Being an American consumer again after months abroad has given me new appreciation for the almighty dollar bill.
France, as well as the majority of the European Union, utilizes the euro. Shocking, I know. However, there are some key differences with how they use the euro compared to how Americans use the dollar. This may not seem like a big deal, but trust me, it is.
First of all, the Europeans were smart enough to get rid of the one Euro note, and instead, they have coins for all the small denominations. In order of size, there’s the two and one euro coins, as well as the fifty, twenty, ten, five, two, and one cent euro coins. Save for the one and two cent coins, these are all good denominations to have as coins, in that they’re actually useful. Contrast that with the one dollar bill, which is inefficient. It has a super short lifespan due to the combination of being used so heavily and being made from paper (technically, a cotton blend, but you get my meaning). Coin versions of the one dollar, and even the two dollar, would be more efficient and cheaper in the long run, if I recall correctly (Although it is disputed...).
But wait, there’s more. The euro is sized based on its worth, thus ‘pennies’ are the smallest, while 100 euro notes are massive. This is helpful for the blind and for easily differentiating different denominations. It also helps that they all come in pretty colors. Sounds pretty useful, right? Particularly in comparison with the uniform size of the American greenback and the arbitrary sizes of our coins.
However, as I learned over my time abroad, not all is wonderful in the socialist utopia of the European Union. First of all, bills are a pain in the ass to fit into a wallet. You have to fold them up differently depending on their size and it’s always annoying trying to get them out after being folded. The only note that is similarly sized to the American dollar is the ten euro, but that red monstrosity is too rare for its own good. And god forbid you ever have a fifty in your wallet. Those things are basically elongated post-it notes.
Also, be prepared to get a money purse, like some kind of Renaissance Fair enthusiast, or utilize that tiny second front pocket in your jeans to hold all those coins. You know that pocket? The one you probably never bothered using? Well, you’ll use it all the time here, so that’s nice. Now, once you have your money in your pockets and folded into your wallet, you’ll find new troubles when you try to purchase something.
Before I get into that, it’s time for a little background on French shopping. You’ve probably heard the stereotype that French shopkeepers, wait staff, and other such folk are rude and/or unhelpful. That’s not entirely true. Instead, the French, like aliens, have different forms of social awareness. Much like how anglophones will ask anybody how they are doing, regardless of the fact that the answer will always be “Good, how are you?”, the French also have socially required, as well as useless, forms of introduction. When one enters a French store, bakery or what have you, the onus is on you to say bonjour. To whom, you may ask? To the place. If not, it’s seen as an affront and they’ll see you as uncultured swine and treat you as such.
Why? In part because, more often than not, boutiques and bakeries are family owned and are effectively an extension of a French person’s home. Not saying bonjour and being gracious is like barging into someone’s apartment unannounced. Furthermore, you may find the waitstaff or retail workers rather…standoffish. They wont follow you around, asking how you are or what you would like unasked. But, if you do ask, and at least try to in French first, they’ll be more than happy to help. I’ve had wonderful rapports with random French waiters and other service workers by doing just that. If you want something, you have to ask. You can’t just expect it in this country.
With all that being said, once you have chosen your items to purchase and have managed to get the attention of the shopkeep, the challenge of paying arises. If you pay with card, which hopefully has one of those fancy microchips, then there’s no problem. If you’re like most Americans and you don’t have one of those yet…you better pray to whatever deity you worship that they have an old-school card reader. Now, if you want or have to pay in cash, here comes the challenge. Only in France have I had difficulty paying with a twenty. Or really, any large denomination. Close or exact change is preferred above all else. Now, what happens if you pay with a twenty, or god forbid, a fifty?
First off, you’ll get a dirty look. Then, they’ll ask for something smaller, or at least, a centième. The hell is that you may ask? It literally means “hundreth”, but practically means a coin. Now, why is that exactly? Well, coins have the most utility in Europe. The one and two euro coin will get you far, precisely because they are so versatile and provide exact change more often than not. Hell, the elusive five euro bill is almost as coveted…by shopkeepers and customers alike.
Therein lies the hidden game my friends and I found. Everybody wants to get rid of their large bills and use the smaller bills, businesses and customers alike. They’re simply more useful, I suppose. When my friends and I would receive our lunch stipend, they would be composed of only fifties, and maybe a twenty, if we were lucky. That meant we had to break our fifties as quickly and as cheaply as possible if we wanted to actually spend our money. The catch was that no business really wanted to accept fifties, or even twenties in some cases. So, you’d have to either buy something big enough with that fifty that they couldn’t reasonably give you a dirty look, or, as we later figured out, go to the grocery store and buy a cheap pack of gum. Carrefour or Monoprix cashiers didn’t care, because they were corporate in nature. But, of course, Monoprix was always available, so the game continued.
The currency game may seem ridiculous and overblown, but I saw it all the time. Whether I was buying a kebab or priceless, handmade Alsatian wine glasses, that game would persist. Nobody wanted to part with their precious one or two euro coins, or their rare five euro notes. So, we learned that we’d have to get tricky to keep our euro coins. One trick was to play dumb, but that’s no fun, mainly because if you became a regular at a place, they’d wise up pretty quick that we knew French well enough to get the picture. Another method was to sacrifice fivers for a one euro purchase in order to get two precious two euro coins. Or even more trickily, if asked for a one euro coin, you could give them a comparably less useful two euro coin instead, and they’d be force to give you a euro coin back.
My father witnessed this phenomenon while he visited Strasbourg this December and was suitably dumbfounded. I, being a money-grubbing American, had quickly mastered this strange currency game and haggled constantly, much to my father’s amusement. With all of this being said, I’ve never heard a peep about this strange cultural trend from my French friends. The only people who have ‘noticed’ this weirdness are my fellow American expats. Go figure.
Lest you leave this blog post thinking the French are unique in doing this, I saw this game play out in my travels to Italy, Germany and even the Netherlands. Although, I must say that the French played this game harder than any others. As to why, I cannot tell you with any certainty. I just know that in the US, the game is unheard of.
Which brings me back to the wonderful feeling of being able to go to a store in America, small talk cordially with contractually-obligated service workers, and buy something trivial with a twenty, or dare I say it, a fifty, without blinking an eye. Say what you want about America, but in this respect, we are exceptional.