Among other adjustments that must be made when living in a country other than one’s own is becoming accustomed to a new currency. What I have found unique about the euro is that it is minted in coin format at much higher sums than the U.S. dollar. While the United States barely even uses the half dollar, the euro appears in one- and two-euro coins (not to mention a collection of 1, 2, 5, 10, 20 and 50 centimes.) Since the current exchange rate is approximately 1.3 dollars to the euro, a handful of coins can value as much as $7, giving “pocket change” in Europe considerable weight (both in terms of purchasing power and, well, quite literally, as abundant coins make for a heavy wallet).
As you may imagine, an American making purchases with a wallet full of euros runs the risk of underestimating how much she spends: anything that costs just a few coins can’t be too expensive, right? It’s hard to feel that one little two-euro coin (which, being the largest coin in the euro currency, might seem to correspond with the American quarter) values around $2.60, more than 10 times the value of a quarter. However, as someone who has a hard time taking the initiative to go forth and make purchases in foreign shops, I find it remarkably helpful (though some would call it dangerous) that France has combined this monetary particularity with “la boulangerie.” With bakeries in French cities as common as Starbucks in Seattle, life in France offers plenty of opportunities to buy pastry with pocket change. You can walk into any little corner boulangerie and purchase an éclair. Or perhaps a macaroon. Or a mini lemon tart. It’s a pleasant way to lighten the burden of a wallet that has been weighing down your purse and vary up your Nutella-heavy diet at the same time.
Less extravagant than pastry, but equally charming, is the option of purchasing some basic bread. It is, after all, the staple of the French diet, and walking to the boulangerie Thursday morning with three little coins tucked in my glove, I feel like a school girl carrying her milk money.
“Bonjour,” I greet the ladies in the shop when I enter.
“Bonjour,” they respond, and one puts aside the rag she uses to wipe down a display case and stations herself behind the cash register.
“Je voudrais une demie-baguette, s’il vous plaît (“I would like a half baguette, please”),” I say, secretly congratulating myself on remembering to use the formal “you” as I remove my gloves and verify that there are still three coins in my palm.
The lady wraps a square of parchment paper around the base of a half-baguette, then types the total into her cash register. “Quarante-cinq centimes,” she says.
“Quarante-cinq” I repeat aloud, stalling a moment to comprehend that this signifies 45. Then, realizing that I have 50 centimes in my hand already, I hand over my coins. The lady hands back a 5 centime piece, and I drop it into my pocket: another coin that I will have to find a use for. I depart, all the same, with a lighter wallet and a promising lunch. “Bonne journée!”