Can you break a fifty?

When buying something in a shop with cash, the French love it when you can pay in such a way so as to get the fewest coins or bills back in change. As far as their favorite things go, it’s right up there with brown paper packages tied up with string.


If you buy some croissants at the bakery and it comes to 3.30 euros, and you pull out a five euro note, they will always ask if you have some coins so they can give you back the simplest change possible. I recently went to a museum where two tickets cost sixteen euros; I handed the man a twenty and sure enough, he asked if I had a one euro coin so he could give me a five back instead of a couple of two euro coins. Because a single fiver is obviously much simpler than two pesky coins. I did, and he was clearly happier for it.

In America, whenever I buy something that costs $12.45 (for example) and I give them a twenty and a couple of quarters, the cashier is sure to give me that stupefied, are-you-from-another-planet-and-what-in-the-world-am-I-supposed-to-do-with-these-quarters look. Especially if they’ve already punched twenty bucks into their till before noticing the quarters. They see those coins, they see the readout on their screen, and I can see their internal processor seizing up: their eyes widen and get a little glassy, their mouth hangs open slightly, and their whole body gets utterly still as all their energy is directed toward unraveling the insoluble conundrum before them. The screen says I’m supposed to give him $7.55 back, but he says he wants eight dollars and a nickel! What do I do? Is he trying to rip me off? Help!

This will never happen in France.

Along with their love of exact—or at least easy-to-make—change, the French are loath to break big bills. Oh sure, it can be done, and some places give you no trouble. I once saw a woman make a purchase of less than ten euros with a 500 euro note! But that was at a big grocery store with lots of cash flowing through. More often I’ve been stuck with only a fifty in my wallet (thanks to the ATM near my apartment that hates giving out twenties) and I’m buying lunch at some small, cash-only place. I hand the waiter the fat fifty for a meal that costs twelve euros and he gives me this look like I’ve just become the most difficult problem of his day. One time the waiter actually had to walk down the street to make change. To the bank? No. To another restaurant? Got me. But I had plenty of time to speculate before he finally returned shaking his head with a crumpled wad of notes and the few coins it took to make my exceedingly difficult change.

This is why I hoard coins and small bills and get excited when I can break that fifty at a place that won’t give me grief. And that’s just fine. Soon enough we’ll be back in the land where counting back change is an art that died long, long ago. And where the croissants aren’t nearly as good.


2 thoughts on “Can you break a fifty?

  1. Very funny. The fruit guy near your metro once made me wait with his fruit while he ran down the stairs around the block to make change for me. He was gone a long time and was shaking his head but still smiling. After that experience I learned the value of small bills for such purchases.


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