"Well. Yes....but I guess I'm always afraid of being the jerk at the front of the line whom everyone hates because she's taking up time while she fishes in her wallet for correct change," said Nina.
Ouch. And also, BINGO! Because, in a snap, just like that, I recognized one of the most fundamental differences between living in Paris and living in the U.S.
Small change. Coins.
La petite monnaie.
At first blush, it might seem like a trivial difference, but it runs deep.
For an American living in France, one gets trained in short order, by the shop-owners or whoever is working the cash register, to proffer change so they don't have to depart with their precious supply. ("Vous n'auriez pas les 12 centimes, madame?" they'll ask, when the total is 13.12 euros. And you know that you'll get better service and smiles the next time if you give them the right change.)
Do people in France even keep change jars? Does Coinstar exist in France? I think not. I never saw any. Does anyone ever go in to their local bank branch and ask (instead of for quarters), "I'd like a roll of one-euro coins, please?" The very thought gives me the shivers.
The penny dish by the cash register? Ubiquitous in the U.S., preposterous in France.
Small change, in France, is social gold. Having correct change was how I wooed Madame Tabac to be my pal. It is how I stayed on good terms with the neighborhood epicier and news seller. In the rare moments when I was out of change, I always apologized profusely and was certain to make up for my perceived transgression the next time with pocketsful of change. All shopkeepers were always thrilled to have the right coins given to them. When I didn't have my reading glasses handy, they would even willingly help me count out the correct amount if I held up a cupped handful of coins for them. The tension-relieving was palpable. My boulanger, Robert, even taught me the trick of learning the distinction among euro coins by the edge and shape.
How important is it to have correct change in Paris? Two vivid anecdotes marked me permanently.
1. After one Saturday dinner party in Paris, it being late I decided to take a taxi home. The reluctant driver picked me up -- I was his last fare of the evening -- and we drove from the Champs Elysees to my place in the 7e arrondissement. We arrived at my doorstep and I explained that all I had on me was a 50-euro bill. And you would have thought I had committed highway robbery. I got the most severe tongue-lashing, with expletives, he saying "If I had known you wanted to pay me with a 50-euro bill, I wouldn't have picked you up," and so forth. I apologized profusely, to no avail. Finally, he gave me the change for the 11-euro fare -- change which he had in abundance, it turns out. So his protest and verbal abuse were simply a matter of principle? Big jump on the cultural learning curve. (And, I might add, the only bad experience I've ever had with Paris taxi drivers, who always remain dear to my heart.)
2. At an American performance event in Paris, I was helping as a volunteer to staff the entrance with a fellow expat who had lived in Paris for decades. An American woman arrived and wanted to pay for her discounted 8-euro ticket with a 20-euro bill. We had a well-stocked cash box with lots of change. My fellow American -- American! -- unleashed a tirade. "We can't let you in unless you have the correct change -- no, no, no, that won't work at all!"
I froze. "Um, Tim," I whispered in an aside, "we actually do have enough change in the till to let her pay with a twenty." He wouldn't budge.
The poor woman was about to leave in tears, when along came another American concertgoer who had change to share with her, so we were able to broker a deal. Tim had clearly been living in France too long.
What IS it about making or not making change -- the currency of everyday living -- that makes us who we are?
General anecdote number 3: I walk. A lot. In the U.S., on my walks, I invariably come across coins on the sidewalks and street curbs. Ranging from one penny (which I'll pick up if it's heads up and not in the middle of traffic) to the high-water mark, which was a $10 bill. Average is about 15 cents per one-hour walk. In all of my walks in Paris, I never once saw abandoned change on the pavement. Not once.
Small change is king!
I realized, this weekend, that there is a vestige of the Parisian resident in me that it's not so easy to shake. I still expect the person at the cash register to be appreciative of my ability to give small change.
But -- is it chump change?
And who is the chump?