Change Merchants

What is it with Italians and change? No, this is not a philosophical or political discussion. What I am talking about is change, as in coins.

Change Bancomat Atm Italy
Mural: Bancomat” by Franco Folini, edited and licensed under CC BY 2.0

What is it with Italians and change?

What is it with Italians and change? No, this is not a philosophical or political discussion, at least not yet. What I am talking about is change, as in coins, as in le monete, like when you go to the market and buy something, using cash. Yes, I said it, cash, il contante.

To be fair, it is a small merchant thing, not necessarily an Italian thing. But just as you can talk about bread or cheese in an Italian context, you can talk also about change, making change, offering change, exact change, when buying something at the market.

In the United States, I never use cash. Never. I never have bills let alone coins in my pocket. Ever. And I have carried this habit with me when I go abroad, much to my trouble and embarrassment. I once arrived at the airport in Baghdad, Iraq, fully expecting to use my card to pay for the visa entry, which was in a sum equal to $80 or so. Not a chance. Not possible. Fortunately a German man who was attending the same conference had enough cash on him — US dollars, not euros — to pay for both of us. We then took the same van into town together and at one point he had the vague fear that we were going to be kidnapped and held for ransom. My cash hero held a great deal of integrity for me, so I too was a bit scared. It turned out the driver was just lost, and once we arrived at the hotel, I ran to the cash exchange office, used my card to buy some US currency, and gave him $100. Too much, he said, holding his lit cigarette perfectly vertical in his right hand, just a few inches from his eye. You can buy me a beer sometime, I said, still shaking.

No, in the US, it is card always for me, ATM, Bancomat. Groceries? Swipe. A pair of shoes? Swipe. Gasoline? Swipe. Coffee? Swipe. Never cash. Never. Ever.

So when I am in Italy, this is not possible. Usually. Cash is king here, or at least common, which might seem to be a contradiction, but is not. And I am always wary of being caught without cash, and especially without small bills and coins. If I were in the US, I would think nothing of throwing down a $20 bill to pay for an item that cost, say, $4.07, in the make believe scenario in which I actually pay in cash, that is. But in Italy, I am always a bit nervous doing so, especially if I am in a small store, in a small town or out in the countryside. I just know that the cashier or merchant will ask if I have change, or anything smaller, and quite often I will have to say no. At least it used to be that way. Now, I always make sure to have plenty of small bills and coins on me at all times. But it is not easy. Every merchant wants as much of your change as he or she can possibly get. And all it takes is two or three such transactions before you are cleaned out of everything except your 20s and 50s, which the Bancomats love to give you.

One time, I was in such a situation and wanted to get an espresso. I had only 50s in my pocket, since I had just gone to the Bancomat, I knew I could not walk into a bar and plunk down a 50 for a one euro espresso, so I got the brilliant idea of going to the bank to get change. What a good guy, I thought, as I waited, and waited… and waited in line, on a hot summer day, in somewhere a bit fancy, I think, like Siena. Finally, I made it to the bank clerk.

Vorrei cambiare una cinquanta, se possibile, I said, not expecting any trouble, thinking in fact that I was being too polite, if anything. They were a bank, why wouldn’t they be able to give me change?

Lei è un cliente nostro? the bank teller asked.

What? I said, typically reverting to English when the conversation goes off script.

Are you a customer of the bank, she said, using those Italian vowels that still take me by surprise.

No, I said, bilingually, I’m just a tourist.

Then I am afraid I cannot give you change, she said.

You’re kidding, I said, inside my head, noticing all of a sudden the guard with the machine gun just a few feet away from me.

The look of panic on my face must have touched her somehow, because she changed her mind after a few beats, and slid over two 20s and a 10, but only after a really complicated set of maneuvers, involving her holding the bill up to the light and examining it, giving it a good snap or two between her fingers, running it through some machine that emitted a series of whirs and grinds, and then unlocking and relocking a series of drawers below her from which she extracted… my change.

Needless to say, I was mortified, and I slunk out of the bank, damp with perspiration and humiliation. Talking to an Italian friend later, he mumbled something about liberalization that was supposed to affect also pharmacies, but I never quite understood what it was all about. Some industries are heavily regulated, apparently, and this nice clerk was merely following the rules.

So what was I supposed to do? The Bancomats give me only 50s, or at best a 20. The banks cannot break them for me, or do so only with great difficulty. Every merchant wants all the small bills and coins I can possibly give them, so that I come as close as possible to giving them the exact amount required. Every time they have to go to their own purse or wallet to make change for my cumbersome 20s, I die a little inside, inching that much closer to my grave. Being a creature of card in my natural environment, I have lost the ability to do simple arithmetic, especially using coins that, no matter my exposure to and familiarity with, remain strange and unknown. I, like many tourists — foreigners, strangers, drifters, call us what you will — have resorted to digging into my pocket and then holding my hand, palm flat and open, to allow the cashier to do the math for me. I have noticed that they use some special formula, some rare alchemy, that allows them to find the required change even when I know, in my naive innumeracy, that the correct change does not exist, is not present among the glistening coins arrayed upon my sweaty palm. I have given up trying to figure out what they did, what magic just happened. I just put what is left in my pocket and try not to think about it.

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