‘Whatever you do, don’t change any money at the airport!’ was one of many instructions I received before my trip to Moscow in the winter of 1990. The collapse of the Berlin Wall was still a recent event, under Gorbachev, glasnost and perestroika had become well known terms – and Russia was an unknown quantity for me.
There should have been someone to meet me at the airport but they were a no show, not surprising maybe as the flight was delayed by two hours. I didn’t know which hotel I was supposed to be in. Stupidly I stuck to the rule of not changing money and decided to get a taxi to the office and hope there would be someone there who could pay.
Once we got through the blizzards to the office though there was nobody there. It turned out it was a public holiday so everybody was at home. So far, not so good i thought as the icy snow stung my face.
As I turned away, somebody arrived with a printer for one of the other offices in the block. He spoke a little English and, as luck would have it, knew which hotel my company normally put their visitors in. I trudged back to the taxi and convinced him to go to the hotel. On the way I wondered what I could do about paying. I had a rough idea of the exchange rate so maybe he would take foreign currency. By the time we got to the hotel the fare on the meter was well over my small bits of change. Needs must though and at least I was within sight of a warm place. With not a word of common language between us we tried to agree on a fare. I had £10 and six dollar bills. It wasn’t enough. Then I remembered the miniature of whisky they had given me on the plane because of the delay. I produced it triumphantly, his face lit up, the deal was done.
The whisky was worth nothing to me, I don’t even like it. But in a city where access to many goods was still very limited it was of value to my taxi driver. How often do we overlook those possible exchanges? I can offer you something that comes easily to me at very little cost to you but maybe great value to you. Or vice versa. We tend to consider things in terms of their value to ourselves. What price a friendly smile or helping someone up the station steps with their baby in a buggy? Or sharing a little knowledge around.