Heard in any gelateria: “Are you sure you don’t have a one euro coin?”
In Italy, you never know when you are really going to need small bills and coins, so you hoard them. It’s part of becoming Italian.
“What’s the deal with change in Italy?” ask my touring clients after a day or two in the country. At the gelateria, the newsstand, the post office, museum, and not last nor least, the coffee bar, the customer is quizzed about the possibility of spiccioli (coins), so that no resto (change) is necessary. The person at the cash register is willing to wait until you go through all of your pockets and the bottom of your purse in search of 20 centesimi (cents) or a one euro coin.
Coinage seems to be a rare commodity in almost any shop, eatery, or even the government-run entities in Italy. You may be denied the opportunity to buy a newspaper or a bottle of water if you pull out a 50 euro bill. Even a five euro bill will be met with a frown if you are purchasing an 80 centesimi espresso.
“Mi dispiace, non ho spiccioli” (“I’m sorry I don’t have any coins.”) has become one of my favorite phrases in Italian. After 15 years, I sometimes say it just to spite Italian cashiers, even if I have a pocket full of change.
Italian vending machines frequently don’t give change, despite the fact that there is a coin return slot. Be prepared for a loss if you really need that Coke or candy bar.
The problem seems to stem from the Italians’ dislike of dealing with their banks. Understandable. No one, absolutely no one, wants to deal with the bureaucratic hassles and time suck of the Italian bank, least of all the small business person. A visit to the bank only invites the headache of poor service and a paper trail, two things sought to be avoided by most Italians. But this still doesn’t answer why there is such a hassle regarding change when you are buying stamps or tickets from money mills like the post office or the Uffizi Gallery.
In the 1970s, Italy literally ran out of coins. Banks issued what were called “mini-assegni” or “mini-checks” that took the place of change. These mini-checks looked like monopoly money to replace the small denomination coins that were in short supply. It was not until 1978 that the Italian government produced coins in large enough quantities to meet consumer demand.
Even the priest of two tiny churches in the center of Florence goes to the Jewish-owned grocery store in the neighborhood with his sacks of donation coins to get the amount converted into large denomination bills. It’s a win-win — there is no paper trail for the priest and the store gets a replenished supply of small coins. And neither has to enter the encapsulated security door of the local bank.
Allora: Don’t ask why, just carry change.