Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Across the wine-dark sea:

As I sat at lunch and contemplated the social niceties of sharing the bill between myself and a set of visitors from Canada, Jamaica, and Uruguay, it occurred to me that the emergence of exchangeable currencies and especially the modern financial system have greatly contributed to the decline of ancient customs of hospitality.

When travellers could not carry much money, for reasons of banditry or simply that there was no way to gauge an exchange rate, they were put up as guests in houses. It was tradition that you simply fed these people, provided for their bedding, and bade them farewell whenever they decided to move on. In exchange, you learned from their tales, and could expect the same courtesy when you had to travel yourself. You were not paid for this courtesy. It was a custom.

The rise of widely accepted currency meant that inns could expect payment, and the rise of exchange rates meant that foreigners could travel more easily. The very recent rise of credit systems and electronic transactions meant that credit cards could be used to purchase services. And that was the end of the free lunch.

So the next time you are in that capital of capitalism, New York, and you wonder about their manners, simply reach in your pocket and feel the cold coins of reason.