When I was about five years old, we took a family trip to France. At the time, we lived in Scotland, so a short trip to the Continent was not as exotic as it might sound. There were many memorable moments, but one that involved public amenities is worth recounting here.
In Paris, there were very few public toilets for women. While blokes could duck inside a metal urinal in the middle of the street (known as a pissoir), for ladies, the situation was different. Entering a small, tiled entrance discretely tucked out of sight, women were generally faced with a scowling toilet attendant who would demand five centimes in return for one square of toilet paper.
These toilets were the first place I’d ever seen the need to pay for a basic human amenity. And the need for mum to carry loose change (in case we were ‘caught short’) was self-evident.
The experience left a lasting impression on me and I’ve spent a lifetime ensuring that I carry sufficient loose change wherever I am. In remote areas, we carry around $50 in gold coins and $100 in notes to ensure we’re covered whenever and wherever we may need it.
But I’ve been wondering whether it’s a bit old fashioned to carry around a purse full of coins. With the advent of payWave, which now accounts for around 75 per cent of face-to-face Visa transactions in Australia, the era of the cashless society is seemingly closer than ever (see: '$110bn: Australia's contactless boom', Heffernan, Sydney Morning Herald, 8 Aug 2016). From parking, to buying a coffee, just flash a card at a machine and you’re on your way. Or are you?
You don’t have to go far outside the city before you’re likely to find yourselves rummaging around for gold. In regional areas, you'll find smaller retailers who won’t accept EFTPOS under $10, and others who won’t accept cards at all. Also, it’s worth remembering that the majority of card terminals transmit data over a telephone line or internet connection. So we shouldn’t expect to flash our cards to pay for the use of national parks and other scenic sites ‘off the grid’.
On recent trips to New South Wales and South Australia, day visitors to national parks and campers like us were required to drop an envelope of money into a pay station. Indeed, this is a common experience. And we’ve all seen instances where access to luxuries like laundries, barbecues and showers depend on our capacity to find a fistful of dollars.
It’s unlikely that amenities in remote locations will become automated any time soon, particularly at sites that still enjoy the status of internet black holes. So there are plenty of places here in Australia where having a small stash of gold coins is still a good idea.
The proof was at the idyllic beach-access we used on the South Coast recently. There, our capacity to provide four gold coins to a pair of visiting German tourists transformed their Australian experience, as it meant they could buy a day-pass and enjoy the site rather than having to drive away.
And the smile on their faces as they set off towards the sand? Priceless.