of rubles necessary to pay rent. Regardless of how you feel about capitalism and market economics, that’s sort of the way of it: there’s a relatively flat amount of wealth to be had, and if someone’s winning on a given day, it generally means someone else, by definition, must be losing. In the last two months, the Russian people have done some winning as the Ruble increases in value. The American people have done some losing as the dollar loses a little relative value, but also some winning as global oil prices dip. Me? Well, my rent has gone up somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty dollars a month. This is not the doing of my kind and wonderful landlord: it’s just a function of exchange rates. The past few weeks have shown some particular volatility; a trading sessions have shown single-day swings up to $40 on the amount it takes to pay for my apartment. So the time of day at which a draw is made on my ATM or credit card can substantially affect how much I pay for an item, or how much it costs in dollars to retrieve local currency. Needless to say, I’ve got Google alerts set for global oil prices, the values of the dollar and ruble, and a couple of American foreign policy issues too nuanced to explore here.
At the end of the day, money is a confusing proposition abroad. Ever wonder why items are so outrageously priced in airports? There’s an obvious answer: just like movie theatres and sporting events, airports have captive audiences. But the secondary reason is that people arrive cash-disoriented. It’s easier to make something look like a great deal when the traveler’s brain isn’t yet adjusted to the currency. I’m pretty sure I once paid nine dollars for a medium, black Starbucks coffee at the Prague airport. That purchase was aimed chiefly at connecting to the café’s wireless internet since I wasn’t travelling with a phone on that trip, but it was also my first time in Prague, and I was sheerly guessing (and poorly) at the conversions.
When living abroad for an extended period, those calculations become simpler with time and practice. But as we’ve seen with the British pound post-Brexit and the Euro as the European project is re-measured and re-considered, big changes can happen with great speed. The same lunch can be an amazing deal one day, and an extravagance the next—with or without the inadvertent panic.
Fulbright Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.