The euro was coming!

Spain_20cent_2001We’re living through historic times. Of course, we’re always in the midst of history, but the pandemic reminds us that this time it’s big — and not what we would have chosen.

I lived through a much happier big event almost nineteen years ago. The European Union was switching to the euro. At the time, I was living in Spain, and we were all excited. Rarely do average citizens get to participate directly in such a grand moment as the introduction of a new international currency involving fourteen European countries.

In late December of 2001, I got my first euros, a “starter kit” bag of shiny new coins purchased at a bank with Spanish pesetas, about 12 euros’ worth. I took them home and admired them with a friend: some copper-colored, some gold-colored, and some silver and gold bi-metal. They depicted King Juan Carlos II, Cervantes, and the Cathedral of Santiago.

At an exchange rate of 166.386 pesetas per 1 euro, the math stumped us a little, but lots of businesses were handing out cards with conversion tables. We were going to need the help.

On January 1, 2002, we would begin to use this new, strange money.

No more would we use the peseta, which had served Spain for 133 years. No more peseta prizes would be offered in the El Gordo lottery, held every December 22. At the lottery drawing, the winning numbers and prizes are always sung, and in 2001, the audience began to sing along — singing goodbye to the peseta.

Euro-ready or not, nine days later, midnight struck! People lined up at ATMs on their way to New Year’s parties to withdraw the new cash. The Madrid subway system discovered that its ticket machines were not quite euro-ready and didn’t work with the new currency, so people got to ride free until that was fixed the next day.

Officially, the euro had existed as a non-physical currency starting January 1, 1999, so we’d had a long time to get ready. Despite all the preparations, on January 1 a waiter in France got confused and accepted a 5-denomination Monopoly bill as a 5€ bill: both are grayish, the same size, and have big 5s on them.

In Spain, we officially had until February 28 to shift over to the new currency, but it took only a few days. By law, we could pay in pesetas and get our change in euros, and that’s how we did it: people would buy a 100-peseta cup of coffee with a 10,000 peseta bill.

We all had to do a lot of math with the 166.386 exchange rate. For a long time I saw befuddled elderly people in stores helplessly holding out a handful of euro bills and coins to check-out clerks, who would pick out the right amount. The euro had cents, like dollars, and my husband had to teach our landlord how to write a check with decimals. I knew that the copper coins would tarnish soon like US pennies, but Spaniards were dismayed when they saw the pretty coins turn brown.

Yet even before the euro began circulating, problems had begun to surface. To avoid paying taxes on under-the-table earnings, many Spaniards kept significant savings in cash — suitcases full of bills. How could they exchange those for euros without paying taxes? They couldn’t, so they began spending the pesetas. One December 2001 advertisement for diamonds simply showed jewelry and the tagline: “Honey, the euro is coming and I don’t have a thing to wear.”

More problems with the euro eventually followed, especially after the financial crisis of 2008, a historic event that no one enjoyed living through. I prefer to remember those fun days eighteen years ago when we had bright new money in our purses and the knowledge that one day we would tell children, “I remember when I held my first euro coin.…”

Some day, I hope to bore children with the story of the excitement of getting my Covid-19 vaccination. Meanwhile, we’re all in a historic moment, and we can influence the outcome, at least a little. “Honey, the coronavirus is coming…”

Review: “This Is How You Lose the Time War”

This Is How You Lose the Time WarThis Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This story of desperation is told in exhilarating prose. Two agents — enemies fighting in a war to the death across space and time — begin to leave each other letters, and their correspondence grows to matter more to each other than the war. The result is a gem of literary science fiction.

This short novel won a basketful of awards, but the best words about it may have been said by the authors, Max Gladstone and Amal el-Mohtar, in their Hugo Award acceptance speech.

Max: To travel in time you have to understand time. There’s no one history of the world — every telling leaves things and people out. But everything that happens, has happened.

Amal: We’re taught history as if it’s a letter written from the past and addressed to us, but if that’s true it’s a letter from a sybil or a spy, allusive, full of hidden meanings and secret writing. The work of a lifetime is learning to read between its lines — and then, learning to reply.

View all my reviews

“La libertad” quote in this website’s banner

Cervantes quote LibertadYou’ll notice this website’s banner displays some words painted in red on a stone wall. The quote comes from the novel Don Quixote. I took the photo during a visit to Salamanca, Spain, in 2008. (I used to live in Spain.)

It says:
“LA LIBERTAD, SANCHO, ES VNO DE LOS MÁS PRECIOSOS DONES QVE A LOS HOMBRES DIERON LOS CIELOS. CON ELLA NO PVEDEN IGVALARSE LOS TESOROS QVE ENCIERRA LA TIERRA NI EL MAR ENCVBRE”
DON QVIJOTE DE LA MANCHA, II, CAP. 58

[“Freedom, Sancho, is one of the most precious gifts that the heavens give to men. It cannot be equaled by the treasures buried in the earth nor covered by the sea.” Don Quixote de la Mancha, Part II, Ch. 58]

Don Quixote utters those words soon after he and his squire, Sancho, manage to politely flee the castle of a duke and duchess who had welcomed them as guests and then amused themselves by playing cruel tricks on them.

Salamanca has been a university town since the 1200s, and since the 1300s, students who receive a doctorate degree paint a symbol called a Victor on a wall of one of the buildings to celebrate. The paint is bull-blood red because Spain has a thing about bulls. Inscriptions in the style of the Victor symbol are also sometimes put up by the city for commemorations.

The full text of this commemoration reads:
SS. MM. LOS REYES ACOMPAÑADOS POR LOS JEFES DE ESTADO Y DE GOBIERNO IBEROAMERICANOS, DESCVBRIERON ESTA PLACA CON MOTIVO DE LA XV CVMBRE IBEROAMERICANA
IV CENTENARIO DE LA PVBLICACION DE “EL QVIJOTE”
EL AYVNTAMIENTO DE LA CIVDAD. 14 DE OCTVBRE DE 2005

[Their Royal Majesties, accompanied by Iberomerican heads of state and government, revealed this plaque on the occasion of the 15th Iberoamerican Summit.
400th anniversary of the publication of “Don Quixote”
The municipal government of the city. October 14, 2005]

That is, the King and Queen of Spain were part of a ceremony to inaugurate the wall-quote as a festive moment during a big international meeting. The city government created the plaque.

Cervantes may have studied at Salamanca University and lived in the city, and he located a number of his works there. While serving in the Spanish military, he was captured in battle by Ottoman corsairs in 1575 and held as a prisoner for almost five years, so he personally knew the value of the precious gift of freedom.

My votes for the 2019 Hugo Best Novelette Award

Hugo_Logo_1_200pxHugo Award winners will be announced on Saturday at CoNZealand, the 78th World Science Fiction Convention, being held virtually from New Zealand. The ceremony will begin at 11 a.m. NZST, 6 p.m. CDT Friday Chicago time, so I’ll be able to watch live. George R.R. Martin will be toastmaster, along with some special guests.

I’ve read all novelettes, which are stories between 7,500 and 17,500 words, and here are my votes. (My votes for the short stories are here.) Overall, the stories cover a fair spectrum of current science fiction and fantasy, and if you never read in the genre, this is as good an introduction as any. You may find some of the stories move you in a different way than they moved me. (SFF Book Reviews offers some divergent opinions.)

6. “The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye” by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny Magazine, July-August 2019)
A mystery writer finds a man dead, apparently in an accident, and eventually learns the truth. While the story is complex and creepy, it never develops much tension, and, for my tastes, it’s resolved too easily.

5. “For He Can Creep” by Siobhan Carroll (Tor.com, 10 July 2019)
A cat battles Satan for the soul of a poet. Light and stylish, this is perfect for cat lovers and preserves the place for humor in the genre, which is hard to do and, in my opinion, never done often enough.

4. “Away With the Wolves” by Sarah Gailey (Uncanny Magazine: Disabled People Destroy Fantasy Special Issue, September/October 2019)
Can a werewolf story be sweet and gentle? Yes. And in my opinion, there’s always a need for sweet and gentle stories in the genre.

3. “The Archronology of Love”, by Caroline M. Yoachim (Lightspeed, April 2019)
Everyone in a colony on a distant planet died while investigating strange alien technology, and researchers have come to find out why. Some of the dead were loved ones. In a way, the story is one long, slow goodbye — or rather, the search for a way to say goodbye.

2. Emergency Skin, by N.K. Jemisin (Forward Collection, Amazon)
Bitter anger propels this story as the protagonist discovers a lack of beauty and truth, and the means to recover it. Wonderfully told, but for my tastes, didactic — still, the underlying premise rings true.

1. “Omphalos”, by Ted Chiang (Exhalation, Borzoi/Alfred A. Knopf; Picador)
What if Creationism were true? That is, what if God created the universe 8912 years ago? We could still learn a lot from archeology and other scientific studies. But what if we learned something we didn’t want to believe? The story carefully questions that premise, but I’m a little disappointed by the ending, a conclusion that many people in our own universe have already reached.

My votes in the Hugo Award Best Short Story category

CoNZealandI’ll be attending CoNZealand, the 78th World Science Fiction Convention, which will be held virtually for the first time — because 2020 is an unprecedented year. The convention will run from July 29 to August 2, and the Hugo Awards will be presented on August 1.

As a member of CoNZealand, I get to vote on the awards. I’ve read all the short stories, and here are my votes. (The Hugos uses ranked voting.) They’re all good stories, well worth reading, and my ranking is a bit arbitrary because I had to choose, and my opinions are a bit harsh because I needed to be judgmental to choose. Your opinions may vary from mine and still be correct.

6. “As the Last I May Know” by S.L. Huang (Tor.com, 23 October 2019)
An emotionally riven tale about a war-winning weapon that can only be used at a great price. It almost feels like a vivid fable rather than a remotely probable story, although it leaves the reader with a lot of questions and doubt — and doubt is the point of the price of the weapon.

5. “And Now His Lordship Is Laughing” by Shiv Ramdas (Strange Horizons, 9 September 2019)
This classic-style horror story involves a dollmaker in India during British occupation — so classic that the ending can be guessed less than halfway through. Righteous anger undergirds the narration, but the conventional plot weakens it.

4. “A Catalog of Storms” by Fran Wilde (Uncanny Magazine, January/February 2019)
As storms become sentient, a small town’s children fight back. The writing evokes a timeless dreamlike quality and creates sharp characters: pathos abounds. The point of view character is a child, however, which traps us in a limited horizon that is both claustrophobic and kind of a cheat, since the larger picture can go unexplained.

3. “Do Not Look Back, My Lion” by Alix E. Harrow (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, January 2019)
A husband must send her wife off to war one more time, and she just can’t bear to do it again. This is another story that questions war, and it also questions and subverts gender roles, and it rent my heart. I wouldn’t be surprised if it wins the Hugo.

2. “Blood Is Another Word for Hunger” by Rivers Solomon (Tor.com, 24 July 2019)
The enslaved people in this story want freedom more than they want revenge, but even magic can’t fulfill every wish. A haunting story that could also deservedly win the Hugo.

1. “Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island” by Nibedita Sen (Nightmare Magazine, May 2019)
This was my choice for the Nebula Award (it didn’t win), and I’m still wowed by the story. In 1891, something tragic happened, and we’re still living with the consequences. This very short story, told in an unconventional style, smacks the reader upside the head with nuance, ambiguity, and pitiless social criticism. Its densely packed details make it hard to read and irresistible to re-read: very much a story of our moment, and I mean that as high praise.