Hey man, spare some change?

If any of you are looking for the quickest way to make an enemy in Italy (besides shouting out “Hey, your guys’ cuisine sucks!” along the streets) then the easiest way to do it is to try and pay for a €6  sandwich with a €20 bill.

Italians absolutely and profoundly hate giving change. I’m not sure if the European Union calculated wrong and just didn’t produce enough coins when Italy switched over from the Lira to the Euro or what the hell happened. All I know is that paying for anything in any store anywhere in Italy will likely lead to eye rolling and huffing and puffing if you aren’t going to be paying in exact, down-to-the-penny, change.

My previous example of paying for a €6 sandwich means that the cashier would have to give you back €14 (for example: a ten euro bill and two 2 euro coins). Doesn’t really seem like a big deal, right? I mean, it’s not like you’re buying a €1 scratch ticket and saying “Do you mind if I pay with a 500 euro bill?” Well, in Italy, this could invariably lead to the cashier giving you a dirty look, throwing your change back at you like you were an @$$hole, or in the most extreme of cases saying “I don’t have the change to give you, so just leave the sandwich on the counter, get out of here, and don’t ever come back.”

I have personally experienced walking into a store in Italy to buy something, only to have the cashier tell me that they can’t sell me the product because they don’t have the change to give me. Just last week, I went to buy a few lightbulbs at this store, because we have this friggin’ lamp in our apartment that burns out more than a high school teacher with no pension plan *zing*. Anyways, the lightbulbs came to a total of €7.50 and I had the audacity to try and pay with a ten euro bill. The only reason that I was able to actually return home with the lightbulbs is because the fruit vendor next door was able to break the change for the lightbulb store guy (though I’m sure Mr. Lightbulb is gonna be in some hefty debt with Mr. Fruit for asking him to give up some of his precious change). Let’s not forget that we are talking about €2.50 of change here which could constitute as few as two coins.

Sometimes Italians will even give you a discount, just to avoid giving you back change. Here’s an example:

Cashier: Ok, so that comes to €31.25.

Me: Here you go! (handing over two 20 euro bills)

Cashier: (horrified) You don’t have the change?

Me: No, sorry.

Cashier: Ok then, let’s just make it €30. (handing me back a ten euro bill to avoid giving back coins)

Me: (Thinking to myself) Sweet! Maybe I’ll start pretending I never have the right change to nab discounts all over the place! To hell with Groupon!

Honestly, I have no idea why this is and even the Italians I’ve asked can’t seem to explain it…

On the other hand, a surefire way to get in good with Italians is to pay in exact change. If I were to pay for a €7.38 piece of parmesan cheese with exactly €7.38 in bills and coins then I would probably hear the cashier yell “Hey Antonio! You see this kid here? He’s good people! We should fix him up with your daughter”. If I were to respond “Well, thank you ma’am but I’m not really that into 1830’s-style arranged marriages”, then the cashier is apt to reply “That’s a shame! You got good change, kid!”

You see, in Italy, a few coins go a long way!


Sorry, I’m weak

I am just soooooo sorry!

Elton John once sang the lyrics “sorry seems to be the hardest word“. This may be true (at least when it comes to saying an earnest, heart-felt “sorry”) but not so much for the casual “sorry” that comes so easily flying out of my mouth automatically in everyday life.

You see, I say “sorry” all the effing time! If I bump into somebody while stepping out of a cafe, I say sorry and make an “oopsy-daisy” face. If I’m standing and talking to a friend while somebody needs to get past me on the sidewalk, I say sorry and move out of the way. If I am taking too long putting my change back in my cool American change purse at the bakery, I say sorry to both the cashier and the people standing in line behind me.

This “sorry” is not a real honest-to-goodness declaration of the fact that I truly repent and ask forgiveness for these trivial happenings. It’s just sort of an automatic thing that I can’t help but utter. When I was back in the USA recently for Christmas, I noticed that I’m not alone in this “sorry” business (whew! So I’m NOT crazy … or at least not for this particular reason!). I heard Americans saying “sorry” all over the place, using it in the same politely courteous way that  I’m used to doing here in Italy (except here in Italy I obviously come out with a trendy “scusi” instead of “sorry”).

I tend to say “sorry”, even if the situation was not caused by any fault of my own (and I’m not alone in this either, am I American readers?). For example, if somebody steps gingerly on my foot, I still say  “sorry”, without even thinking about it. If somebody else sits on the strap of my knapsack*, I offer them a “sorry” when I need to pull it out from under their bottom.

This sorry-saying can be a problem for a guy living life in Italy like me. Italians don’t have this same habit Americans do of saying “sorry” every 15 seconds. In Italy, you only say “sorry” if you are really full of remorse for what you have just done and if you’re not in the wrong, than you definitely don’t say sorry.

I think saying sorry is almost looked upon as being a sign of weakness here in Italy. Italians are usually very decided in their actions. If they bump into you on the street, their mind frame is that of “yes, I bumped into you. I was walking here, and so were you”. If an Italian is taking a long time putting their change away at the bakery, they won’t be worrying about what the cashier or other customers are thinking. They’re probably pondering upon how to best put their freshly baked and freshly purchased bread to use.

Saying “sorry” in those situations implies that you did something decidedly wrong, so when my “sorry” comes blurting out, they look at me like “what did this kid do to mess up so bad?”. What’s even worse is that I say that automatic courtesy “sorry” even when it’s not my fault. For instance, somebody (accidentally, I hope) streaks their wet umbrella against my clean jeans in the bookstore. I inevitably say sorry and move out of the way (even though it was in no way my own fault, and really, it should be them saying sorry to me). Then, the umbrella-toting Italian gives me a dirty look as if to say “next time watch where you place your clean jeans”. It’s not that the umbrella-bearer was an asshole (though maybe he was), but it’s just that Italians aren’t used to saying sorry for something that’s not their fault so the guy thinks “this foreign kid is saying sorry to me, so he must have done something wrong which led him to place his dry jeans on my dripping wet umbrella, like the prick that he is”.

Well, I think that’s about it for this blgo posrt… Oops, sorry! No, wait … no, I’m not! … ok, ok… yes I am. *sigh*

I think I deserve an extra point for using the word “knapsack” instead of “backpack”, don’t you?