MADRID — After being here for about 2 1/2 months, there are very few things that still trigger that little feeling of homesickness from time to time. Whether hearing somebody speaking English on the street, catching a real football game at the nearest Irish pub or walking past a McDonald's, I've come to expect those fleeting yearnings for all things American.
But just a few days ago, I was caught off-guard by a momentary lapse into nostalgia for the home country. I was searching through one of my drawers trying to find my passport when I came across a couple of American dollar bills. It was a couple of 20s, a 10, a five and a few ones ... but it was beautiful. I guess you can't really appreciate how gorgeous the greenback is until you've spent some time dealing with the euro.
For those of you who haven't been to Europe, these bills are a hodgepodge of sizes and colors. Every time I open my wallet, I feel like I'm staring at Monopoly money. The five-euro bill is literally the size of a business card. Now, I haven't actually been lucky (or affluent) enough to have handled one of the elusive 500-euro notes (that's about $720 for those of you keeping score at home), but I can only imagine they are roughly the size of a dinner table.
Killer exchange rate aside, where is the consistency I've come to know and love from the American dollar? I don't need my money to be aesthetically pleasing. Seriously, aside from the blind, who really suffers from having uniform bill sizes? This cacophony of currency is pretty atrocious, but the coins might be even more troublesome.
Because the lowest denomination of euro bills is the five, they have coins of one and two euros, along with the 50-, 20-, 10-, two- and one-cent coins. This creates the feeling that you are dragging about 20 extra pounds around in your pants' pockets. You can go to a restaurant, get a decently priced meal and pay with nothing but coins, but it is totally normal. Try to pull that in the States, and you have a fairly good chance of getting knifed.
Now this does bring up some interesting scenarios. For example, how do strip clubs work in Europe? It's hard to imagine patrons casually slipping five-euro notes to the dancers. That kind of money can add up really quick. But at the same time, I can't see the girls getting pelted with spare change. Last time I checked, it was pretty tough to slide a coin into a G-string. Maybe they wear those coin dispensers on their garters, I don't know.
You see, this is the sort of stuff they should be telling us in the study abroad handbook. Office of International Education, the ball is in your court.
Actually, I did some research, and my housemate Meredith (of all people) informed me that upon entering a European strip club, you exchange some euros for fake money that you then use to tip the dancers. See, aren't you glad I'm here to tell you these things? Maybe the more pressing question is how Meredith came into this knowledge, but I didn't delve any further.
Another monetary issue that seems to pop up a lot is how much to tip in Spain. I'm told since the tip is already worked into the bill and whatnot, anywhere from 5 to 10 percent is more than adequate, assuming the service was satisfactory. But judging the quality of service is a whole other task itself.
Apparently I've been spoiled by the American style of waiting to the point that I actually assume somebody will approach me for a drink order within the first couple of minutes after sitting down.
This is not the case in Spain.
In fact, I'm fairly confident that I could take a seat at any restaurant in Madrid and wait for more than two hours before receiving as much as a glance from whatever disgruntled waiter is working that night. The problem is that while in America, you have control of the patron/waiter relationship because they make their livings of off tips. They are financially obligated to be as charming as possible (often to the point of annoyance). In Spain, they could not care less about your little 5 percent tip, and they're not afraid to be blunt about it. It's not unusual to have to physically assault a waiter to get his attention. Even then, make sure you get your food order in because you're not seeing that guy for the next hour and a half. I would suggest getting back at him by paying your bill all in change, but unfortunately, the Europeans have taken that away too.
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As I finish writing this article, I'm reminded of a quote from "Dope Case Pending," one of my favorite low-budget Wal-Mart movies: "When it comes to money, the only color that matters is green."
Oh, if only.
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