You know that carefree thrill that comes from having foreign currency in your pocket? I should have gotten over it ages ago, and yet…
When I moved to Doha last year, one of my many worries as a newbie expat was that it might take me a while to adjust to the fact the city was now my home – and that I wasn’t on some sort of extended holiday.
Turns out that starting a crosstown school run twice a day, a week after landing, soon puts paid to the notion that you’re on permanent vacation.
But nine months later, one aspect of that holiday vibe still hasn’t quite left me, and that’s the disconnection I feel from money – specifically the Qatari Riyals in my pocket.
Foreign money has always given me a warm, fuzzy feeling. Some unfamiliar notes in your pocket, the sun on your back and a vaguely recalled exchange rate make for a visceral sensory experience.
The strange colours and shapes of the notes. The designs which say far more to foreigners about a country than the host country realises – from dictators and local wildlife, to historical figures or architecture. They feel at once both alien and comforting.
And there’s no clearer link between cause and effect: these exotic, mysterious scraps of paper buy you memories. It’s that simple.
Memories are made of this
Any leftover cash at the end of a trip is an instant reminder of where you’ve been, and what you’ve done, that far outweighs the value of the note itself.
Like the waterproof, see-through dollars I took surfing in Australia.
The endless bundles of dong (30,000 or so to a pound, give or take) needed to get through a day in Vietnam, before you realise you’ve eaten the most amazing street food for pennies.
The rupees with which I bought what will be one of the best drinks I’ll have all year – the sensory overload that was Goan roadside-haircut beer (might need a snappier name, though).
Or the American dollars which spell nothing but confusion to me: from all being the same size, shape and colour, to the addition of sales tax at the till which I always forgot, or the reverse compliment of being refused a beer at 37 because I didn’t have any ID on me.
Even pretend notes are evocative: look at the ‘money’ kids earn at KidZania in Dubai. They can spend it within the attraction, sure, but some of it also finds its way home, providing a permanent reminder of their day, and a nudge to parents about a repeat visit.
It’s as much a part of the holiday experience as manfully trying to grapple with the exchange rate for a while before giving up completely. Who cares, right? I’m on holiday.
And that’s how I still feel about the Qatari Riyal.
I open my wallet and every day I’m still surprised to see the notes there. (I’m surprised to see anything at all in there, to be honest; I hardly ever carried cash back in the UK.)
Here, however, cash is still king.
There’s a crazy range of notes here, from a single Riyal all the way up to the 500 (that’s 18p – £91 / US0.27c–$140).
Sure, you can use your credit card in most shops and restaurants, but the oil in the gears of the daily economy here in Doha is cash. Two riyals for a karak, 30 for your dry cleaning, 60 to fill your car, tipping car valets and petrol station attendants, it’s cash, cash, cash all the way.
And because you need a constant supply, trips to the cash machine are a daily necessity.
The hole in the wall spews notes out with a nonchalance bordering on comical, yet in the UK if there was a single note I could use to fill my car eight times over (as the QR500 can) I’d be terrified to carry it on me.
But here, I hardly notice.
As with pretty much everything here, the notes are bilingual – English numerals and writing on one side, Arabic on the other. And my wallet seems to magnetically flip all my notes to the Arabic side so I still find myself looking at the colours to try and remember which is which.
But even then, the midrange notes (10, 50, 100) are that uniquely Qatari mix of pale shades which still just look wrong to me. Monopoly wrong. I might be being thick, but it’s like some kind of numerical colour blindness.
Growing up in a country where street crime happens means I am culturally conditioned to not wave large bundles of notes around in public.
In Qatar, however, where to all intents and purposes it’s non-existent, no-one bats an eyelid. I still can’t bring myself to do it though.
I siphon off the endless stream of tatty singles and keep them for emergency milk runs to the overpriced local shop.
Below that, there is a 50 dirham coin, but they are rarely seen in the wild. Today, for example, the local store owed me 50 dirhams in my change, but didn’t have any coins in the till, so I was given a packet of sweets instead, to make up the difference.
Lotte Spout, anyone?
Maybe my disconnection is down to the fact that I’m still converting prices into pounds (at least for the things you can get back in the UK) so I still expect to see them in my wallet?
Perhaps the day you stop automatically converting prices signals the end of your transformation into a fully-fledged expat?
If it is, I haven’t got there yet.
For now, the money in my wallet still seems foreign in every sense of the word – the colours, the denominations, the uses it’s put to. It’s as if I’ve picked up the wrong wallet by accident.
I’m sure I’ll get used to it eventually. Probably just in time to return to Europe in the summer and start wondering where all these Euros suddenly appeared from.