Italians are obsessed with change.
First, let me explain that Italians use the Euro, which comes in bills and coins. There are 1 and 2 Euro coins, then 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, and 500 Euro bills. Less than 1 Euro is called cents and it comes in 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, and 50.
This weekend, I had an exchange with a cashier in a grocery, which is very typical of my experiences in Rome.
My friend Laura and I went to check out this new Eco-Center in Rome which has a natural foods grocery, café, and restaurant. (Let me just say that if you are picturing an Italian version of Whole Foods, scratch it, think more neighborhood health food store with better design sense). We looked around the Eco-Center, had a coffee, and picked up a few groceries. My bill was 7.07 (7 Euros and 7 cents). I handed the cashier a 20 Euro bill and having learned over the last 5 weeks that Italians prefer change, I had even gone to the trouble of digging 7 cents out of my purse.
I started loading my groceries in my bag when I was interrupted by the cashier who said to me “Do you have 2 Euros?” I looked at the register thinking I had misunderstood the total of the bill. I must have looked confused so he repeated the question, a little louder this time, “Do you have 2 Euros?” I stood staring at him trying to calculate in my head why he would want 2 Euros. Then, he smiled, nodded his head as though he’d figured out the problem and said to me (in English this time) “Ah, you don’t speak Italian.”
I responded (a bit defensively) in Italian, “I speak Italian, why?” hoping we could work this out in Italian and I would not have to look like a clueless American in front of the now sizable line of customers that was forming behind me. Ignoring my claim to speak Italian, the cashier proceeded in English and said “do you have 2 Euros?” I could see I wasn’t going to win this one so I dug a two Euro coin out of my purse, handed it to him and he gave me a 5 Euro bill and a 10 Euro bill in change.
In Rome (I can’t speak for the rest of Italy), when you go to the grocery, the pharmacy, the bread store, the place that sells shampoo, soap, lotion, etc, and you go to pay for your purchases, there is a complex money exchange that ensues. It’s not simply that if your total is 8.31, they want 31 cents in addition to your 10 Euro bill, they also want a 2 Euro coin and a 1 Euro coin, HOWEVER, they will take two 2 Euro coins and then give you 1 back. If you are not used to this type of exchange, you can easily get confused and loose track of how much you have surrendered.
I asked my friend Laura why Italians are obsessed with change and she explained that
in the 60s and 70s when the Italian Lira was being used there was actually not enough currency in circulation. Often times if you went to a bar to have a coffee and tried to pay for your 1000 Lira coffee with a 2000 Lira note, they did not have change, so the cashier would give you either candy or a hand written voucher for the amount. Laura has a friend who lived in Italy during this period and explains that when she ran out of cash, she would simply go to her regular bar for coffee and pay for it with candy that she had accumulated from the ‘change’ for her transactions.
Even though today Italians use the Euro which is produced by the European Union and there is more than enough in circulation, old habits seem to be dying hard and when you pay for purchases, the cashiers seem to be trying to supplement the change in their drawers with what is in your wallet.
However, in order to do this, Italian cashiers have, through necessity become math whizzes because what your total reads on the register and the transaction that ensues are rarely the same. While American cashiers always seem to need to look at their register to make the correct change, Italian cashiers open their registers and begin a complex math problem that looks a bit like: If Mary has 12 Euros, and she gives 2.40 to Jimmy and 3.20 to Kathy, and then gets another 5 Euros from her little brother . . .
In fact, there are times when you will be in line at a store and the cashier will have run out of change. (This is not the result of a change shortage in Italy but the result of banks that keep cryptic hours that only the bank staff know about.) Someone tries to pay their a 6 Euro bill with a 20 Euro and the cashier begins calling down the line of patrons in her queue asking if they have a 5 Euro bill or a 10 Euro bill. Everyone without complaining begins emptying their pockets and passing forward their bills and the cashier is thus able to make change.
As if this were not a bizarre enough exchange to watch, what then follows is for someone like me who can barely add without the aid of a calculator, miraculous. When the others step forward to check out, the cashier remembers what each customer has donated to the change collection and simply subtracts that amount from their bill. This is all done in the cashier’s head. Though sheer mathematical ability developed under the fire of a change shortage crisis, either real or simply perceived, the cashier is able to calculate and keep in her memory everyone’s bill.
So, when you come to Italy, be sure and bring lots of change and, perhaps even more useful, a calculator.