A slightly adapted excerpt from Demystifying the French: How to Love Them and Make them Love You, published by Winged Words Publishing, 2019. Copyright Janet Hulstrand, all rights reserved.
It’s best, whenever possible, to give the merchant exact change when buying something in France. “I do not know why, but I do know that French people really, really, really want you to give them exact change if you possibly can. They just do,” I tell my students.
This can lead to a confusing situation for Anglophones, because the word for “change” in French is monnaie. So if a French person looks at the money you have given them and says “Vous n’avez pas de monnaie?” you might understandably be confused. After all, haven’t you just given them monnaie?
But no, you see, you have not. You have given them argent, which means, literally “silver,” and is the word used for money. Or you have given them espèce, which means “cash”: but you have not given them exact change.
I really don’t know why this obsession with getting exact change exists, where it comes from, or why it is so fervent. But I do know that it exists, and that providing it is one way of getting on the right side of the French.
I had wondered about this idly for years, and then one day one of the students in my summer class in Paris asked my friend Ellen Hampton about this. Ellen is a writer who was visiting my class that day, and she was talking about her book Playground for Misunderstanding, which is a murder mystery that also deals a lot with Franco/American cultural differences. “Why do they always want exact change?” this student asked Ellen. Ellen, who is an American, but who has lived in France for most of her adult life, nearly 30 years, didn’t hesitate for a moment. “Oh!” she said, cheerfully. “That’s because the French have a passion for complication.”
Wow. What a moment of incandescent clarity! “This explains the matter of exact change, and SO MUCH MORE!” I said, and added, “Thank you, Ellen!”
While I was working on this book, the French Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, announced a change in the way the French administration would be dealing henceforth with its citizens in cases where certain administrative rules have not been followed. He referred to it as le droit de l’erreur (“the right to make a mistake”). I heard him give this speech on television, and I noticed he was saying, among other things, that the French government has been known for an excess of “complexities.” The government spokesman who followed him to describe how the plan would unfold even used the word manie (which means “craziness,” or maybe we would say in this case, “obsessiveness”) to describe the French approach to governmental administration. What I understood this to mean is that the French government would be making an attempt to approach its citizens less with an attitude of “guilty until proven innocent” and more with an attitude that “Anyone can make a mistake: ONCE!” Given the infamous complexities (indeed) of the French government, this seems only fair and right.
Sometimes the complications of the French way of life seem to be inexplicable and completely needless wastes of time, until you give them a little more thought. For example, in order to renew my visa, one of the things I needed to complete the process was to purchase a certain amount of timbres fiscaux (official government stamps) at the tabac next to the Office de Tourisme, about six blocks away from the préfecture. As I rushed to get there (and back) before the préfecture would close for lunch so I could get my visa, I was shaking my head over the fact that you couldn’t simply purchase these stamps in the same place you had to turn them in, that is, the préfecture. How impractical! How silly! I was thinking. Until I realized that this was perhaps one more little way that the French government has devised to provide tabacs with business. (The French government does a lot of this putting-their-hand-on-the-scale kind of thing to benefit a variety of small businesses.) No doubt the nice lady in the tabac who sold me the stamps gets a small commission every time she provides this service, I realized, as I waited for her to count out the number of stamps I needed. Was it so bad for me to have to walk six blocks to get them? No, it really wasn’t. (Though it must be said, I know that I am lucky in that walking does not present a problem for me; and that this is not so for everyone.)
Other times, there is no discernible reason for the scurrying around you have to do. Another step in getting my visa finalized was that I had to provide an official translation of my birth certificate, translated by an officially recognized translator. I was told I could get a list of approved translators from the tribunal (which I managed to figure out was the palais de justice, in other words, the courthouse), about ten blocks away. Since there was no financial transaction in this instance, and all I had to do at the tribunal was ask for a photocopied list of approved translators in my department, it was a little hard to understand why I had to go to the courthouse to get it. Why couldn’t they just keep copies of the list at the préfecture? Or make the list available on the internet? (Here is where Ellen’s answer to the question comes in handy…)
I believe Ellen is right, by the way, in saying that it is a passion for complication. It is certainly not just resigned tolerance of it, though there is also that (c’est la vie). I believe this is an important point. Whereas Americans, an extremely practical people, tend to view complications as annoyances to be ignored, defied, destroyed, or otherwise defeated, I think it can be said that for most French people complication is more likely to be seen as a challenge to overcome: an opportunity to se débrouiller.
In any case, I’ve spent enough time in France to know when it makes sense to ask questions, and when you should just do exactly what you have been told to do, if you want things to proceed smoothly. So I went to the courthouse and got the piece of paper I needed. And I contacted one of the officially approved translators. And I got my visa renewed. YAY!!!!
Janet Hulstrand is an American writer, editor, writing coach and teacher who lives in France. She writes frequently for Bonjour Paris, France Revisited, France Today, and for her blog, “Writing from the Heart, Reading for the Road.” She teaches literature and culture classes for Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington, DC, and since 1997 she has taught “Paris: A Literary Adventure” for study abroad programs sponsored by the City University of New York. You can purchase “Demystifying the French” at the Red Wheelbarrow bookstore or order it online. She is currently working on her next book, a memoir titled “A Long Way from Iowa,” from her home in Champagne.