Sunday, June 21, 2009

Change Is Good (But Hard to Come By in Italy)

We're recently back from a trip to Italy, and one of the things that has not changed since our last visit is the Italian shopkeeper's unwillingness to part with his or her euro coins. There is no apparent shortage of these coins, only a deep and nationwide reluctance to give them out.

When we made small purchases, even if we paid for them with a 5€, the smallest denomination of paper note, shopkeepers would frown at the proffered bill as if it were mildly insulting. Did we did not have anything smaller, they demanded.

Ben, infinitely nicer than I, always fished in his pockets to find a 1€ or 2€ coin, as I stood beside him hissing, "Don't! We need those."

And we did need them. In Italy coins are necessary to pay for almost all parking, for public transportation, for tipping chambermaids and concierges, and, most importantly, for restaurant tips. While American waiters will usually give you your change in denominations that facilitate tipping, in Italy it wasn't at all unusual for change from our meals to consist of a single large bill, leaving us with the option of tipping ridiculously or not at all.

And so getting—and keeping—coins became my obsession. When I paid for coffee or museum entrances or bottles of water, I always pulled out the bill in advance so I wouldn't have to open my purse and reveal my mesh change pocket full of precious euros. When shopkeepers asked me if I had something smaller, I lied outright.

"I'm sorry," I'd say with a shrug, "the ATM only gave us these." I tried to look regretful, as if I had hoped that the ATM would, like a slot machine, cough up a shower of coins but instead, to my great disappointment, only gave me these lousy tens and twenties.

Our tour guide at the Borghese Villa, where we were supposed to bring exact change for our entrance fee so she could pay for us en masse, speculated that this parsimony dated from shortages in the days of the lira. There's an interesting article here on Italians' difficulty in switching to the euro in 2002 and some of the reasons for and fallout from that switch.

Whatever the reasons, by the the second week of our trip I was confiscating the change from all transactions. We used a lot of it for tips and parking on our last few days, but I nonetheless returned home with a small mountain of gold and silver. Our bank won't exchange it into dollars, but that's OK: I'm ready for our next trip.

Me at the Trevi Fountain
Me at the Trevi Fountain, assuring myself of a return visit to Rome.