A few mornings ago, while pulling out my wallet to pay for a cappuccino, I came to the dismaying realization that I had absolutely no money left.
Of course, that’s not entirely true. In reality, there was a little wad of several fifty-Euro bills tucked between my Visa card and my bank card, the Visa having laid nearly dormant since my arrival in Rome and the bank card useless except as a means to withdraw still more fifty-Euro bills from the ATM. The problem was that any attempt to use one of those bills to buy something costing less than, say, forty Euros in total had proved to be an exercise in frustration and rejection rather than an effective commercial activity, effectively rendering the bills themselves almost worthless.
I’m not quite sure what it is that makes Italian shopkeepers react so negatively towards large bills. It’s almost as though they’re scared of reaching into a specific section of their cash registers, or worried that accepting a fifty-Euro bill now means possibly not having enough small change to give to someone else at some unspecified point later in the day. Try sliding a fifty across the counter to pay for your lunchtime panino, and you’ll find it handed right back to you along with a not-so-apologetic claim of “non è possibile!” and a request for more exact change.
And so I’ve begun to adapt: I hoard small change, which will be doled out in exchange for cornetti and bus tickets and endless shots of espresso. The twenty-Euro bills are strategically used in a way that’ll maximize the number of highly-versitile five- and ten-Euro bills returned as change, and – because very few things in day-to-day life here cost anywhere close to an amount justifying a larger bill – the fifties are continually pushed to the back of the wallet, where they’ll languish, unused, until one day…
…I reached into my wallet to pay for the cappuccino and realized that there was no more change left, no more small bills to use up. Even scrabbling around at the bottom of the purse, a dark wasteland which at times can yield truly amazing amounts of cash, barely resulted in enough coins to cover a caffè. It was inevitable – the next purchase was going to have to break a fifty.
This was where the strategic planning always came into play.
I could not hand over the fifty in the forno, where the formerly sour-faced cashier and I have formed a sort of tentative friendly bond based on the way she always laughs at how I buy the exact same thing every morning then always pay for it with a one-Euro coin; she slides the ten cents of change towards me before I’ve even had the chance to dig my wallet out of my purse – and sometimes, before I’ve even had a chance to place my order.
I couldn’t use the bill at the bar, because, well, I like their coffee and their cheerful morning banter too much to throw a wrench – or an over-valued piece of paper – into their cash register. Besides, if there’s one thing you don’t mess with, it’s the place that produces your morning dose of caffeine.
Also off-limits were the market (where any amount larger than ten Euros sets off a chain reaction of one vendor walking over to another to try to hunt down the correct change) and the grocery store (where, as far as I can tell, the only hiring criteria they rigorously adhere to is perpetual grumpiness).
In the end, as I have before, I used the fifty-Euro bill to buy a ball of mozzarella di bufala costing all of €4.50 in the tiny little cheese shop just off Campo de’ Fiori. Because at that cheese shop, there’s a lovely little old man who sits behind the cash register, carefully counting out change all day long with a big smile plastered on his face while his family handles the cheese selection and slicing activities. I suspect that he might not remember quite everything, otherwise he might not be so quick to hand me a stack of ten-Euro bills in exchange for my fifty. But whatever the reason, he’s always still smiling while the cash drawer slides shut, and I’m smiling as I saunter out of the store with my newfound purchasing power, and all is once again right in the universe – well, at least until the next trip to the ATM.