Friday, May 6, 2011

Brother, can you spare a kopeck?

One of the things you learn to do in Russia is to hoard change like a miser.  It takes a bit of getting used to if, like me, you're used to counting out exact change at the gas station to get rid of all those pesky pennies and nickels.

But here, when you're trying to buy 287 rubles' worth of groceries, and you only have a 1000-ruble note in your wallet, chances are pretty good that the cashier won't be able to make change.  Even if she can - this is not a case of sexist language; about 98 percent of cashiers are women - you will likely be met with a suspicious stare and a glance into your wallet to ascertain whether or not you are lying.

(I have learned to open and close my wallet with lightening speed, especially when shopping at the larger stores where I KNOW they can break a 1000-ruble note.  Also, when asked whether I have change, I lie shamelessly, to save my coins and small bills for the neighborhood shops where they are really necessary.)

The truly irritating thing about all of this is that prices are still marked in kopecks.  To the hundredth place, too.  And while I have a few odd 10- and 50-kopeck pieces in my change purse, I've never seen a 1-kopeck piece - well, not since 1987, when a few kopecks could actually buy you something.  (Currently, they are worth about 1/4 of a penny.)  So it's nearly impossible to EVER have exact change.  And the cashiers will generally just round up to the tenth. 

Kopecks aren't the only coins here, though.  There are 1-, 2-, 5- and 10-ruble coins.  Notes only go down to 10 rubles.  So, in order to have exact change, you must always be carrying an array of coins in your purse or pocket.  If not, and the shop truly doesn't have change, you may be unable to purchase what you need.

On Sunday, I ventured out to a butcher shop recommended by a friend.  After the butcher had measured out a kilo of chicken breasts for me, we discovered that I did not have exact change, and that he was unable to break my smallest bill.  I fully expected to have to hand back the bag of chicken, but he told me to bring the money the following day.  I was floored.

I went back on Monday to pay him and buy what turned out to be some very nice ground beef.  I wonder whether he knows he has just scored a loyal customer?

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