One of the things that you need to have when shopping for food in France is a big, sturdy shopping basket. You also need to have a bit of patience because the lines can be long, and lines in Paris are like airplane restrooms; when it’s your turn, everyone behind you disappears and suddenly, you seem to have all the time in the world. But more important in Paris than having a big pannier, and an even bigger bladder (because few markets have a place to, uh, “go”), is that you also need to have plenty of change.

France and America have a curious relationship. Each is fascinated with each other and have a camaraderie that’s built on admiration, a little of frustration, and a soupçon of envy. For every American that rattles on about “free health care” (no matter that it’s not free, it’s paid for by – or from – a percentage of your earnings) there is a French person exclaiming how much they would love to live in New York City because of l’energie.

(No matter that if you walked right into someone as if they weren’t there, as happens in Paris, they’d certainly get a real “New York Experience” from a real New Yorker.)

The 2008 presidential election in America was very closely watched by the French. Like almost every other country and culture, during the previous eight years, they’d felt not only distanced from their the United States, but the French were the brunt of some particularly silly political posturing. I remember trying to explain “Freedom fries” to other students in my French class, and they just stared at me with their jaws agape. It was really a test of my comprehension of French, but also my comprehension of English, as my English-speaking friends didn’t seem to understand it either. (Okay, neither did I.)

So the French took a particular interest in Barack Obama whose campaign slogan frequently mentioned “change.” And during that time, when French people would ask me who I was voting for, then would give me a big thumb’s up when they’d carefully pronounce Obama’s name, syllable-by-syllable, and say, “Yes. We. Can.” in English to me, with a distinct French accent. There was even a cookbook called “Yes We Cook”, with the title written in English, filled with American recipes – in French.


So last year, when François Hollande was elected to public office, his slogan was “Le Changement est Maintentant” with a font remarkably similar to the one used by the Obama campaign. I guess if it worked in America, they figured it should work in France. And it did.

For a culture that’s notoriously resistant to change, I found it odd that he was using that slogan to win voters. When I asked folks what “change” he was talking about, the answer was always the same: that he wasn’t the previous president. When I would persist, and follow up with, “Great. And what else?” Then after a few more tries, punctuated with awkward, stilted silences, when I pressed further, they would return to saying that he was just about change for, you know, some things. But no one could tell me precisely what the changes were going to be aside from being a change from the previous guy.

barackobama francoishollande

Change may have been in the air during our last election, but it’s certainly not in the stores and at the market vendors, where change is always in short supply. I’ve had cashiers with full trays of money insist they didn’t have any change, before slamming it shut. At a Monoprix store, I needed change to use their photo machine for an official document photo* and not one of the three cashiers would give me a two €5 notes for my €10, which the machine didn’t accept (either.) I had to wait in line for the magically special cashier (with the longest line, of course) that had the unique ability to give change. But she must not have been an Obama – or Hollande – supporter, because she refused changement as well.

So I went downstairs to their supermarket and bought a few things, assuming I could enact change. But alas, I didn’t calculate correctly and when I didn’t get a €5 note back, with a curt “C’est pas possible!” she slammed her drawer shut when I pointed out a wad of 5s and asked as politely as possible if I could perhaps have two of them in exchange for my €10. But lest anything thinks the French don’t have a good sense of humor, the guy behind me had a huge laugh about it with me. Although it didn’t seem to make her any happier. (But then again, she probably had a good chuckle with her co-workers about it in the staff break room.)

Some banks in Paris even go so far as to post notes on their doors that they don’t have any change. It’s always in English, because the locals know better. Lately I was talking to some visitors that had changed dollars for euros before they came to France, arriving with stacks of €100 notes. And in one extreme case, a friend flashed a €500 note, telling me that she would just go get change at a bank. Considering another visiting friend (whose wife is French, who has an account at a bank here) went into their bank and they refused to change a €100 for him, I told her that her only option to was go to Hermès and buy a fancy scarf. She refused to believe me, but I am pretty sure the next time I see her, she will have a fashionably attired neck – and a slightly lighter wallet.

(Perhaps those large bills are a government-endorsed program to get people to spend more money on their trips? Who says the French aren’t good entrepreneurs?)

One reason that getting change is difficult is that people like to take money, but don’t like giving it back. Taking is great. Giving back? Not so much… And it’s also more work to have to dig through the drawer and count out money rather than sit there and make people rifle through their pants to fish out that lone centime buried in the lint at the bottom of their pocket.

No change

I am the hero at my local butcher shop. Not because I buy so much beef, but because I once went it with a pocketful of coins, which I was happy to trade-off with the cashier, a transaction which took probably ten minutes, but made her day. And mine, thrilled that I had gotten rid of all those coins that were weighing me down. (Well, until I realized how precious all those little coins were. And getting rid of them made me feel like a chump further down the line after realizing I’d handed up such valuable currency.)

Our current president is having a little trouble getting change around here as well, and his poll numbers show it. Am not sure how he is going to steer the country out of the current crise, but I feel for the man, I really do, because I have felt the pain of being unable to accept change. Actually, I’ll accept it. But from now on, I’m holding on to it.

*In France, official document photographs must conform to several things. Of course, they have to be a very specific size. But second in importance is that you are also not allowed to smile, and if you have any sort of grin or sign of happiness, they will get rejected and you’ll have to go back and get more pictures taken. In a departure from showing people what a happy-go-lucky guy I am, I used one of my “official” pictures as an icon on Twitter for a while and people were so severely traumatized that they wrote to tell me that it “scared them.” Even Ruth Reichl told to please remove my picture because it frightened her, too.

dml official photo


  • Dear David, please continue to say what you like about anything. Best regards N

  • One thing that wasn’t mentioned is that while in France recently I was given change with a torn 10 euro bill. The pastry shop would NOT take it nor would other stores! “Go to a bank” but the “bank” didn’t seem to deal with money at all. We donated it to the free museum — hopefully they have a way to get it accepted. Check your bills and refuse any that aren’t perfect. Those people have never seen U. S. paper currency.

  • Dear David

    I admire your blog.

    I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every recipe of yours that I have made. Potato Leek Soup, Moist Chocolate Beet Cake, Coconut Macaroons, Apricot Rosemary Squares and Whole Lemon Bars are frequent favorites in my house. You’ve allowed me to impress many a dinner guest and co-worker. I think of you as my e-brother, so great is my affection for you.

    Having said that…

    Dude…that passport picture of you is UPSETTING and UNSETTLING. I would not have thought it possible for you, to so completely remove the brightness, curiosity and kindness that radiates from you. And maybe that’s the point. Perhaps the purpose for these no smile, look inhuman passport regs is so that when one commits a heinous act, Media&Law Enforcement will be able to plaster a picture of a culprit that “looks the part”.

    Prior to this post had a news outlet reported “Today, David Lebovitz, an American living in Paris, savagely attacked a person on the street all the while muttering something about change”. I’d have said there’s no way sweet little Baker David would do that, but now….Passport David looks capable of all manner of evil.

    Thanks for sharing your story and I admire your courage for posting a photo that inevitably would lead to smartasses giving you sh*t. Hey, what’s a self-proclaimed e-sister for, if not unsolicited, undeserved, necessary mocking responses. :)

    P.S. I type this as I nibble on a whole lemon-lemon bar.
    2 years ago I came to your blog for the first time and discovered your lemon bar recipe. I made these bad boys the same day. This was after I spent days online looking over lemon bar recipes trying to determine who had the right of it. I didn’t even bother trying to make the other ones I printed because your recipe is PERFECTION, as is my execution of it. *pats self on back*

    P.P.S. When I make those Ina Garten Ginger cookies that you linked to on your Nonfat Ginger Cookie post, I found that adding an extra egg, and a little extra molasses and oil to Ina’s recipe make for a super soft almost light brownie like texture cookie, that is CRAZY good. It’s my fave cookie now.

    A mention of politics does not a political post make. Do try and learn the difference.

    @ChristineJasper & @Sheila:
    A little less viewing of Faux News may benefit you greatly. As with EVERY politician there’s enough things you can legitimately criticize without making stuff up.

  • Try changing a 500 euro note at a bank… 40 minutes, able to be done on Thursdays between 10h-10.30h when the vault is opened…..
    ps, so much for “identity photos”, that’s not you

    • I remember that at my bank, when I deposited cash, they made me give it to them in a sealed envelope and they would put it in a slot, where it would go who-knows-where. One day I asked the teller – “Don’t you want to see the money to verify the amount?” And was told that the bank didn’t want the tellers handling money, perhaps because they didn’t trust them (?!) So they just had to take my word for it. I always thought that was kind of odd, but recently they changed that and now they have a “counting machine” they put it in, which probably leaves a record for the bank so there’s no funny business with the money.

  • Paris is not France. Out here in the sticks, we’ve never had a problem with change (of the monetary variety — other kinds of change are a very different matter). I do always apologise in advance if I have to pay for something costing less than 10 euros with a 50-euro note, but invariably get a smile and a “No problem!” Admittedly cashiers are always delighted when my husband empties out his pocket change and counts it out for them down to the last centime :)

  • Official photos in Ireland are just as bad. I always say my passport photo reflects how most people feel after going through security anyway…

  • This post made me laugh! I just returned last night from 11 days in Paris. A couple nights ago, walking on a narrow sidewalk near the Odeon, 3 women who I believe we’re French were walking in a group right towards me. I was on the wall side. They looked right at me and we collided, but it wasn’t me who went careening off like a pinball. Next time they’ll think twice before walking into a Louisiana girl who is wearing loafers and not heels.

    And your photo! I wondered why the airline desk guy’s photo looked like a prison mug shot. I got a pic of my husband looking like that on the metro after a local made outraged noises because we forced him to pick up his bag from a seat on a crowded train. We laughed like loons.

    Everyone was mainly so friendly to us though. We enjoyed our time tremendously and we concluded that we’d be scowling too if we had to deal with cold weather and daily rain like we just experienced.

  • I have to admit that the most difficult picture to take for documents in Italy was the one for my US passport. I had to go to several photographers to find one who would take one in the standard US size and then I had to proceed to check I was wearing my glasses just so, that I was wearing the right earrings and no hair accessories. I had to look into the camera, not smile and turn however many degrees from the camera. The bqckground also had to be a specific color. Not easy, with me translating all the steps to the photographer. I will go on to admit the last time I renewed my child’s photo for their Italian passport there were quite a few rules too. When I made a joke about it with the police officer, I was curtly informed that the rules had changed for new passports valid to travel to the US without visa, according to new US antiterrorism regulation.

  • I just got my first French passport & national ID using the serial killeuse photos from my local Photomaton. I tried in vain to do invisible smiles (think positive!, miniscule curve of lips!) but they all just made me look deranged.

    When I left the file at the prefecture I said how bad the photo was, & the lady said, “oh, I’ve seen much worse!” I’ll continue to cherish my US passport even if the photo is bad because at least I look happy.

    Everyone here blames the US for the bad photos, saying it is “due to American restrictions, American facial recognition rules,” etc… Funny how things get lost in translation.

  • Has anyone ever noticed how much Obama’s ‘Change’ brand resembles ‘Chanel’s’ branding?

  • Since moving to Grenoble from NYC 2 years ago, I often forget these little differences… It is true that I check my wallet carefully before going grocery shopping here! People are generally friendly here though, not like the Parisians, so I don’t get such cold reactions. If I apologize/am polite they usually ‘magically’ find the change I need.. I try to only use 50’s for purchases over 20 though. At Monoprix I don’t have a problem getting change; it’s usually at smaller establishments like boucheries or the market where it’s an issue.

    I’ve gotten the ‘hummm, you’re smiling in your photo’ at the prefecture, but they’ve let it pass. Apparently I am smiling here all the time, even when making a serious face!

  • We just returned to the US after our first trip to Paris. We quickly learned that using exact change is preferred almost everywhere. After a few days of stumbling through it, we discovered the change machine in La Poste. It was so helpful! A trip to the ATM, a trip to La Poste for change, and then a trip to the market.

  • We have learned which ATMs give useful bills (10s and 20s), and which ones only give 50s (when you withdraw 200 or 300 euros), because it is really a pain to be stuck with 50s. The large supermarkets are generally cool with 50s, but small shopkeepers are not. And one particular patisserie and the newstand next door to it really like to have exact change. Don’t know why, but the culture is different.

    Oh, and if you try to deposit too much cash into your French bank account, and are not someone known to the bank to be running a business that deals in cash (e.g., street veggie vendor), the French bank is obligated to turn you in to the Fisc for investigation of potential tax issues.

  • Oh, David that looks like a ‘mug shot’. Are you sure that pics not from some wild weekend gone bad. :)

  • In 2008 we were traveling in Barcelona for awhile prior to a cruise. Our daughter was studying in Paris and flew down to join us. We drove up into Southern France because I wanted to see the Millau Viaduct and Carcassonne.
    We had a lovely dinner in Carcassonne and when they brought l’addition, my husband started emptying his pockets of all the loose change we had since we were boarding the ship the next day. Our daughter asked her Father what he was doing and he replied that he was going to use the change to pay the bill. (I am laughing to myself as I write this, we still laugh over it! ) she said “But Dad, they won’t take it. It’s not money.” His response was “What are you talking about? Of course it’s money. Perfectly good money”. He proceeded to count and gave the young woman who had served us a huge pile of coins, all the while arguing with our daughter. When we left the manager was at the door in a heated discussion with our waiter. We had no idea what they were saying but after our daughter bolted outside she told us the gist of the conversation. It went some something like this. Him: “what is this? What am I supposed to do with this?” Her: ” I don’t know. That’s what they gave me. What was I supposed to say?
    So I understand your post about change perfectly. We still laugh over it.
    Love your blog.

  • It’s not that they don’t have change, it’s just that the CBA to give it to you. Last time I was in France I only had an €20 note for a purchase of €5 or so, and the checkout girl said “Haven’t you anything smaller?” and I had to say, “I’m afraid not!” Whereupon she made change quite happily.

    But it occurs to me that this is why I always apologise in my local (UK) supermarkets if I only have a £20 note and I’m buying something under £5! Habits learnt in young adulthood (I lived in Paris between 1971 and 1975) die hard!

  • Veronica, I’m going with you that Paris is not France. We were in Toulouse for a year and had the same experience in that we never had a problem with not having the exact change.

  • When I showed my friend my Photomaton photo (I look like I just killed someone and am about to kill someone else), she laughed so hard for so long that I had to shield it from her eyes, and every time she has seen it since, she has cracked up again. Sigh…

  • I love that picture because that is how I would feel after having waded through all the bureaucracy of getting the “proper” photo taken or even dealing with douane officers to track a lost suitcase or any of the related travel bother. You look so…French! ;)

  • I’ve had the same problem with change in France and Italy. I find that if you start eating whatever it is you’re purchasing, they are eventually forced to take your bill! I usually only do that as last resort because it is rather obnoxious, but it helps in a pinch! But what I don’t understand is how locals never seem to have the same problem… Where do they get all the small change??

  • I worked as a cashier in Germany for a while and was trained to similarly obsessed with not giving out change as the French appear to be. Maybe I can shed some light on the reasons for this strange behavior.

    The directive to always ask people for change came from the management. The simple reason is that change costs businesses money. Stores have to specially order change from the private companies that transport their money and change delivered to you by the money transport company costs more than the value of the change. Giving out more change is more expensive and the less of the pre-rolled money rolls a cashier needs, the better this is. This is actually also the reason debit cards and credit cards are often not accepted in Europe: businesses do not want to pay the (pretty hefty) transaction fees to the card companies.

    I learned some key lessons about change working as a cashier:

    1) You run out of change surprisingly fast if you don’t aggresively ask people for change.

    2) Most customers DO actually have appropriate change or something approaching appropriate change if you ask them and let them look in their wallets.

    3) €5 notes are the holy grail of effective change-getting. If something cost €6 and someone handed me a €10 note, I always asked for €1 extra (they hand me €11, I give out €5 and do not have to give out two €2 coins). They are thus similar in value is as the coins.

    I definitely became a better change-giver working behind a cash register. Giving good change is also a good mental workout because it forces you to consider the coins you can give to the cashier which enable them to give the smallest amount of change to you in return. Hope this could shed some light on the strange European change obsession… It’s because shops are penny pinchers!

    • Thanks for the insights. I can’t speak for Germany, but I know that people (and businesses) have a different relationships with banks than folks do in the US. In the US, banks have rolls of change so am wondering if some bank started offering that, they would attract more businesses to use their services? (There is a company in America that installs change machines in supermarkets and other places, and they take a small cut but you can dump lots of change in there and get a credit slip, which seems like a nifty trade-off.)

      I wonder how much time is lost in efficiency as well as people rifle through their pockets for change, while others are waiting. I don’t mind giving them exact change, but perhaps it’s American and I think of the people behind me trying to get through the line faster. I do see that most businesses in France happily take credit cards for purchases, most likely because they are faster/more efficient (?)

      But I hear you on those €5 notes – I hold on to them like they’re gold!

      : )

  • My friend sent me the connection to your blog because she knows I will be visiting Paris for the first time in a few weeks. Your article on change most likely has saved me from probable frustrations. Thank you!

  • Too funny, but so true! It has happened to me too: and I was a tad gobsmacked to be told by a vendor that NO, she had no change and therefor I must provide it. Ended up with me walking away empty handed. And extremely annoyed, as the line had been long! So funny to read this now, wish I’d read it before I had the experience.