April 7, 2008

Expat embarrassments

One of the disconcerting things about living away from your home country for a long time is that you start to forget things that it never occurred to you to put any effort into remembering. For instance, a while ago someone (an American) asked me the name of a popular New Zealand beer. He'd drunk it in Australia but couldn't remember what it was called. Unfortunately, neither could I. To add to my shame, he remembered the name before I did. It was Steinlager -- which is a very forgettable beer, but that's hardly the point.

I had a similarly alarming moment this week when reading a New Yorker story by David Owen on the costly anachronism that is the American penny. Towards the end of the piece, when Owen is marshaling his arguments for abolishing the penny and possibly even the nickel, he writes:

"In 2006, in an initiative called Change for the Better, New Zealand eliminated its five-cent coins, and dramatically reduced the size and weight of its ten-, twenty-, and fifty-cent coins... This total transformation of the country’s currency was received with calm pragmatism by most New Zealanders—even though the lowest-denomination coin in the new system, the redesigned ten-cent piece, is worth about eight American cents at the current rate of exchange."

The last time I was in New Zealand was early 2006, and I had no idea about any of this.