Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Making Sense of Making Change

Here is a funny little quirk I notice quite often in Romania.  And quite frankly, many countries outside of America, especially France.  You go to a store- pretty much any store, but especially small stores- and you gather the items you would like to purchase, make your way to the checkout line, and proceed to pull out a bill with which to pay.  The denominations of bills here are as follows: 1, 5, 10, 50, and 100 lei.  Currently the exchange rate is 3.3 lei to the dollar, so the largest bill (in American terms) is $30.  And there is obviously a large gap between the 10 and 50 lei options.  Say my bill comes to 24 lei... I hand the checker-outter a 50 lei bill.  And invariably he or she looks at me as if I have committed a major injustice.  How dare I not have exact change?  Or not have three 10 lei bills? It is literally a (seemingly) arduous task to make change for customers.  And they will always look at you and ask if you have correct change. I am not even kidding you, I have given people a 10 when my bill is 6 and I am stared at like I am the biggest waste of space known to man. 

What I would like to say is, "I just got money out of the ATM (which isn't a term that exists here either, so I would have to come up with some other word) and your little machines only give me 100 lei bills, or 50s if I'm very lucky.  And because my bank in America doesn't exist here, not only does this necessitate withdrawing from an ATM rather than a bank (where presumably I could get these smaller bills you desire?), but it necessitates removing reasonably large quantities each time I withdraw, so as not to incur the ATM fees more than necessary.  So, I'm sorry but NO, I DO NOT HAVE A SMALLER BILL. I do however have 8 other identical 100 lei bills if you would like any of those.  Thanks."  But I can't say this because my Romanian currently consists of approximately 50 words, most of which are not verbs, and none of which are even remotely close to any of those words.  And because I would likely go into Spanish anyhow.

I have been encouraged by my fellow Americans to break large bills whenever possible- e.g., at stores like Carrefour (like SuperWalMart) or Praktiker (like Home Depot), or even the bigger grocery stores (G-Market).  Under no circumstances should I assume a taxi driver has change for a 50, considering that the majority of my rides cost under 10 lei.  In fact, if I only have 50s, when I get into a cab, I should hold it up to him and say "Scimba (Change)?" And I should not even plan to buy something for under 10 lei if I only have 100 lei bills, probably not with 50s either.  Because I might be drug out into the streets and ridiculed for being so inconsiderate.

I just don't get it. Why is it that in America the check out clerks look at you with annoyance if you take the time to make exact change, yet people here look at you with annoyance if you DON'T have exact change?  We're talking down to the coinage level, all of which are less than 25 cents.  It seems so odd to me that something so seemingly simple it could be so drastically different.  And it seems counterintuitive.  Usually Americans are the lazy ones who don't feel like making change- it should be HELPFUL to you Mr. Duane Reade man that I am helping you do your job.  And Romanians are the ones who have all the time in the world, no hurry, no pressing need to get things done quickly.  Yet you're giving me the Eastern Europe Death Stare (you'll know it well after about 15 hours living in an Eastern European nation as a foreigner) because I simply Do Not Have Change?? Wait, let me get this straight, you actually will not sell me these 5 oranges because I don't have exact change? True story, happened to one of my teammates. I wish I were kidding. That may have been in France though... In any event, I needed to comment upon this oddity, simply because I have noticed it in so many countries other than the U.S. of A., and it still does not make sense to me. I think I am going to learn all the words in my aforementioned How I Would Like to Respond paragraph just so I can be vindicated the next time it happens.  Or perhaps just laughed at. 


Emil Perhinschi said...

Try making exact change while holding up a long line in one of the supermarkets: you'll get the International Death Stare from the cashier and everybody else in the line, and cause a lot of people gain negative karma :-)

If you have trouble with the smaller shops, I suppose you buy your groceries either early in the morning or right after the shift change (5 or 6 PM): at every shift change the money get sent to the bank. I advise to try to look apologetic and confused when presenting the clerks with a high denomination bill: they might give change from their own pocket, or even leave you alone in the shop and go out to a friendly neighbor and break the bill for you.

SecretAgentCale said...

We went to Thailand over Christmas and the same thing happens there. No Death Stares, since it is the Land Of Smiles, but they can't make change. Like in Romania, the highest Thai bill (1,000 baht) is roughly $30. And of course, at the airport money exchange, you will only receive 1,000s. Then you try to buy anything and the shop keeper does not have change. In this case it is hard to blame the person at the shop, though. Everything is so cheap, it's like buying a 98 cent candy bar and paying with a $50.

In Korea the largest bill is 10,000 won- not quite $10, so we don't have that problem here.

cwatts said...

People in Eastern Europe are used to hoarding change- and I would advise you do the same. If you have a cell phone that you have to buy phone cards for, or buy anything at a place that sells phones, electronics, DVDs, phone cards, they should be able to make change because the cost of these items is usually higher. It's not that the cashier's hate you or don't want to give you change, it's more the chronic shortage of small bills- they often simply can't make change and be able to do business for the rest of the day. Welcome to culture shock! Let me know how long after you return to the US you still hoard the change. I still, habitually, will pay with the largest bill I have if I'm paying cash and always have tons of coins that I keep in a jar at home- because that's where everyone keeps their money.

As for ATM- in Russia it's called bankomat- so I would look up the word for bank and try that.

Liz Spangler said...

Wow! Thanks for all the comments everyone! And lengthy ones, too. Even from a resident Iasian. Just so it's clear, it was more of an observation than a complaint. More amusing than annoying. Ok, a little annoying. But I lived in NYC, so my skin is thick enough for the International Death Stare. But I will try out some of your tips for increased amusement and "large"-bill-breaking fun.

Becky said...

You haven't mentioned the phenomena where if your change is less that 1 leu, you just don't get it! Or, conversely, if you owe them, say, 2 lei 10 bani, they will often let you off the 10 bani if you don't have it. In the past, before they knocked 4 zeros off the currency, there were coins that were worth a tiny fraction of a cent in circulation. Often, instead of change, you would get a sweet, a piece of gum or a few matches. This still happens sometimes, but not so much!