I’ve always been a traveller. I grew up in Canada, moved to the UK, lived in a ruined farmhouse in France and a villa in Italy, researched my travel books in places as diverse as Burma and Florida, then spent happy months writing them in Greece and Morocco.
I’ve also always had Scottish blood pumping through my veins so I keep a look-out for bargains whenever I’m on the road. Prices for everyday goods can vary enormously between countries due to currency fluctuation, local taxation and other factors. As a result I try to buy my mustard in France, my computers in the States, my specs in Singapore and my pork pies in the UK.
Since we moved to Germany sterling has collapsed, which has wrecked havoc on the plans of many Brits who had planned to holiday in France or retire to Spain. It has also played merry Hell with the finances of Euroland residents whose income is in pounds. For example our living costs – meaning rent, food and all those U-Bahn rides for our eight-year-old son Maus -- now cost 25% more in sterling terms than they did two years ago.
As regular readers will have noted, I champion individual responsibility. I cherish the right to make my own decisions, and willingly accept the consequences of my actions. So last weekend – impelled by Scottish frugality – I decided to do my best to reduce our household bills.
I had to fly London for the weekend to teach a couple of travel writing workshops. On Sunday morning before the last class, I did a huge grocery shop. I bought everything from toothpaste to granola, cheddar cheese to jeans, a job lot of pork pies for Maus plus a gorgeous lamb leg for Mrs. Cat. Of course one can buy lamb in Germany but it’s not as popular as it is in the UK, where we used to eat it once every two or three weeks. Here it’s seen as a specialty meat so it’s expensive – at least double the UK price. Consequently, we haven’t had lamb korma, lamb tagine or even lamb chops in far too many months.
At the supermarket I packed my booty into a huge suitcase brought for the purpose and headed off to teach the class. At the end of the day as I was leaving for Heathrow my co-tutor -- who often flies to Ireland – asked me why I had such a big, heavy bag for a weekend visit. I told her about my frugal wheeze.
‘You do know,’ she responded, ‘that importing raw meat into another EU country is illegal?’
‘If I’m stopped, I’ll just hand over the lamb,’ I replied, with devil-may-care bravado.
‘That won’t help you. And you’ll have to pay a €4000 fine.’
This was not welcome news. I may not have wanted to deny Mrs. Cat her lamb but I certainly didn’t fancy paying a fine which would fatally undermined my career as a cross-border bargain hunter. What to do, I asked myself, as the Underground carried me towards Heathrow?
An hour later I caught my flight back to Berlin. Had I thrown away the lamb or given it to a grateful stewardess? Or was I about to risk prison? Would I knowingly break the law? Not me; no sir, no no no. So what happened? Let’s just say this Sunday Mrs Cat, Maus and I will be enjoying a succulent, rosemary-and-garlic-spiked roast leg with all the trimmings.
As for the family budget, it’s in an even more shocking state – but at least I’m not poorer by €4,000.