We had to go to a bank today, in Italy, exchanging not a few precious American dollars for even slightly more precious European euros.
We are in southern Italy, in a town in Puglia that is the ancestral base of my wife’s family. What I remember most from the last time we were here was the drive to the house of one of my wife’s cousins. It was dusk; we weren’t exactly sure where we were going; and I had to repeatedly flash the car’s bright lights to scatter the swarms of children playing in the unlit streets. It was harrowing, for us if not for the children.
Fast forward several decades, and we’re back to a town that seems to have matured: more organized, better lit, and clearly more prosperous, with that typically charming Italian town center that mixes ancient buildings and streets of polished stone with stores glistening with upscale modern consumer goodies seen through glass front entrances.
Before we set out in this morning to visit the studio of an octogenarian sculptor who continues his prodigious output, we decided to change money so we could pay our hosts in Umbria for the house we have rented there beginning on Saturday.
We drove to bank number one. No, they did not exchange dollars for euros. We got back in the car, and drove to bank number two. No luck there, either. This town, clearly off the tourist map, does not seem to have to deal with strangers, we quickly figured.
We pushed on. The same result was with bank number three–no euros for dollars. But the workers there told us about bank number four, Banco Puglia. Surely, a bank that covers the entire province, and its biggest bank as well, would honor an exchange of our dead presidents for some of whoever or whatever was on their bills.
No such luck. Banco Puglia would only exchange the currencies if we had a bank account there. Did we want to go that far? Nah.
It was getting late for our appointment with the sculptor, so we hopped back in the car (driven by the cousin, who was the reason we were even able to locate the banks among the town’s spaghetti-like tangle of streets).
We had a lovely visit with an artist who has stayed true to his vision, mixing elements of Surrealism, assemblage art and Arte Povera into a sympathetic vision of the suffering of humankind and our degradation of the earth we live in and on. To continue to support himself, the sculptor has put his existential concerns aside, and instead chisels religious images out of walnut wood for the region’s legion of churches. (This is the only place I’ve been to in Italy, a profoundly secular country, where each church holds three masses a day, every day, and actually has worshipers who attend the services.)
After the visit, it was back home for lunch. In southern Italy, even a light lunch is a rich affair, and this was no exception: a spread of meats, cheese, bread, vegetables, fruit and wine that left us thinking of a nice little nap.
But, no! There was still that banking matter to take care of, even in the face of our protests that we could wait until we reached Umbria and worked out payment with our hosts. The cousin and her husband hit the phones, calling banks (no luck) and then, finally, a colleague of the husband, who was enlisted into the effort.
A plan was hatched. We got back in the car, picked up the colleague at his workplace, and drove to his bank. We passed through the security tubes, and then into the bank proper. A spare chamber in whites and beiges, it was filled with only men, both the bankers and their clients.
Our ringleader walked to a cubicle, and signaled us in to meet the man who presumably was the bank manager. We explained our plight, and asked for the exchange rate for our dollars. The explanation: it’s uncertain; you find out at the end of the process how many euros you get for your dollars. We pressed our case, several times. He went away, coming back eventually with a sheet of paper that showed the rate as it was in the morning. Was that the same as we’d get in the afternoon? He disappeared again. Eventually, back in his office, the answer: yes.
We agreed to the exchange. That meant we had to leave the office. Back in the public waiting area, our leader told us to hand him the dollars. The exchange would be made after he deposited our money into his bank account!
What could we do? This was family, so we had to trust their friend. We handed over the cash, and within minutes he was back in the manager’s office, doing whatever, because we couldn’t see. Eventually, another banker left the office with the friend and our money, headed for a back room.
They eventually returned, the friend to the manager’s office and the banker to the teller section. There, he whispered into the ear of a teller, who reached into a drawer, put some euros into a counting machine, and handed them to his colleague. The colleague then went into the manager’s office.
After a few more minutes, our man emerged, signaling us to follow him. Out the security tubes, one by one, we finally met. There, he handed us the receipt and the euros. It was the exact amount I’d calculated. We got back in the car, exiting at the house. Our middleman hopped into the driver’s seat, to go back to his workplace.
We climbed the stairs of the house, opening doors until we reached our bedroom. It was past time for a nap, and we gladly obliged.