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16 Jun 17

Welcome to Mostar, a Town of Many Currencies

Sven Milekic

Forget ATMs and exchange bureaus. In this southern Bosnian town, the locals will happily change your money themselves.

Cafe bar in Mostar centre. Photo: BIRN/Sven MIlekic

The southern Bosnian town of Mostar showed me that I don’t need exchange offices or overpriced ATMs to help me in my “hour of need”.

In all my years of taking business trips I’ve learnt to pack quickly, research my route if going by car in a matter of minutes, setting off on my trips at midday, dawn or dusk, googling where exactly I am going to. Without a care in the world, one would say.

What I’ve also learnt from those trips is that I almost always either forget something, or convince myself I actually don’t need it.

This sub-conscious defence mechanism, rationalising my own irrational or careless moves, is quite strong.

My Achilles’ Heel is money - possibly one reason I don’t have much. But, seriously, I often forget to exchange the money in the currency of the country I am visiting in advance, relying on exchange offices in the country I am visiting, or on ATMs or on using debit cards.

I started this silly habit back in my student days. When my high-school friends and I were coming back to Zagreb from a New Year celebration in Prague in 2004, we got stuck in Vienna for half a day with hundreds of Czech crowns.

Looking for an exchange office in Vienna on Sunday was, of course, mission impossible, but a Croatian girl from the bus felt sorry for us and lent us the money.

Fast forward to 2011 and my business trip to Kozara, in northwest Bosnia. I went there without any Bosnian marks and only Croatian kuna. The result, as in Vienna: no exchange offices and definitely no ATMs. For a day and a half I sponged off people for coffee, promising to return the cash as soon as I got my hands on the first ATM.

A trip to a conference in Budapest in 2016: again a colossal currency omission. Somehow, I forgot that the Hungarians use forints instead of euros [which I was quite sure of, thinking that they had joined the euro zone].

The joke was on me even more since I always ridiculed the high currency exchange ratio between forints and euros. I went to an ATM, grabbing my last money, once I emptied it to confidently buy euros in an exchange office in Zagreb.

This is when we come to my most recent business trip, to the southern Bosnian town of Mostar, on the river Neretva, which flows down towards the Adriatic Sea.

I went there in a sort of hurry and didn’t go to an exchange office in Zagreb. I took only kunas and my debit card.

I got to Mostar after 7pm and, after checking-in my room, was in the Old Town by around 8pm. I searched for an exchange office, not finding any, until I found a tourist bureau – which exchanges money – some 30 metres from the Old Bridge. I got to the door and, just my luck, a note said: “Be right back”.

OK, I said, I’ll stroll around for ten minutes and come back. I came back in ten minutes, but still no one there, while the bureau closes at 9pm. I told myself: “OK, there must be another exchange office nearby,” and I’ll return here some 10 or 15 minutes before closing.

I walked about the central pedestrian area, looking for an exchange office, finding only one, which, as you probably already guessed, had closed.

I said: “To hell with it” and found the nearest ATM, from the same bank in which I have an account.

I pushed in the card and opted to take 20 marks, about 10 euros’ worth, when the ATM warned me that if I took the money it would charge me eight marks - four euros - for the transaction.

Maybe I am cheap, but I hate giving away money to banks like that, so I decided to look for an exchange office once more.

When I didn’t find any I rushed back to the tourist office by the Bridge and got there 15 minutes before closing time.

Seeing that the bureau staffer had come back from his break, I felt in heaven. Confidently, I said: “I want to exchange money”, to which he replied: “Well, sir, you’re a bit late.”

“How do you mean late? It’s still your working hours!” I answered in disbelief, to which he responded: “Well, it’s not that, sir, but the systems for exchanging money do not work in any of the exchange offices in town after 6pm.”

“So, you’re telling me that I can’t find a working exchange office in Mostar at this hour?”

“That’s exactly what I am saying,” he replied.

Of course, feeling starving by this point, I decided to throw in the towel, and pulled out the money from the ATM, despite the financial - and symbolic - loss.

The next morning, doing some fieldwork in the western part of the town, inhabited mostly by Croats, I decided to look for an exchange office, but again ran into trouble.

Now in desperate need of a coffee and free wi-fi, I found a bar that a colleague suggested to me, eager to spend my last marks there. As the waiter was bringing me the coffee, I asked where I could find an exchange office.

“Exchange office? Well that’s tough here … What do you need an exchange office anyway?” he asked.

“Well, I need to exchange some money,” I replied, feeling I had made myself understood.

“Well, what have you got?” he asked, asking me for the currency.

“Kunas,” I replied.

“How much do you want to exchange?” he asked again, while I replied that I wanted 200 kunas exchanged.

“I’ll exchange you that,” he said, taking my 200 kunas and returning in seconds with marks.

The waiter confirmed that it wasn’t a favour; everyone does the same. He explained that more or less everyone in Mostar will take marks, euros and kunas alike.

“Do we take kunas? Of course we do. Euros? All the same to us,” another waiter in a pancake bar, less than a kilometre down the street from the first bar, said.

He also explained that kunas are especially handy during summer, when everyone who can afford it heads for the Croatian coast – whose nearest beaches are only some 60 kilometres away.

People in Mostar live a lot from booming tourism and especially from tourists from their first neighbour, Croatia. Therefore, convenience meets pragmatism.

All over town, basically everywhere, people will accept all three currencies – marks, euros and kunas.

I even managed to buy a set of Turkish coffee cups partially in marks and partially in kunas, spending my last marks.

For the first time I felt like I did the right thing by nonchalantly setting off on a journey with only kunas.

And, for the first time, I didn’t pay for my sins, either - apart from those eight marks I lost on cashing out on that damned ATM.

Talk about it!

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