On my most recent trip to London, I found myself loitering outside a small newsagent’s: I wanted to buy a tube of Polo mints, but having just withdrawn some money from an ATM, found I had no small change, and would therefore have no alternative but to proffer a £20 note for this small item. I wondered if there was anything else I could buy to minimise the awkwardness I felt. My son wondered at my reluctance to enter the shop, so I explained, asking if he had some coins. He didn’t, but laughed at my Hungarian response to finding myself with only the large note with which to pay. “It’s a shop,” he stated matter-of-factly, “of course it’s not a problem.” Nevertheless, I found myself mumbling apologetically as I simultaneously handed over the tube of mints and the £20 note. Big smile, “No worries!” – the assistant handed me my change and we left the shop.
The largest denomination in Britain is the £50 note – roughly equivalent to 15,000 Hungarian forints. The largest note in circulation in Hungary is the 20,000 forint note – nearer £65 – and this in a country where the average net national monthly income is a mere six or seven times this figure!
Many people (myself included) can be heard cursing when the ATM spits these out, as they remember they have run out of bread, and realise that the only place willing to give change will be a large supermarket. This will either entail a detour and a long queue, or much grovelling at a smaller shop – with the distinct possibility of being told they cannot (will not) give change, leaving you to go elsewhere, or do without the bread.
In addition, Hungarians have a strange relationship with their banknotes: the smallest tear renders them unacceptable, irrespective of the neat repair done with Scotch tape, almost invisible to the naked eye. Having been declared ‘damaged’ you must either exchange the offending article at a bank, or attempt to palm it off – as though it were, in fact, counterfeit – and hope the cashier fails to register the blemish.
It has ever been thus: I clearly recall the consternation, both when the 500 forint note was introduced (when monthly salaries were 3,000) and then the 1,000 note in its turn. Before current bank accounts and plastic, all transactions were carried out in cash: even cars and properties were paid by people clutching attaché cases, or just carrier bags, containing their life’s savings, as they made such purchases. Yet herein lay the paradox: while the notes were an endless source of difficulty where shopping was concerned, they were hopelessly inadequate when such large transactions as a flat purchase were involved. Our first flat cost some 3.5 million forints at the time when the 1,000 forint note was the largest denomination available. The elderly couple from whom we were buying, called in their similarly elderly neighbours, and the five of us sat in a row along the sofa, counting out the notes into small piles of tens – all 3500 of them! Twice.