Exact Change Required

One thing that baffles me about Italy is the inability of retail establishments – or anyone who has to take cash payment – to make change. This in a society where most store purchases are made in cash! Automatic teller machines give out 50,000 and 100,000 lire notes (NB: At current exchange rates, one US dollar is worth about 2100 lire), but this isn’t a factor; no matter what size bill you’ve got or what your total is, shopkeepers somehow never have enough coins and or smaller bills, or, when they have them, they don’t want you to use up the whole supply! You pull out your “large” note, and watch the cashier’s face fall as she or he plaintively asks: “You don’t have anything else?”

Lack of change usually isn’t a disaster – if one shopkeeper can’t do it, he or she will run and get change from a neighboring shop. Or, if you’re in a shop where they know you, they’ll say: “Pay me next time.” Amounts up to 200 lire are simply shrugged off by either party. (There were 10 and 20 lire coins – made of aluminum – in circulation when I first came to Italy, but no longer.) It can get problematic, however, if you take a taxi late at night (pay a taxi by credit card? Unheard of!) or are shopping in an unfamiliar place.

I have grown so accustomed to this that I routinely count out exact change, or as close as I can get, everywhere I shop. Italian shopkeepers are always grateful, and don’t flinch at the extra math involved in figuring out the difference between what I gave them and what I owe. But this behavior causes cashiers in the US to stare at me in resentful bafflement: they rarely deal in cash at all, and some have a hard time figuring out how much change to give.

Back in Italy, just think what fun we’ll have in January, when we all have to start using euros! The transition from lire to euros is supposed to take two months, but no one seems to know yet how it will occur. If I pay in lire, do I get euros in change? If so, some fancy calculating will be involved – the lire-to-euro rate is not a nice, round number (it’s 1936.27 lire to the euro). The wheels of commerce are likely to grind very slowly for a while…

Mar 15, 2007

As I revisit this topic, six years and a new currency later, not much has changed.We now pay in euros, and there’s been a huge upsurge in the popularity of credit cards, but making change is still a problem.

Just today I stopped at a small supermarket near the office to buy a few items, for a total of 6.87 euros. I’m always happy to clear heavy coins out of my purse, so, standing there right in front of the cashier, I opened my wallet, pulled out a five-euro note, and then opened the coin flap to see if I had enough change to make up the remaining 1.87. I didn’t – I was about 40 cents short. I shrugged apologetically, put the five away, and pulled out the next-smallest bill I had, which was a twenty.

The cashier’s face fell.

“Don’t you have anything else?” she asked mournfully. “Two euros? I’ve been making change all afternoon.”

Sweetie, you’re a cashier – surely that’s part of the job description?

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