Register Tuesday | March 20 | 2018

Found Money

When spare change can buy happiness

In 1973, I was living in Athens, nominally studying archaeology but more importantly falling in love. Falling in love with Greece, with travel, with freedom and with my own youth—until then, a rather weedy thing, solitary, ink-stained and derivative, lurking in libraries plotting the perfect term paper, but now striding along in dusty sandals declaiming poetry, plucking fresh figs and pomegranates from roadside trees, bargaining with fishermen for octopus pink and transparent as silk, and generally feeling immortal.

This was also my period of found money, and with it the existential revelation “Ye shall find whatever ye seek.”

The Greeks are a generous and sensual people, not much given to fretting (an elegant unconcern that was engagingly demonstrated during the recent Olympics, when nothing was built until the very last minute, driving uptight North Americans completely around the bend). My experience in Athens during my residence there suggests that the indigenous Hellenic lack of anxiety also extends to money, or to small change at any rate. One sunny day—they all seemed to be sunny that year—as I was walking home from the National Archaeological Museum and a lecture on kouroi (those awkwardly touching statues of naked boys that clearly demonstrate the influence of Egyptian art on early Greek sculpture), my eye fixed on a sudden glitter on the cobblestones. It turned out to be a small coin. As I bent down to pick it up I found another, and then another—quickly amassing enough loot to buy a loaf of fresh bread.

Leaving the bakery with my prize, I saw a whole spill of copper and silver at the curb, and happily pocketed that treasure as well. I decided that somebody must have been feeling momentarily benevolent, sowing the streets with cash, and thought no more of it. But about a week later I had the same experience again, and soon found that whenever I felt short of money, all I had to do was look around and lo! Money would come to me. It became a kind of game: scrutinize the sidewalk two days in a row, then skip one; search for cash three days in a row, then skip two. But it didn’t matter what arbitrary pattern I imposed. Every time I went prospecting, I was rewarded.

There were a lot of bakeries in my neighbourhood, and at one I discov-ered an anise-scented, honey-soaked gingerbread that seemed nothing less than manna from heaven. To discipline my appetite for this new sweet, I decided that I would only be allowed to buy it on days when I found money, and only once I found enough for its purchase. I had thought that imposing this quota would keep me from eating too much cake, but alas it had the opposite effect, turning what had been a rather whimsical game into a compulsion. I looked for, and found, money every day. However, even at age nineteen, it wasn’t good for me to eat cake every day. If I wanted to keep fitting in my jeans, I had to stop looking for money.

It may seem odd that I didn’t think of doing something else with the money. But the sweetness of unsought-for wealth seemed commensurate only to the delights of that particular cake. No other reward made it worthwhile to patrol the fragrant streets of an
Athenian spring with my nose to the ground like a demented bloodhound. And, frankly, I was glad to be released from servitude. I was now better able to enjoy the sights and sounds around me: Seville oranges, shining in the glossy trees like coins; flower stalls spilling over with gardenias and jasmine, almost too sweet to breathe; children flying kites and old ladies airing their caged birds. There was so much to see everywhere! And though my belly rumbled sometimes (after all, I was still young), my eyes were
hungrier than my stomach. I was free, once again, to enjoy Athens. Free as the Greeks, who let their money lie wherever it fell—something I always do myself now. I like to walk away from my own dropped coins, relishing the thought of someone else’s thrill as they pick it up, and wondering what serendipitous gift it will buy them. It is my own private homage to that golden year, and a way to infuse a little good fortune into a stranger’s day.