Change

change

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.

yes-we-cook-10

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

140 comments

  • GREAT POST! I couldn’t agree more. I understand why some places do not accept credit cards – but really, it’s not that difficult to give someone change. I’ve thought about carrying a great bottle of wine around with me to offer “shots” to anyone who needs to relax a little bit. My (French) boyfriend has discouraged this….

  • In France, official document photographs must conform to several things. […] you are also not allowed to smile, and if you have any sort of grin, they will get rejected and you’ll have to go back and get more pictures taken.

    Unfortunately, this is not restricted to France, as I had the same problem when I tried to renew my UK passport.

    • I just got my US passport renewed I was very, very careful not to smile or even grin – the official requirement is a “neutral expression.” But I think we naturally smile for cameras and have to pull it in. I know they are very strict about that here so I am extra-careful not to show any sort of emotion or feelings.

  • When I studied in Paris more than 30 years ago, already it was a problem to get change. I’m frightened to hear that this had not changed. But seriously: could it be that the French have a traumatisme with “changement”? After all, they have made the most violent and radical political change of the last 250 years in Europe, the French Revolution. But nowadays our french friends seem incapable and unwilling to overcome any kind of change: coins or dear social and political issues.
    13 years ago Germans were called “the sick man of Europe”. A leftist government imposed a radical change (even with some exaggerations, as we see now), but no one died and economy and employment are up today. I would wish the French the same courage to do so – I know they are capable of the utmost courage – and to give change generously.

  • La France profonde. No change coming.

  • Yeah, the same thing happens in Greece and Holland as well. You’re not allowed to smile for passport photos. I guess going in for photos after a great night of sex is out of the question. :)

  • oh dear, I just today got some euros sorted for my trip to france this week… including several large notes! oh well, am sure the department stores will help me out…

  • Living in French-speaking Switzerland, I forget sometimes that our neighbors (whose border is about 5km away), have very different attitudes about money, among other things. Here, it’s perfectly routine to pay for a 60-centime can of coca light with a 200 franc (~160 euro) note.

    Lovely post — thank you for the laugh (and the traumatisation via photo).

  • Thanks for the laugh over the photo! I have to renew my passport as soon as I get back from my trip to Paris next week, not looking forward to the trauma of a non-smiling photo. And thanks also for the reminder to search out the French change kicking around our house (and car??) before we leave…!

  • jaja, everything about this post is great. I have pounds of american coins, about half a pound from each trip, that I swear I´m going to use next time. Never happens.
    Coins were a prized commodity here because of bus fare, until they issued a card to pay with (but let´s not get into that scam). At least we got our change back.

  • You made me laugh out loud. We thought that it was only us who had experienced the international change emergency which always seems to be happening in Paris. It doesn’t happen as much in the regions…

  • Oh my god I laughed so hard, i was crying. All our official pictures are so scary, and as for the change, yes, good luck. I sometimes need coins to dry my laundry, and this is always a challenge. So when you get those 1 or 2 euro coins, hold on to them.

  • Hilarious picture and strangely familiar. Like something from Le Metro’s crime report page. :) Thank you for sharing!
    I was living in France in 2008 and remember how the mood changed over night after the election. One minute I was American trying to learn French and therefore a nuisance to every harried French person I met, and the next I was an American with whom every French person wanted to sit down and have and in-depth political conversation. My learning curve rocketed that month. And then leveled off again. When there is change in France (like a change in mood or fashion), it’s a pendulum that eventually sways back to its equilibrium.

  • My first Paris experience was trying to get two carnets from the lady at the Metro with the 50-euro bill I got from the ATM at the airport. She was VERY unhappy about it, and at one point just held up a 1 euro coin. I was very confused until she yelled at me, DO YOU HAVE ONE EURO! so she wouldn’t have to make so much change. Luckily, that was also my last experience with a rude French person on my trip. Perhaps all the people who complain that the French are rude are asking for change.

    • What’s funny is they often have a drawer full of bills and coins; for some reason, they like the (complicated) process of making less-change. Some ATMs now ask you if you want €50, or €10s and €20, which is great. Those €50s can be hard to get rid of – as you learned! : )

  • I love posts like this about cultural differences!

    I agree that Parisian cashiers hold onto their small coins like gold.

    However, the “No Change” signs you see actually mean there is no currency *ex*change. It’s an English error.

  • Nice photo! Same rules in Canada. I don’t know quite how it gets managed that, without fail, everyone looks like a convict in their passport photo.

    These days, I barely see people use real money here. Everything, down to a $1 candy bar, gets paid for with plastic. I’m ready to just have a chip embedded in my hand that I can wave at things.

  • This past Xmas I paid for an entire purchase here in France in 1 and 2 euro coins in a little boutique in town and they were so happy about it I left with an extra package of fancy Christmas ornaments in return.

  • Going to Paris for the first time and thank you so much for the heads up on having change. Any other tips? Have read your other posts on Paris which have helped immensely. Will bring new mexico red chile if you have any suggestions on a place for breakfast in the west part of the city!

    • I have plenty of chiles but best bet for breakfast is just to go to any café and have the formule for breakfast, which is coffee, oj, and tartine (baguette) with butter and jam. Most cafés offer something like that and it’s reasonable. For more Paris tips, check the My Paris page, which has a lot of them as well.

  • I just returned from Belgium and France and the best purchase I made early on was a small coin purse. My husband and I put our change in there and I made use of the change as much as possible. It was very handy for bathroom stops, among other things, but it always elicited a smile when I was willing to count out 80 cents at the register. I never was asked for, or used, the centimes though… I received them in change one time but everything seemed to be in 5s.

    Regarding the picture, I have a very smiley passport picture. It did NOT go over well in China.

  • oh dear, that is one scary photo… I remember, exactly 13 years ago my sister and I landed in Paris for our first time one week adventure and we wanted to get an carte orange. Well, you need a photo. OK, photo booth. Maybe it wasn’t the super official photo booth, but we smiled on the photos (it was for a metro pass for goodness sake) but then saw something strange: the photo making machine “put” make up on our faces!!!! So we had coloured lips and blue eye shadow. A bit out of place on the face, of course…. :/

    Also, in Toulouse in a McDonald’s is what I achieved to be the unachievable apparently: I got change for the metro without buying anything and I totally jumped the line & no one gave me grief!

    One thing that really frustrates me and this happens in other places, not just France is that when you try to buy something for a small amount with your debit card (bank card, carte bleu) they will accept it, but only for an amount above 7euros or 10euros or sth much higher than you initially intended spending. That is how I went in a bakery, desperate for bread, and ended up buying 3 loaves of bread and the guy felt pity for me and charged me the 7euros on the card, but gave me the change back, well in change. So, it IS possible, they just don’t want to do it. (the bread was fine, I froze it, and it doesn’t/didn’t smell of the freezer). I spoke to a salesman in a chocolatier store and I said, ‘I think it’s because you as an establishment have bank fees if we use our debit card’ and he told me, that that is not true, it’s only to push you to buy more.

    Grrrr.

  • That’s very funny, David. The other day I saw some news story that showed someone’s i.d. picture and they were smiling. Something seemed inherently wrong for an instant and then I realized I have been re-programmed over the years to expect sullen glares.

  • Some bank-chains in Sweden no longer handles cash. All transactions are to be handled via the internet. If anyone who’s going to Sweden reads this; rely on cards and ATMs. If one wants cash, avoid banks Swedbank and SEB.

    • That’s becoming true in France. Most banks had the two-door system (where they let you in one, then when it closed behind you, they would buzz you in the second one) which, although time-consuming, was meant to thwart bank robberies. Many banks have gotten rid of them since they don’t carry cash, although thefts and so forth at ATMs are on the rise and becoming more common, so I always recommend to visitors to use the ATMs in the bank lobbies, if possible.

  • Wouldn’t it be fun to pay for something in France with a bill fully revealing that you have plenty of coins and if asked say no, you have no coins? Maybe two can play that game!

  • I sarcastically love the way your average French person says they love American but in reality are only referring to NYC. Then again these are the same people who still think Al Capone is running Chicago (but who’s to say they’re wrong?…). I shit you not, I had some Gendarmes (who were busting my balls because I had parked in an impasse… where everybody else parks… I guess it was just ‘my turn’) ask me where I was from, and when I told them ‘Chicago,’ Al Capone and tommy guns were the only things they wanted to talk about. Then again most Americans probably only know camembert, baguettes and berets, so I suppose it’s an even trade.

  • We should start a Tumblr titled “Terrifying Expat Photomaton Photos.” Mine would be right up there, non-smile and all.

    • Boxwood Terrace and kristen: I know a lot of people who had to go get new pictures which meant having to get new appointments (which involved those waits in line, etc.) so I tried really, really hard not to smile at all. Even if you have the slightest smirk, as my friends did, they had to go and get a re-do.

  • You look like you are trying very hard to be stern and serious in your photo. Well done!

  • Not only was I not allowed to smile when I last renewed my French passport, I had to scrape back my bangs from my forehead. I don’t look good without my bangs and I sort of look like a serial killer in my photo. I hate seeing that photo in my passport and hate for any officials to see it either. I fondly remember my old photo with my smile, my bangs and a nice scarf around my neck which isn’t allowed now either.

  • Great post. Most people in the world’s countries don’t smile as a policy. It’s Americans. Not smiling makes them nervous. All those smiley faces, happy talk radio and TV. And they have a lot to be nervous about.

  • It’s amazing how many parallels there are to life in Belgium. As an American/Brit living in Flanders, I sooo enjoy your blog, in general, and THIS post even more so (I also adore and often do your recipes!). There is something to this American expat life in Europe that is wonderful and traumatizing, all at the same time… and wonderful, really. Patience with yourself and others. A must. Then sit and smell the aroma of freshly baked bread. Break out a big smile (on the inside).

  • These posts make me miss France and all of the headaches that go along with living there. Thank you for writing them, David (or, as my husband refers to you, my on-line BFF).

    Those document photos always confuse me. Aren’t smiles unique? I never know what to do when I hand over my passport: do I smile (which I am apt to do) or try to replicate the officially-required grimace? I wonder, if I do smile or move any muscle in my face, will I be refused entry? The world needs more smiling people in it!!!

  • Very funny and so true! The change frustration is not limited to France though, other countries in Europe have the same obsession. I come from Portugal and there whenever you have to pay for something, you will be asked over and over again if you have change. If you say no, they look at you like you have just landed from some remote galaxy and missed the change briefing at arrival. They keep insisting, asking you if you are really sure you don’t have a 20 cent coin, or maybe a 50? They give you the most amazing combinations until you are so confused you don’t really know what change you were supposed to get in the end. I hate coins and when I get them I usually keep them mainly as a protest to the change policy. Usually you can find coins a bit everywhere in my house until my husband gets upset, gathers them all and asks me once again if I have any idea about the amount I have there. I usually tell him I am not interested, he can just give me a bill for the amount and feel free to use them all if he feels that strongly about it! Great picture, I have some good ones too!

  • I moved to Indiana a few years ago and when I got my new driver’s license, the lady at the BMV told me I could smile but I couldn’t show my teeth. Does a smile make it harder to recognize a person? Very odd, indeed!

  • Yikes, that photo! Looks like you were you imagining someone said there’d be no dessert after dinner.

  • After a week in Paris in April of last year, we rented a van and travelled up to Normandy and then through the Loire Valley, down to Nice and back up through San Remy back to Paris.

    We made frequent gas/bathroom/snack stops. In France, these roadside auto/truck stops are more clean, attractive and elaborate than American ones. They also have some relatively nice snacks and, a souvenir like a mini bottle of mustard, a provencal soap or linen and lavender something or other might be picked up if you like that kind of thing.

    You need a LOT of change to pay the road tolls. Those tolls really add up! We found that the auto/truck stop cashiers were fine with making change for us. One guy even gave us a sympathetic warning about the dire amount of coins we would need for the next long stretch we planned to drive.

    But, Paris is different, no doubt. We found Parisians to be very polite, but we never asked for change.

    • A lot of friends and guests who come to Paris, always complain about having pocketsful of change, and they are always trying to get rid of it. “No, no!” I’ll tell them, “Hold onto it!” I don’t think folks are used to coins that are the near equivalent (more or less) to $1 or $2 – so they just think they’re useless coinage. I’ve had people hand me all their change before leaving after their visit to France, and even though I protest, it’s kind of a mini-windfall ; )

  • In the UK, our passport and official photos also have the rule about not smiling. And we have to remove our spectacles. Mine would do fine for a memorial notice when I’m dead ~ or have ‘kicked my clogs’ as we say round here.

    I assumed the ‘No Change’ culture was aimed just at the English when I met it. I’m quite glad to hear it is a universal annoyance.

  • I just returned after 3 months in France, the last 6 in Paris. I wanted to use up over 18 euros, in small change, the last day before I left. I tried to use it to cover part of the payment for several scarves. “No, I would have to count it” said the salesclerk. She did, however, take out my largest coins (the 2 euros). Late in the afternoon I hit on this: I divided the coins into 1 euro segments, which I put individually into sandwich bags. Then I went store by store, asking if they could give me a 1 euro coin for the change in the bag (I only took my luck with asking for 1 euro exchange in each store). Three places said “no”, but I finally had all 1 euro pieces, which I then took to the Post Office. One of the sales ladies had suggested that to me, saying that the Bureau de Poste made change as that is where people went to pay their utilities. It worked, and I finally had lighter-weight bills to carry home, instead of all that change.

    • I often bring handfuls of change, especially centimes, to the post office and use them in the machines there. However I was surprised to find that – for some reason – they will only accept a maximum of twenty coins. Am not sure why, when change is such a precious commodity.

  • I’m from Spain and I live in USA. For my INS application and my green card I had to get my picture retaken. You cannot smile or wear earrings. Nowhere was that bit of information mentioned in any of the forms. In addition, they pulled all my hair behind my ears. Apparently the ear lobe must show. It looked horrible! I guess, as they say in Spain, “en todas partes cuecen habas” (it’s the same everywhere!)

  • Want Change?
    Put a 20 Euro bill into the ticket machine at any Metro, buy 1 ticket, and get all change back!
    It works every time.
    Or…just use your credit card, even for small transactions.

    • I put a €50 in one of those machines once, and nothing came out (so naturally I’ve been reluctant to try again.) Fortunately the station agent was happy to come out of his booth and they can open up the back of the machine and see what went in and out on the computer. I was worried I was going to have to fill out all sorts of forms and send them in, and wait. But he could verify it was my transaction and handed the bill back to me. (But I still am wary of sticking bills in machines anyways..)

      • David,
        20 Euro is the largest bill these machines accept.
        I’ve done it dozens of times w/o incident, and always get lots of change back.

        • Oops, maybe it was a €20 – it was a while back. They’re in the process of changing the machines again and I’ve noticed they have new machines this week.

  • I haven’t visited France in some years (sob) so did not realize that coins have become a problem there. I have always come home with masses of them.

    I do remember being told, before my first visit, that a carrier bag and a coin purse were essential. Got both at a village market. The coin purse was a gem – a football-shaped gussseted little number, made from soft leather, with a zipper on each side. The two compartments made it easy to sort out the higher denominations so there was less confusion. And the zippers were different lengths so no confusion about which one to open for a particular coin.

    I have never seen these here, but they were everywhere in France. Wonderful little things.

  • As someone with a passport-photo-disability, I completely sympathize. An airport security guy once commented on my picture on my driver’s license, “Rough day, huh?”. In solidarity, Smita

  • Excellent post David. Thanks for the belly laugh :)

  • Ditto re Canadian official photos — no smile, no hair covering forehead or ears, in the case of passport photos.

    And, our Canadian penny is no longer produced or circulated, with prices being rounded up or down to the nearest five cents in cash transactions.

    Thank you for the hearty belly laugh over your frightening photo, David. What a great way to start the day.

  • Maybe some of them don’t know how to county change, which is the case sometimes here in the States. Just sayin ….

  • That’s so odd the way they are with finding change around there. So does everyone want change now or prefer it or is it just a plus if someone comes by with change? Also that official document photo of you was hilarious. I cant believe they don’t let you smile. I guess it kind of makes sense since it’s an official document but still, quite different. Loved this post David.

  • Hilarious, that you aren’t allowed to smile or show happiness in the official pics… reminds me of when I tried out a grocery chain’s club, one of the economy stores, and had to pose for an ID pic. Though I was smiling and healthy, both the lighting and odd angle they managed to capture me from made me look pale, heavier than possible, and just about dead in expression.

  • Hilarious and astute post. But the signs on bank doors that say “no change” are not referring to coins or small bills. They mean that the bank does not change money from foreign currency. That’s why they’re always in English, so they’re not bothered with clueless tourists wandering in.

  • Great post, David.
    I found out the hard way about changing large bills in Paris. I had been paid from a musical I worked on in Lebanon in 500 Euro notes, thinking I could change one when back in Paris. WRONG! I went all over trying to get it changed! Finally I found a place on the Champs-Elysses that would, begrudgingly, change it.

    I believe this is due to the fear of counterfeit currency. The old-time scam of change the phony bill for real ones.

    Whenever I visit France or the UK I carry two separate coin purses; one for euro coinage and one for British coinage. I always try to bring them back with me to the US with some coins, so I’m ready for the next time.

    • I’ve heard there is a branch of the Banque de France in Paris that accepts large bills, and I think they either used to – or still do – trade French francs for euros for those who still have them.

      (There is still a town in France, Le Blanc, that was still using francs until 2012 – when they absolutely had to stop, because that was the date limit that they could be used as currency!)

  • I have been trying to figure out why I cannot get the least amount of coins back as change but maybe they think they are doing me a favor? If I am supposed to receive 4€ back, I tend to receive one 1€ piece, three 50centimes pieces, six 20centimes pieces and the rest in five and one centime pieces – drives me batty. We went to Italy and I found myself thanking the clerks who gave me back the least amount of coins.

    kristen @thekaleproject’s idea of a Tumblr titled “Terrifying Expat Photomaton Photos” is great. My husband has the rejected one where he looks as if he might be happy with life (barely) and one where he looks like a serial killer; I just look bad in all of them.

  • On a trip to England I found that they want correct change.
    I would just spread my money out and tell them to take what they wanted.
    You have to be pretty trusting to do that.

    Your comments about change and Obama
    were my first disagreement with you
    dear David.
    He did not tell the people
    who were voting what his change would be.
    It does not look good.
    The people who voted for him
    ASSUMED THAT THE CHANGE WOULD BE
    A GOOD THING FOR THEM AND FOR ALL AMERICANS.
    Time will tell.
    I still love you David.

  • Oh, dear, please don’t break the ‘golden rule’ of blogging or forums. Thou shalt now discuss politics. Freedom Fries, freedom of speech fine. It is just such a turn off. And your blog is so excellent.

    • Hi Mrs. G: This post is not about politics, per say, and everything here is pretty well-known; it was noted by many that François Hollande’s slogan and font were similar to the ones used by the Obama campaign. And I think it’s pretty clear that with the current economic situation (not just in France, but in other countries as well) that a certain amount of change needs, or should, take place in some aspect or another. How and what is a subject for another conversation – but I agree, probably better elsewhere! : )

  • Hah! In Mexico you can’t get change either, and in official photos you can’t smile and need to have your ears showing??!

  • That image of Francois Hollande looks a lot like Stephen Colbert!

  • David, great article, bad photo!

  • I’ve experienced, known and read that you can easily spot an American (even if they weren’t wearing shorts) before they say a word by the smile on our faces – that the French don’t smile until they are rather familiar with you, we kind of look like idiots to them, walking up with a smile on our faces to someone we don’t know. So indeed, that photo is scary, but I got a great chuckle from your last paragraph! Thanks for it, and for posting that photo!

  • Is it true that, in France, it is almost impossible to return things to a store if one buys the wrong size, color, etc.?

  • Good to know about the change shortage, or the hoarding change habit in France: I didn’t notice this when I was there last summer. I brought a few coins home with me, which I will be bringing back in a few weeks.

  • Don’t expect change from a cab driver either. I have always loved Paris and never thought of Parisiens as rude, except the one time I took a cab to the Louvre alone. The driver stopped in traffic on the Rue de Rivioli, accepted my 20E note for a 5E ride and refused to give change back. Is this common? Or was he taking advantage of a lone female? Or, a lone American?

    • I’ve not had any particularly bad cab driver experiences in Paris (in fact, the last guy I got could have been a model – I was stunned he was driving a cab…) but I know people who have, hence the proliferation of pre-pay, fixed fare cabs in Paris that you can order through an app. Not giving someone back change for a €20 on a €5 fare is lame and disgraceful.

      I can’t say for sure if he did it because you were alone, or because of your nationality, but the first thing I do when I get into a cab is complain about something – the weather, traffic, someone who just walked into me, etc.. which immediately endears you to them (although you’ll then have to listen to their list of complaints, which is invariably a lot longer!) But it marks you as a ‘local’ or at least someone who doesn’t put up with monkey-business.

  • Love the photo! You look murderous!

  • Ugggh, the change thing! I haven’t been to France (yet) but the exact same thing happens in Mexico and Central America. I can understand it from the street and market vendors, but not in restaurants and shops.

    I didn’t realize that the passport photo was you (why is David posting a mugshot of a stranger? did this guy steal his precious change? I wondered) until I read the context. Traumatic, indeed.

    As for having to pull your hair back to show your ears, I believe that’s because while you can disguise your features with makeup, dye/cut your hair, etc. only plastic surgery will alter the shape of your ears, so it’s a good feature to use for identification — although it may certainly lead to less than attractive photos. I’ve thrown in the towel on passport and license photos, myself, and resign myself to looking deranged, either in a manic (if smiling is permitted) or depressive (if not) stage.

  • Who needs change? Who uses real money any more? Don’t you have a credit card? If you did, you could even do your shopping by computer at one of the ubiquitous French “drives” about which I saw a documentary last night. You place your order online and two hours later, it’s ready to pick up. Oh I forgot, they haven’t reached Paris yet. But they’re coming, apparently.

  • Same passport problem in the UK and in Ireland too. As an added bonus, the Irish have black and white photos rather than colour ones like the UK, so I have one passport where I look dark and moody, and another where I look slightly shocked and washed out…

  • I got my first passport when I was nineteen, going to Europe by myself and quite excited. I was laughing when the picture was taken, and had no problem with the U.S. office. However, once I got to Europe, then the problems began. I was laughing in the picture, so happy the tip of my tongue was just touching my lip. Every man checking my documents insisted on a closer look, come over there, he must make sure this was me. I managed to politely avoid request for a date. I think now, with the passage of time, my smile will not evoke such study.

  • As a college student in Perugia, Italy in 1979 I remember getting change in a Coop Supermarket that included stamps and hard candy! When I asked our group leader/professor about it, he shrugged and said they don’t have enough coins. Except I can’t pay for groceries with stamps and hard candy!

  • The odd thing about banks seizing with cash over counter is that they are pointing people in other directions. Right opposite the closest bank office to where I live, there’s this place that handle lottery tickets, people playing the ponies, they function as the post office and you can get everything from stamps to ice creams to candy to magazines. One can also pay bills there. WITH CASH. They charge you a bundle to do it but still, you can.
    Banks here also cite security, risk for robberies etc. The little lottery store/kiosk doesn’t. The grocery store has also installed an ATM in the store. This used to be unheard of previously. Banks had atm:s, no one else, if you were in need of an ATM, you looked for the nearest bank, not the nearest grocery store/seven-11.

  • Now I understand why the young lady in a small museum shop last month was so willing to sort through all my coins in payment. I thought she was being kind, helping me out, but she probably wanted it for the shop. As I was leaving Paris the next day, getting rid of all the change was a convenience for me and I guess helped the shop as well. I had quite a lot of it.

  • In case you ever go to prison, and have to wear that kind of ID, your picture will give you “cred.”

  • I think that years back the instructions for green card photos were quite detailed here in the US- a certain angle, showing one ear, no smiling… interesting.

    Your photo above is a riot!! Here in NJ you get to retake your photo as many times as it takes for you to like it for your drivers license and actually, you can keep your old photo if you want to… eternal youth…

  • Spent an hour or so waiting in the DMV (car license bureau) in the US State of Michigan today. With all new or renewal licenses, the clerks said: “Go stand on the “X” on the floor… look up… SMILE…” and took the picture. Nothing about hair, or earlobes. One lady asked “Glasses on or off” and the clerk said “Whichever you prefer.” So go figure. Maybe Michigan is some sort of backwater that has not gotten the lecture yet?

    It always used to be “SMILE!” in all official pictures in the US. I always thought it was my European ancestry coming out that I resented being ordered to smile and that everyone obviously thought everybody should go around grinning like idiots!

    I have to say though, David, your mug-shot may have changed my mind on the relative merits of smiles in official pictures, or any other for that matter! Thanks for the laughs, as usual.

  • You made my day. I was in STITCHES after seeing your photo. Truly. Brilliant. It’s deserving of being featured on a Wanted posted.

  • You look terribly intimidating. Great post! Your blog makes me want to visit Paris and NOT want to visit Paris, simultaneously. ;-)

  • That photo is both hilarious and terrifying!

  • i love, love, love your food posts but honestly, hearing you write about french culture in such a knowing and affectionate, yet honest way is just so fun for me. and that picture has me laughing!

  • You’re the best David. One thing that shouldn’t change? You and your awesome sense of humor :-)

  • A couple of times at Monoprix and Franprix–particularly the smaller neighborhood ones–I was required to count out upwards of 90 centimes in coins. And I had that same experience you had at the butcher at the Pierre Oteiza on Boulevard St. Michel. I paid in coins and the woman behind the counter was so thrilled that she gave me free sausage samples!

    The most counterintuitive thing for me in France was that they don’t carry cash at the banks. When I went to close my bank account at BNP, I was told that I needed to even out the amount of money in my account so I could take all of it out of the ATM. Then later they told me that I could just send in a closure request and they would wire me the money. Oy.

  • Exactly. Those Photomatons that are covered with pictures of happy faces should have instead mug shots to set a good example.
    Why is it everytime I hand someone a 50€ bill I get back 45€ in CHANGE?

  • I always liked your blog, but over four years with a Frenchman and his parents these are the stories I think I like the most… Despite initially reading for recipe inspiration. The last time I had to take a new driver’s license photo the SF DMV photographer chastised me for not smiling and made me retake it. The photo’s not cute, but an improvement over the previous one, when a different lone laughed outright at the state of my hair, which at least left me smiling in the photo as well. Vive San Francisco

  • Great post, thanks for speaking about that. In Italy you can smile in a passport photo… you know, we laugh much, maybe too much these days – but it’s not easy to get change, at the bakery and in folks mind. Have a nice day!

  • i loved your comment on the fact you cant use smiling faces in pictures in france for the official documents.

  • For my last U.S. passport photo, the guy at Walgreen’s tried telling me I wasn’t allowed to smile. I ignored him. If I’m going to look at this picture for the next 10 years, I want it to look good! Luckily, I got my passport with no problem, smile and all.

  • I’ve been reading your blog for years now and love it but this is my first time commenting. Your “Official Photo” made me laugh so hard I cried. It’s the same here in Canada, no smiles or glasses or any hint of humanity so I happen to look very scary indeed. Thank you for sharing that photo, you made my day!

    • I still think it’s funny that people were contacting me, asking me to please remove it as my icon as it was scaring them. I was really (really) trying not to smile, because 1) I know people that have had to go back and get their pictures re-taken, and 2) I knew how hard it was to get that €5 for the machine, and didn’t have the fortitude to go through that again!

  • I had to take a picture in France for my visa, and it was so bad that the customs agent in Germany thought it was for sure a picture of my brother. He was like, this clearly is your brother and not you!

  • … unlike the Swiss, of course, who will cheerfully take a 500 chf note and change it for you in pretty much any shop. I’ve paid for my 2.20 loaf of bread with a 100 note in my little village épicerie, and they don’t mind… and I’ve seen people pay for a loaf with a 500 note in the supermarket.

    No smiles on Swiss ID photos either, though. But that’s probably because they all have to be approved by a Swiss German.

  • In Brazil you aren’t allowed to smile in official pictures either and even after I came to the States I kept having very serious pictures because I thought that was valid for the whole world. You should see my first driver’s license. I look murderous.

  • Can you get at scarf at Hérmes for less than €100? Def not get at lof change back ;-)

  • Since you included politics in this discussion, I would like to say that I love your blog but do not agree with your politics. I am French and the best thing about America is its form of government. Mr. Obama is taking America to a European style of government and it will ruin what is unique about America. There has been change allright and if you are watching American news you will see that it is not good. Anyway, keep up the good work on the blog, but it would be tres bien if you did not include politics.

    • I mentioned the Hollande campaign used a font and slogan similar to the Obama campaign, and that was it. Many graphic designers had talked about the power and impact of fonts during the elections. The mention that France has some economic issues that needs to be addressed was not a “political” statement. Just about every country in the world is having similar issues – economic and otherwise. France (and the United States, and others) are no exception.

      However I do feel strongly that people should be a little more generous about making change. Especially at Monoprix.

  • Re Christine Jasper May 25, 2013 2:34 a.m.
    I agree with EVERYTHING you just said, Christine. I am American. Thank you.

  • The no smiling for photos is required because of the proliferation of facial recognition devices. The software and hardware for this is getting more sophisticated every day, but can still be thrown off by a smile or a tilted head or raised eyebrow.

    DMVs in the U.S. have banned smiles in photos for the same reason.

    Sunglasses and a big hat will still foil the facial recognition devices should you want a bit of anonymity.

  • Hilarious, David, yet I could feel myself starting to grit the teeth at the ludicrous prospect of not even being able to get change at a bank. I’m picturing Americans staging angry protests demanding the “change crisis” be fixed. I wonder why the government doesn’t fix it–seems an easy problem compared to many faced.

    Aside from bladder and change issues, I hope you’re doing well…

  • Your post is great, David. And I agree with a lot of things ! During the last presidential campaign, when my French compatriots were complaining, saying : “I don’t know for who I’m going to vote, they are the same as each other!” I used to reply: “Don’t care, I’m gonna vote for Obama.”
    I just want to add something about the picture: You have to know that everything comes from September 11th, and from USA. Before this terrorist act, we could smile on our official pictures, and there was just one obligation: to wear our glasses if you had eyesight problems.
    After the 11 September, USA became (logically) really prudent and exigent on pictures passport. So they obliged us and a lot of other country to have those kind of pictures, to enter in USA.
    This way, little by little, it came in every country.
    Friendly.

  • On dirait une tête de tueur. A candidate for FBI’s “most wanted” maybe. You could have your own crime drama on tv. “Frenchified dessert guy commits creative mayhem following scary ID photo.”

  • I’m smiling in my Metrocard picture………….Can’t get much more oifficial than that……………..as for your photo…..Welcome Hannibal !!!

  • The more posts I read of yours about life in Paris the more scared I am of our trip in September! How do I get change…like for the first time…oh boy? Argh! And in Australia we are NOT allowed to smile for our passport photo. I had about 6 attempts before I finally got one that was suitably dour.

  • Great post! I laughed aloud when I saw the funfetti cupcake and giant yellow soft pretzel on the cover of the cookbook. Do they really want to eat a sh*tty version of what Europe has made so well??

  • you are unrecognizable in the passport photo! Truly, I would never have thought it was you. very very funny and great post. thanks so much, made my evening.

  • Very funny! There is a little bit of a serial killer in your photo! Made me smile :)

  • I think you may be mistaken about the “no change” sign posted on many banks throughout Paris.
    I think it really means they do not offer a foreign exchange service.
    Changing a foreign currency into euros (or vice versa) translates as “faire du change” in french.
    Hence the mistake in my view.
    Generally speaking I agree with your comment about french store owners: they have very little consideration for their customers.
    Unless you are purchasing a bottle of Château Margaux 1961.

  • How right you are about large notes! My bank hates me because I always get foreign currency in denominations of no more than $20 (or equivalent). Sometimes they try and slide $100 notes into the package but I make them take them back.

  • Last year in Argentina we encountered the phenom of storekeepers not wanting to give out change, particularly coins. There it’s a symptom of a government that under reports inflation by a factor of at least 4, nationalizes assets and bank accounts, and has an officially inflated currency relative to its value in the international market. Maybe the French sense that they (or the EU) are evolving that way?

  • Funny thing about the similarity of the two campaign posters: that typeface (Gotham) is almost ubiquitous these days. As a graphic designer, I compare it to Avant Garde of the 60s and 70s and all the heavy condensed fonts of the 80s and nineties.

  • Hi David-Saw you at the Richard Lenoir Sunday market today, and you were on. a. mission! Couldn’t have caught up with you even if I had the nerve. Seems that handsome fellow you were with was having some trouble too! What a fabulous market. Had no idea it would be so crowded! I’ve heeded your advice about change and always try to have a pocket full when I head to the market–makes everyone a little more pleasant!

  • I’m looking forward to the new electronic passport for Canadians that can last for 10 years of my picture resembling a clown (downside of thick red frizzy hair–still) and then book a flight to Paris!