Whenever I buy something in France, I often find myself in that uncomfortable position of never quite having the exact change; which isn’t understandable or acceptable to a lot of cashiers I’ve crossed.
Just the other day I rang up a bottle of sparkling water and bag of cachous, to the tune of 3 Euros and 67 cents. “Do you have change sir?” my cashier asked me in all seriousness.
“Ah, no sorry, I don’t have 67 cents,” I laughed thinking her request was a bit excessive. But she didn’t laugh back. Instead, she wrinkled her brow gazing at her cash register. “Are you sure?” she asked, looking down at my coat pockets.
“Well, I guess I could check,” I exhaled, a bit annoyed, thinking I’d embarrass her, which I couldn’t, eventually producing what I did have. 15 cents.
“That’s not going to help,” She said.
Eventually, I was handed the change from a 5 euro bill with no thank you, no goodbye, just a “next time I won’t be so forgiving” look of au revoir.
And this happens a lot. So much so, I’ve become obsessed with exact change. When I don’t have it, it makes me feel irresponsible and sloppy, even gluttonous, and when I do have it; when I do have those 57, 58, 59 cents Yes!! I feel the universe is aligned in my favor, and my destiny is in my grasp.
But those times are rare. Mostly, I’m fumbling around in those pockets of mine, my gloves falling by the side, my phone slipping out of my vest as the line and the world painfully waits.
To make it easier, my wife recently bought me one of those wallets with a porte-monnaie attached on the side, you know one of those emasculating accessories no man will ever buy for himself, but finds out he terribly needs afterwards – kind of like a rolling grocery caddy.
I’ve also decided to take the initiative of announcing to the cashier my problem in advance, just so they can’t say I didn’t warn them. “I need you to know before I ask for that baguette, that I don’t have exact change. I’m sorry. I have ten Euros, not a euro ten. It won’t happen again.”
Cashiers appreciate this immensely, not because you’re making the effort, but because they know they can publicly humiliate you afterwards. It’s they who will then take their time digging around the cash register to find your exact change, the whole 8 Euros and 95 cents of it. And it’s they who’ll be sure to give it back all in one euro pieces or 50 centime pieces even, just so you’ll leave the boulangerie with your pockets stuffed, sloshing forward like a cowboy in spurs, looking like a human slot machine.
In the US, we don’t have these prickly situations, probably because the culture of consumerism depends so much on transactions going off quickly for the proprietor and painlessly for the customer. Often in supermarkets now, the change will shoot down some slide as if it were at some theme park, in sync of course with your bags getting packed quickly by the cashier’s assistant. All that’s left to do is smile and wave. Smile and wave.
In France, I’ve found the experience quite different. It starts with my lack of exact change problem of course, then quickly snowballs into the predatory person behind me impatiently moving their stuff onto the roller, mixing it up with mine. By the time I pay and receive my change with the bills and the coins and the receipt all handed to me together like some large snowball I have to then quickly stuff in my pocket, the opportunist behind me has already moved in front, bagging what looks to be my stuff! Of course, it’s then I’ll realize that shopping bags are extra, which would require me to dig back into my pocket to find the exact change needed to buy bags. “What else can I do?” I plead to the cashier desperately. “Get a caddy,” the person taking my stuff says.
In a way, the current economic crisis, shows us how we’ve evolved from the “count every penny” generation (that of my grandparents, those who lived during the Great Depression) into the generation of credit card swipes, Pay Pal, and automatic debits, all of which have made the process of buying something quicker and easier, while at the same time atrophying our value of money. I won’t even get into the “non-clingy” transaction free services like Uber, which I’m assuming is just free.
Maybe the cashier is right. It’s bizarre that I don’t know how much money I have in my pocket, and it says a lot that I don’t even care to look. And deep down the fact that I don’t want to take out my money, put it on the counter and count it out centime by centime, (that I’m somehow above all that) has less to do with me being in a rush and more about me not wanting to look like I care. And that’s scary – when a sign of being well off is giving the impression you don’t know how much money you have?
But it’s this very reasoning both on a micro and macroeconomic level that’s gotten us in the predicament we’re in. Except for cashiers, it seems nobody wants to bother with counting the change.
During the bank bail out in 2009, President Obama insisted on growing the American deficit by over a trillion dollars, (ultimately to be paid for by American taxpayers) to provide TARP fund relief to the ailing banks that “were too big to fail.” Unfortunately, the exact cost to each taxpayer was never really brought up, and nobody seems to be holding him to explain how much.
Likewise, President Sarkozy’s new “grand emprunt” (big loan) has been hailed by his press acolytes, as the needed flexibility to bring about a return to French economic growth, but the exact debt, the length of the loan, and the amount, which will be inherited by each French household, remains very sketchy.
It’s ironic that with all the detailed reforms and drastic measures being demanded right now by Sarkozy’s cabinet, never once do they go into detail about how much money is will exactly be saved by all these layoffs or pushing back of retirement limits. Probably because looking at very human things like jobs and careers and retirement (that are all about the details of each individual involved) through the prism of financial models and cost projections doesn’t usually come over as human or politically expedient.
And the funny thing is they’re betting we don’t care anyway. Counting each centime on the counter just doesn’t look dignified. It doesn’t look well off. It looks desperate and miserly, not the France who’s supposed to be leading Europe.
So I guess I should be glad the cashiers in France are still keeping it real, helping me and us get a grip on what we’re spending and what we have and what it’s all worth. Unfortunately, the system’s rigged for us not to care, that is until it’s too late.