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The Pleasures and Terrors of the Cashless Country

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Iceland is an almost entirely cashless society (according to the European Payment Cards Yearbook – a real page-turner, I assure you), with more than 99 percent of private consumption on plastic. But is it a boon or a bust?

The benefits are clear when you head out on the town in Reykjavík. One card serves as your ID (replete with handsome picture and birthday) and wallet. In fact, with the dawn of credit cards with PINs you’re hard pressed to find any place that even wants as much as a signature.

Payment cards in Iceland have become the single accoutrement, along with a cell phone, that you literally don’t leave home without. Merchants have come to terms with the sitch as well, accepting plastic for everything from brand new beamers to a cup of coffee.

Sounds great, right? Well as long as you don’t leave the credit-card comfort zone of our island nation. Enter: the big, bad, real world. On a recent outing to Nova Scotia, Iceland Review photographer Palli and I were working on a story about Halifax. After collecting our Grand Prix (a fine specimen of auto engineering?) and bounding off for our hotel downtown, we neglect to withdraw any dollars (as we have no króna to cash in).

Luckily, I remember that we have departed from la-la land and entered the real world, so I tell Palli to pull off at the next stop BEFORE we made it to the toll bridge into Halifax (which would certainly have been our undoing—God only knows what punishments await toll-cheaters in Canada…certainly something involving maple syrup and a pair of Moose antlers).

There, like a gleaming sapphire in the distance, I spy Walmart and its promise of an ATM. Upon entering the store I’m tempted in indulge in my nearly forgotten American past by buying crystal light and Entertainment Weekly (we all have our weaknesses). However, with our mission at hand, I am able to restrain myself and stay the course all the way to the ATM.

While Iceland’s system of debit and credit cards with their PINs and flashy pictures may be nearly flawless when in the nation, they leave quite a bit to be desired when it comes to working in North American cash machines. Apparently, while I speak the local language in Canada, my ATM card does not.

My plan B is a trick I learned back in the old country, so I pick up a bottle of Walmart water at 98 cents but charge 20.98 dollars on my debit card to get some cash back. Despite my dubious ways and thick American brogue, the Canadian cashier deigns to let me charge over the amount, but to no avail. To her chagrin (and to the chagrin of a long line of Walmart shoppers behind me) I insist that she try again. And again. And again—explaining all along that we only need 75 cents for the toll bridge.

Whether it was my winsome Yankee smile or my Icelandic cohort’s groans of impatience, a good-natured Haligonian woman (thank you, whoever you are) finally takes pity on us, offering up what she called a “toonie.” I have no idea what it is, but accept it graciously, as one does when offered gifts in an exotic country. All I can see is that it is shiny and resembles coined currency, and inevitably proves to be enough to get us through the toll both.

While I’m grateful to cast off the oppression of the wallet and the dreadful encumbrance of pocket change, I’m more thankful that the kindness of Canadians trumps the cashlessness of Iceland. Otherwise I’d still be stuck at Walmart.

JM – [email protected]

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.