As I was leaving the bank yesterday, having barely managed to get what I had come for, I thought to myself, money is a strange thing in France (at least from the perspective of someone who didn't grow up here). And I mean that in several ways, but getting it and spending it especially.
So, first, a quick primer: euros come in every denomination you'd expect, and then some. There are coins in the denominations of 1-, 2-, 5-, 10-, 20- and 50-centimes, or cents. There are also 1€ and 2€ coins. Finally, there are bills in the denominations of 5€, 10€, 20€, 50€ (and although I've never seen them in real life), 100€, 200€ and 500€.
That all seems normal, but here's where things start to go awry: when you go to the ATM and get out 50 or more (which you might do most times you go to the ATM for reasons that will become apparent later in this post) you pretty much always get a 50€ bill for at least 50 euros of that. This might make you think that it's easy to break a 50 here. And that's where you would be soooooooorely mistaken.
David Sedaris says it much better in When you are Engulfed in Flames, so I'm not even going to try to be clever here, but basically, you're kind of expected to give exact change and use only small bills and coins. Merchants routinely ask you to use change, "Vous n'avez pas de monnaie?" ("you don't have any change?"), instead of what would seem to be a perfectly reasonable bill, like the last time we rented a car and I wanted to pay for the 17€ insurance using a 20€ note.
Where you're supposed to get these small bills and coins when the ATM routinely gives you 50s is not clear.
And it's not as easy as just using a carte bleu or debit/credit card instead of your large bill. A surprising number (again, I mean surprising to me) of merchants don't take cards. I find this so odd because France has been using the carte à puce or "smart card", since the early 90s and while I haven't been able to verify this, I think France has been using those portable card readers (like you now sometimes see in US restaurants) since then too. But, you frequently need to use cash so you make your large ATM withdrawls, and then you think of ways you can break that 50 ...
Or, there's what's behind door #3: you can write a personal check.
Yes, checks are widely accepted -- almost everywhere you can use cash. Even restaurants (and I'm not talking about ticket restaurant or chèque restaurant, which are a whole different thing) will accept a check from your checkbook.
But even le chèque is not foolproof. For several weeks this fall, I ran paid subjects in an ERP experiment and I am finishing up a second study (the reason I went to the bank yesterday). Basically the way it works is that my supervisor writes me a check and in a roundabout way, I pay subjects with this money.
Roundabout? Yes. For several reasons.
First, you can't cash a check in France, unless you're at your bank and you've written the check. (This is actually probably a good idea because the bank can verify how much money is in your checking account.) So, you can deposit the check that your supervisor gives you and then write a check for cash. Unless you didn't bring your checkbook with you because you were planning on cashing your supervisor's check. In that case, you have to go back to the bank the next day.
But it may not work then either.
There are two branches of my bank in Aix. One of them is open from 9h-12h15 and 13h35 - 18h, the other from 8h45 - 12h30 and 14h - 18h. Despite these opening hours, one has teller service only from 9h - 12h15, and the other one has teller service during its morning opening hours and until 16h45 in the afternoon. Of course these pieces of info are not posted, so when you arrive at 16h55, more than an hour before closing time, that's when you learn that you're out of luck. But, the nice person at the reception tells you that when the teller windows are open, you can get any denominations (coins or bills) that you want. Not that this helps you all that much when you have a subject at 9h the next morning and need to be at the hospital before the bank opens to set up the experiment.
So you go back the next day, after your subject, with your checkbook, during teller hours, ready to get your money. And they're out of it. Or at least they only have one 5€-note. Yes, just one 5€-note. That's it. Not only that, but they were only willing to part with ten euros worth of coins, in a 2€, 1€ and centimes combo.
In some ways it's not bad, it's an excuse to buy a chocolat so you can get some change, and undoubtedly, sipping that chocolat will help you think of creative ways of breaking those 20s you had to get so that you can end up with some combination that totals 15€.
Silly me, it looks like I sold the bear's pelt before I had killed it (like that? it's the French equivalent of counting your chickens...). I thought I had all my subjects. And then we realized that we really did have two groups of learners ... and that meant getting more subjects to round out the groups. So yesterday, arriving at the bank only minutes after it had opened, I managed to get only three of the six 5€ bills I wanted. It's ok though, it's the weekend and we're in the middle of a cold snap. A chocolat will taste really good tomorrow.