Who Has Europe’s Dirtiest Currency?

Think about how many hands the average dollar bill passes through; all jokes about “dirty money” aside, it’s practically impossible for the money that you carry in your wallet to be clean. But some bills are dirtier than others.

Researchers at Oxford put European currencies and banknotes to the test, finding that British pounds are actually cleaner than Euros. On average European bills and coins contain 26,000 bacteria, while UK currency has around 18,200.

How dirty is that? According to Ian Thompson, Professor of Engineering Science at Oxford, 11,000 bacteria is enough to pass on an infection. Makes you want to go wash your hands after paying for your souvenirs doesn’t it?

Surprisingly enough, clean and efficient Scandinavia actually tops the list of dirty cash. The dirtiest currency was the Denmark krone, at 40,266 bacteria, with the Swedish crown at 39,600 not far behind.

Maybe it’s another reason to get behind the Euro?

[Photo Credit: Jixar]

Rooting For The US Dollar

euro bills currencyI’m a huge sports fan and no matter where I am in the world, my morning routine always involves combing through box scores, standings and tournament draws. But as soon as I get my sports fix, I turn my attention to the fate of the U.S. dollar. Nearly every weekday, I check to see how our currency is faring against the Euro, and other currencies of countries I might be heading to.

I’m currently in the middle of a three-month trip to Italy and Greece, two of the sickest economies in Europe, so Wednesday’s news that the Euro had sunk to just a 25 percent advantage over the U.S. dollar, a two-year low, had me in a celebratory mood. Yes, I do feel bad for people suffering from the economic crisis that has paralyzed Greece and threatens to do the same to Spain, Italy and perhaps other European countries, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I was rooting for the Euro to crash just as vigorously as I root for the Bills, Sabres and all my other favorite sports teams.

I still remember the good old days when the U.S. dollar traded higher than the Euro, and as someone who has lived in and spent quite a bit of time on the continent over the last decade, I’ve been frustrated by the U.S. dollar’s slow downward spiral in recent years. When the Euro dipped below 30 percent recently, I assumed it would creep right back up, as this has been the usual pattern over the last year, but it keeps going down and I couldn’t be more pleased.

Yes, I know that a strong dollar is bad for U.S. exports and for our economy more broadly. But I’m still rooting for our currency. Am I selfish? Absolutely, but here’s hoping the dollar continues its comeback.

(Image via Eric Caballero on Flickr)

10 reasons to travel to Ljubljana

Ljubljana travel
When I found cheap airfare from Istanbul to Ljubljana, I didn’t find many other travelers who’d been there or even say for sure which country it’s in. The tiny of country of Slovenia is slightly smaller than New Jersey and its capital city isn’t known for much other than being difficult to spell and pronounce (say “lyoob-lyAH-nah”). After spending a few days there last month, I quickly fell madly in love with the city, and recommend to everyone to add to their travel list.

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Here are some reasons to love Ljubljana:

1. It’s Prague without the tourists – Ljubljana has been called the next Prague for at least the last 10 years, but the comparison is still apt. Architect Jože Plečnik is known for his work at Prague Castle, but he was born in Ljubljana and is responsible for much of the architecture in the old downtown and the Triple Bridge that practically defines the city. While Prague is a lovely place to visit, it’s overrun in summer with backpackers and tourists. In Ljubljana, the only English I heard was spoken with a Slovenian accent, and there were no lines at any of the city’s attractions.

2. Affordable Europe – While not as cheap as say, Bulgaria, Ljubljana is a lot easier on the wallet than other European capital cities and cheaper than most of its neighbors. I stayed in a perfect room above the cafe Macek in an ideal location for 65 euro a night. A huge three-course dinner for one with drinks at Lunch cafe was 20 euro, and a liter of local wine in the supermarket is around 3-4 euro. I paid 6 euro for entrance into 4 art museums for the Biennial, and the same for all of the castle, including the excellent Slovene history museum, and the funicular ride there and back.3. Everyone speaks English – Sharing borders with Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, Slovenia is multi-cultural and multi-lingual. Everyone I met in Ljubljana spoke at least a few foreign languages including English; one supermarket cashier I met spoke six languages! While a language barrier shouldn’t prevent you from enjoying a foreign country, it’s great when communication is seamless and you can get recommendations from nearly every local you meet.

4. A delicious melting pot – Slovenia’s location also means a tasty diversity of food; think Italian pastas and pizzas, Austrian meats, and Croatian fish. One waiter I spoke to bemoaned the fact that he could never get a decent meal in ITALY like he can in Slovenia. While I’d never doubt the wonders of Italian food, I did have several meals in Ljubljana so good I wanted to eat them all over again as soon as I finished. Standout spots include Lunch Cafe (aka Marley & Me) and it’s next-door neighbor Julija.

5. Great wine – Slovenia has a thriving wine culture, but most of their best stuff stays in the country. A glass of house wine at most cafes is sure to be tasty, and cost only a euro or two. Ljubljana has many wine bars and tasting rooms that are approachable, affordable, and unpretentious. Dvorni Wine Bar has an extensive list, and on a Tuesday afternoon, there were several other mothers with babies, businesspeople, and tourists having lunch. I’m already scheming when to book a stay in a vineyard cottage, with local wine on tap.

6. Al-fresco isn’t just for summer – During my visit in early November, temperatures were in the 50s but outdoor cafes along the river were still lined with people. Like here in Istanbul, most cafes put out heating lamps and blankets to keep diners warm, and like the Turks, Slovenians also enjoy their smoking, which may account for the increase in outdoor seating (smoking was banned indoors a few years ago). The city’s large and leafy Tivoli Park is beautiful year-round, with several good museums to duck into if you need refuge from the elements.

7. Boutique shopping – The biggest surprise of Ljubljana for me was how many lovely shops I found. From international chains like Mandarina Duck (fabulous luggage) and Camper (Spanish hipster shoes) to local boutiques like La Chocolate for, uh, chocolate and charming design shop Sisi, there was hardly a single shop I didn’t want to go into, and that was just around the Stari Trg, more shops are to be found around the river and out of the city center.

8. Easy airport – This may not be first on your list when choosing a destination, but it makes travel a lot easier. Arriving at Ljubljana’s airport, you’ll find little more than a snack bar and an ATM outside, but it’s simple to grab a local bus into town or a shared shuttle for a few euro more. Departing from Slovenia, security took only a few minutes to get through, wi-fi is free, and there’s a good selection of local goodies at Duty Free if you forgot to buy gifts. LJU has flights from much of western Europe, including EasyJet from Paris and London.

9. Access to other parts of country – While Ljubljana has plenty to do for a few days, the country is compact enough to make a change of scenery easy and fast. Skiers can hop a bus from the airport to Kranj in the Slovenian Alps, and postcard-pretty Lake Bled is under 2 hours from the capital. In the summer, it’s possible to avoid traffic going to the seaside and take a train to a spa resort or beach. There are also frequent international connections; there are 7 trains a day to Croatia’s capital Zagreb, and Venice is just over 3 hours by bus.

10. Help planning your visit – When I first began planning my trip, I sent a message to the Ljubljana tourism board, and got a quick response with a list of family-friendly hotels and apartments. Next I downloaded the always-excellent In Your Pocket guide, which not only has a free guide and app, it also has a very active Facebook community with up-to-the-minute event info, restaurant recommendations, deals, and more. On Twitter, you can get many questions answered by TakeMe2Slovenia and VisitLjubljana.

Americans still don’t like dollar coins

dollar coinsAccording to an NPR story this week, the Federal Reserve is sitting on a billion dollars worth of the $1 Sacagawean and Presidential coins, and the program to replace dollar bills with the metal coins has largely been deemed a failure. The government spends millions annually to mint new coins in order to introduce all the US presidents, resulting in millions languishing in vaults a la “Scrooge McDuck” said Planet Money’s David Kestenbaum. Despite the fact that they are legal tender and the government’s many efforts to promote their use, Americans still distrust the dollar coin.

Why the reason for the distrust? Americans claim they are difficult to spend, not recognized by many merchants, or just weigh down pockets too much. Perhaps we should ask our foreign neighbors how they have integrated them into daily life. America is one of the few countries in the developed world to use a $1 banknote and the only one of the top five traded currencies (including the Euro, British Pound, Japanese Yen, and Australian dollars) to use a bill in such a small denomination. Canada replaced the dollar bill with the “loonie” coin in 1987 and the British pound note has been out of circulation since 1983. Is taking away the $1 bill the only way to get Americans to use the coin? We reported earlier this year on a possible way to earn frequent flyer miles by purchasing dollar coins, a legal (but not encouraged by the US Mint) practice that may actually contribute to this back log of currency. Maybe go out and spend the coins instead and hope the trend catches on.

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Photo courtesy Flickr user cometstarmoon. Hat tip to Honza Kerver for the NPR story link.

Remembering Europe before the Euro

American travelers often complain about the current money situation in Europe. With the Dollar/Euro exchange rate sitting around $1.40/1, along with inconvenient credit card PIN requirements, making a purchase in many European countries is downright inconvenient. But there was a time it was far more complicated – namely any date before 2002, when Europe’s common currency, the Euro, was first introduced.

My first taste of European travel came in the waning years of Deutsche Marks, Guilders and Pesetas. Every time you moved to a new country, you had to exchange your money for a new currency. For a young backpacker like me experiencing several countries for the first time, it was a confusing and expensive proposition, particularly when you were in transit among several of them at once. Traveling from The Netherlands via Belgium to France? Best not try to buy something in Brussels: that would require you to exchange money. And forget about keeping the notes, coins and exchange rates straight – each brightly colored pink note and strangely bearded head of state was a new lesson in geography, history and politics and quickly calculated math.

Europe has grown up since then. Today, I can use the same money for a pizza in Rome as I do to buy a sweater in Dublin. But despite the simplicity of the Euro, I still find myself pining for those days before the single currency began its monetary dominance. Maybe it’s no more than the naivete of youth – a simpler time in my life when those first exotic breaths of foreign culture and the feel of strange currencies in my palm suggested all the possibilities of travel and adventure.

Is travel easier in Europe now? Yes, absolutely. But with that ease of use, a distinct piece of national identity also disappeared along with it. Our globalized world marches on.

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[Photo by Flickr user viZZZual.com]