Fair Exchange is No Robbery by Ronald Mackay
An old maxim says: ‘fair exchange is no robbery’. While proverbs sound wise by making bold assertions, we can often poke holes in them.
Just think: ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder’. That so? What about that time we went to summer camp and returned to find our best friend had captured the affections of our sweetheart? Or: ‘All good things come to him who waits’. Oh yeah? Do we get an A grade by hanging about or by working hard? Then there’s: ‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away’. Really? So, famers with orchards enjoy better health than those who milk cows or grow corn?
I had reason to contemplate the veracity of ‘Fair exchange is no robbery’ one evening in 1961 at a tiny inn on the road between Burgos and Bilbao.
For several days I’d been hitch-hiking north from the port of Seville on the Guadalquivir in Andalusia. In the Spain of yesteryear, cars were few and far between and tended to be travelling only between this village and the next. Long-distance trucks were the hitch-hiker’s salvation.
That evening, a bulk tanker-truck had stopped for me.
“We’re transporting wine from Ciudad Real to Bilbao,” the taller driver told me.
“In one long haul,” boasted the shorter.
I’d hit the jackpot! On Franco’s primitive Spanish roads, that meant close to a 24-hour drive with pit-stops. I could sit in comfort in the cab all evening, sleep all night, and be dropped off in Bilbao early next morning. I climbed aboard!
The drivers turned out to be entertaining, happy-go-lucky fellows delighted to be out on the road, happy to be away from home. They were overjoyed to discover that I spoke Spanish. I’d just spent a year working in the banana plantations in Tenerife. Now I was heading back home to Scotland brim-full of travellers’ tales.
My surplus of stories contrasted sharply with my lack of money. So, when they stopped for an evening meal at an inn much too expensive for my meagre budget, I opted to sit outside and feast on the aromas.
“Noo! You must eat! You have many days of travel ahead of you to reach Sweden!” said the taller of the two. For Spaniards, the geography of Europe was a mystery.
“I’m not hungry,” I lied.
“Hombre, your stomach’s been rumbling louder than a diesel engine,” said the shorter of the two. “Come! Eat!”
“Our invitation,” said the taller. And so, I was persuaded.
It was perhaps 8 o’clock, still early for Spain where dinner begins around 10 p.m. Though the dining room was tastefully decorated and the tables laid with shining silver and crisp linen napkins, there were no diners at this hour. The innkeeper was surprised to have early guests. He was also a little taken-aback, though he disguised it well, to see two carefree truck drivers and a kilted Scot, stride into his hostelry demanding the menu.
When the confident truckers ordered three portions of roasted goat, roast potatoes, a plate of salad and loaves of bread, his jaw dropped. I’d often dined with the truckers who gave me lifts but it was invariably in small restaurants that served bowls of steaming lentils or perhaps plates of rice topped with fried eggs.
Before we’d wiped our plates clean, the innkeeper placed the bill on the table. He deliberately took up a position between us and the door.
The shorter driver smiled and leaned back in his chair. “We have no money!”
“Not a single peseta!” added his taller partner.
I froze and avoided the innkeeper’s eyes.
“You can’t pay?” The innkeeper exploded. “You stride into my inn, order my best dishes and then tell me you won’t pay?”
Both truckers continued to smile.
“Who said we can’t pay?” said the shorter.
“Did we say we won’t pay?” asked the taller?
The inn-keeper scratched his head. “You want me to call the Guardia Civil?”
I’d had some experience of the Beneméritos, as they were called, and prayed that these rifle and machine gun-toting para-militaries, would not be summoned.
“We said,” repeated the shorter driver, “that we have no money.”
“However, we fully intend to pay for that delicious meal, and to pay in full,” said the taller driver.
“Our truck is outside.”
“We’re on our way from Ciudad Real to Bilbao.”
The inn-keeper was catching on. “Ciudad Real? Wine country!”
“Exactly,” said the shorter.
“Thirty thousand litres of quality vino tinto,” added the taller.
“I’ll fetch my empty demijohns,” said the innkeeper.
“We have a syphon,” offered the short driver.
“You can make up the difference?” asked the tall driver.
“These Basques can’t tell the difference!”
And so, for the next half hour, the drivers stood atop the tank siphoning quality wine into one demijohn after another. The innkeeper hustled them down into his cellar and swapped them for vinegar.
When the transfer was done and the tank-caps screwed down tight again, all three looked satisfied.
The inn-keeper pumped the hand of each driver. “Fair exchange is no robbery!” He announced the maxim as a moral truth.
“Fair exchange is no robbery!” chorused the two rascals.
Silently, I wondered. Is an exchange fair if the object transferred belongs not to the bestower, but to an oblivious third party? I still hadn’t found the answer as I nodded off to sleep.
That’s why today, when I hear a credible proverb slip effortlessly off someone’s lips, I stop to wonder if it expresses a universal truth or if it might be, on reflection, just a tiny little bit misleading.