Monday, January 7, 2002

Money and Contempt

[from the deep-storage archives]

Coins of less than 10 Pfennig in value never used to exist. One collected them unwillingly in one’s pockets, unloading them as quickly as possible in some container designated for the purpose in one’s apartment—or if possible in the apartments of one’s friends (dinner guests were always dumping out handfuls of 1-Pfennig coins on the sly). Using these coins to make a purchase in a shop was invariably seen as an insult to the salesperson. Once the writer of these lines was punished in a small grocery store in Prenzlauer Berg for returning her deposit bottles without buying new milk or water (being in the process of moving): the lady at the cash register took her time assembling the sum of 1,20 DM out of 1, 2 and 5 Pfennig coins. (A more quick-witted customer might have asked: “Haben Sie’s nicht kleiner?”) Enter the Euro. The erstwhile Groschen, a coin of small but by no means negligible worth (half a call on a pay phone in many places), has been replaced by the 5 Cent piece, a coin which is virtually nonexistent. (In 10 years, will children understand the expression “Der Groschen ist gefallen?”) If one tips, say, the attendant in a public restroom a Euro-dime plus two 5 Cent coins, it seems somehow stingy compared to the three Groschen one might otherwise have left for her, though in fact the Euro tip is worth 33% more. So now will these 5 Cent coins find their way into the same old jam jars half-full of old Pfennige no one ever remembered to bring back to the bank? The amount of money people are willing to throw away has just doubled. And who dares to tip a waitress an irregular sum? If a Milchkaffee costing 4,50 DM was once 5,00 including tip, its successor, at € 2,50 (€ 3,00 with tip by the new math) costs 17% more. (At least the 4 DM falafels at my local Imbiß have remained stable in price: “Zwei Teuro, bitte.”) So will the Euro bankrupt the Germans? My friend who drives a taxi says half his customers have responded to the change by not tipping at all (in other words, they interpret the in fact slightly jacked-up prices as already including a tip). So who likes the Euro? My local kiosk owner! When I handed him a 1 € coin the other night for a carton of milk (formerly 1,70 DM), he asked, “Ist das ein deutscher Euro oder etwa ein französischer?” Figuring something was up, I asked him whether he might happen to have a French euro coin on him. And there it was in his vest pocket, shiny and refreshingly free of the stylized Adler: the beginning of a collection.

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