Wide awake at 3 o’clock in the morning a day after stepping off a plane from Greece, I’m pondering the fate of a small pile of euro coins carelessly deposited atop the bedroom dresser. Though my U.S. bank is happy to exchange paper euros for dollars, it refuses to accept the €0.87 in loose change I brought back.
With foresight I could have gotten rid of the coins at Athens airport. I might have bought a bottle of water, gummy bears, breath mints, an Acropolis Now! refrigerator magnet—anything really, even if it meant saying, “Keep the change.”
Sadly, the waiting area by the gate had only vending machines, and each item cost more than all my change put together. I’d already been warned by an earnest security guard that I’d have to repeat an intensive body search if I chose to leave the area and return. So, visiting the airport shops seemed too much of a hassle.
Euro coins burning holes in my pocket are a phenomenon I’ve experienced before. These coins encounter rejection whenever I return from Europe. Two years ago, it was a trip to Italy. Each time I transfer the alien metal to a sock drawer. All told, I’m now able to go on an archeological dig through the drawer and uncover clumps of coinage amidst expired passports, unused airline earplugs and still-sealed eye masks. What a waste.
My unwanted coin collection can attest to the fact that the 19 member states of the European Union (EU) have vexed me with eight-euro coin denominations: 1 cent, 2 cents, 5 cents, 10 cents, 20 cents, 50 cents, 1 euro and 2 euros. There’s probably a child’s nursery rhyme in there somewhere, but I’m not having it.
As an American citizen on home turf, one way to make sense of all that foreign metal is to have it melted down. But a paperweight I do not need. (My souvenir pumice stones from Santorini are enough.) Instead, I offer this modest proposal to those planning on going abroad and to the airlines who bring them home: secured coin spittoons at every gate. That’s right, locked boxes with slots through which tourists can drop their remaining non-U.S. change for charity. Afterall, seconds after walking the ramp, reverse alchemy renders the hard, shiny euros in our pockets worthless. So, why not snatch that money just in time from oblivion and give it to those less fortunate who can use it?
For Greece alone, there are these stats to consider: According to the Bank of Greece, 1,097,400 travelers from the U.S. arrived in 2018. Assuming they each boarded return flights with 87-cents in their pockets (a conservative figure, I’d bet), that’s 954,738 euros or about $1,085,747 that went poof! Compound that amount with the greater value that could be recovered from Americans boarding return flights in 18 other EU countries and you’re looking at an enormous amount of annual loot that could be used for doing good. Each country’s government or a worthy international organization like UNICEF should decide how to deploy these windfalls.
Placing containers for coins at every boarding gate in the EU where planes are headed to non-EU countries like America is a painless way for charity to begin away from home.
A frequent traveler, Michael Antonoff is a writer who lives in Forest Hills, NY.