Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Italian Coin Craze

Remember the coin craze in the US when the Fed started minting special state quarters and only 4 new ones came out each year? There was a mad rush on every bank and endless phone calls for customers desperate to get their newly-minted quarters, desperate to snatch up a roll or two while they were still spankin' new, to fill that lonely CA or TX whole in their coin collection.  I worked in a bank for one of those years and dreaded every time a new quarter was released.

Fortunately, the Italian coin craze is not like that.  There is no mad dash over the euro, no coin collecting, and no urgent bank runs.  And therein lies the real problem: not only no rushing the bank, Italians don't ever (or...very rarely) go to the bank.  Not merely average citizens, but the shops, supermarkets, restaurants, etc, just never go to the bank.  They rely on their customers to have exact change or make change in such a way that they give you the least amount of change. The idea of requiring change from a vendor is seen as an insult of the highest kind, one only perpetrated by tourists.

Let me give you an example.  Just yesterday I was in the supermarket, a large grocery store chain called Billa.  It is always crowded and must have a thousand customers a day.  The kids and I went at 9am to avoid the hoards of crazed Italians staunchly marking out there territory before the deli, in the aisle, and waiting to check out.  You would think that -- this early in the morning -- making change would not be a problem (they open at 8am).  But shops do not make a morning run to the bank to get the change they might require for the day, like they do in the US.  My total rang up to 20.49 euro.  I handed her a twenty and then felt the need to apologize when I also handed her a five.  From experience, I knew this apology was necessary to avoid being shunned.  After all, I was asking that she give me two two-euro coins and a fifty-cent coin and a penny.  That's a lot of change isn't it?  How dare I not carry exact change?!  She looked at the five as if she didn't quite know what to do with it.  She pondered a minute looking at my shopping cart, then she spoke her brilliant scheme.  "You have a cart.  When you return it, bring me the euro." And she returned my five-euro bill and gave me fifty cents instead, expecting me to bring her the euro when I finished returning my cart.  To get a shopping cart, you put a one euro coin in as a deposit.  When you return it, you get the euro back. 

Other times, Matt has tried to buy bus tickets from a tabaccheria and been refused because he didn't have the right change.  He only wanted two, so it should cost 2 euro.  But, as no one else gives change either, he only had a ten.  This would entail giving him a five-euro bill, a two-euro coin, and a one-euro coin.  Outrageous!  Once it was around 9:30AM, and they asked if he would wait for them to grab change at the bank because they had none in their registers.  He just decided to buy enough tickets to prevent that waste of time.  (Once he had to come all the way back from a pizzeria because he only had a twenty-euro bill for a twelve-euro purchase! He needed to come back and grab enough coins... But he would have had to wait for the pizza to bake anyway, I guess.)

Routinely, Italians round up or down by up to 10 cents so that they can give you nothing smaller than a ten-cent piece.  Pennies are forgiven if they ever come up.  I'm not quite sure why they even exist.  And most prices are usually on the euro itself.  1 euro, 2 euro, etc.  The idea of .99, .85, etc is simply anathema to them, as it well should be. Who ever thought of doing things that way, anyway? And tax is already included, so, the listed price is the price you'll pay.  That's convenient.

But, here in Italy, have the right change, or you will be the utmost inconvenience and have scorn heaped upon your head.

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