For some reason, merchants guard their change as if these coins contained real silver, gold and copper while throwing paper money around as if it contained real wood pulp.
I once rode with a taxi driver who stopped at three different places looking for a 500 CFA coin (approximate value: $1), but no one would give him change for a 1,000 CFA bill. Never mind that the driver wasted much more time trying to find a coin than trying to find his next customer, these people are absolutely steadfast about the need for coinage.
My local convenience store/gas station absolutely refuses to give out change unless someone makes a purchase. And there are two ironies here: they will not give out change during the day when the bank - located one block from the convenience store - is open AND the employees don't own the store, so I imagine they would get paid for walking to the bank, cashing in bills for change, and walking back to the store.
You may have already guessed this information is required reading to appreciate the story of my most recent shopping experience at Casino. One other note that will add tremendously to your reading pleasure is to understand Part One of this story occurred sometime in October, whereas Part Deux takes place in February.
I went to Casino ostensibly because it is the only place in Dakar where I can find a particularly yummy brand of cashews. They are prepared "Senar Style" which (I think) means that the entire cashew nut is first grilled, then shelled and bagged. These cashews are WAY better than dry roasted peanuts, which is the closest comparison I can make in the U.S. Before I leave Senegal, I will be visiting the company to ask them to fill an entire carry-on suitcase for my personal consumption in the U.S. If they even last the plane ride home...
In any case, I walked to the cash register with a 200 gram bag and the cashier looked at me. She asked me something in French, which the bag boy translated to me in English as, "She wants to know if you have money." I looked closely at the cashier and it was - yes indeed! - "I'm a B*tch!" from October! Apparently, she thought I might try paying with a credit card and she was planning to refuse my purchase.
I said, "Oui" and she ran the product through the bar code scanner.
I need to digress for a moment to tell yet another story about the Casino bar code scanner. Ever since that fateful day when I was charged $20 for truffles that I did not buy, I only purchase a few things at a time at this fine grocery store. That way, I can clearly see what is being scanned and how much it will cost. One day, I went to purchase a bag of cat food (clearly, another blog entry is forthcoming on that) and noticed the store had replaced the usual ten varieties of Friskies with a single variety of store brand. Every section of every shelf contained the same variety of store brand cat food. Usually a 1/2 kg bag (one pound) costs 675 CFA (about $1.40) and a 2 kg bag (5 pounds) costs about 2,400 CFA (about $5). When they scanned the store brand through the bar code, someone had - once again - entered the wrong price in the system and I refused to pay $5 for a $1.40 bag of cat food. Every cashier in this store has finally determined I am the one customer who does not take kindly to paying three times more than I should because of bar code idiocy.
Now, back to our previous story... My lovely cashier ran the product through the bar code scanner and the price came up as 2,090 CFA (or, $4.18). I handed her three 1,000 CFA bills. She asked if I had change. I said no, only bills. You may realize that she was speaking in French and I was speaking in English, but we were communicating quite well. Or, so I thought.
The next thing I know, the bag boy translates for me in English, "She wants to know if you have any change." No, I repeated, I only have bills. The cashier looked at me. She asked me AGAIN if I had change. The bag boy reaches into his pocket and pulls out some coins. I honestly thought he was going to pay the 90 CFA for me just to put an end to this Mexican stand-off. But no, he shows me his change and asks, "Do you have any of these?" as if I didn't understand him the first time. I held my tongue, but the cashier absolutely would not open her cash drawer to make change. Had my command of French been a bit better, I would have said, "You do realize your job is "cashier", which means "one who makes change", don't you?"
Instead, I tried a different tack: "No comprendre Anglais?" I asked. She shook her head no, raising her eyebrows as if to say, "Who, me?" and matched that facial feature with a smirk that would have made George W. Bush proud. "Oh, that's too bad," I replied loud enough for anyone within earshot to hear, "because I was going to call you a F***ing B*tch!"
Suddenly, her eyes lit up. "Oh!" I said, "Vous comprendre Anglais! Donnez mon f***ing changer!"
At this point, my favorite cashier now realized that in my few months in this fine country, I was able to grasp enough French to survive in a supermarket. She slowly opened the register. She handed me a 500 CFA coin, effectively shortchanging me by 410 CFA (or, about a dollar). I said, "Non, neuf!" and held up nine fingers. By this time, two other customers were waiting in line and one of them clearly understood English. For the benefit of that customer - and now anyone within three rows of this particular register - I held out my hand and proudly pronounced, "My f***ing change, please."
My favorite cashier slowly counted out coins and handed me the worst possible assortment of coins she could think of handing me (think a dime, two nickels and five pennies instead of a quarter). I nodded my head, smiled and walked out of the store. Those who know me will vouch that - while I may have a crude sense of humor - I rarely use profane language anywhere other than a golf course. But, I can now see the allure to becoming a stand-up comedian because there really is something satisfying about dropping the F-bomb three times in one minute in front of an audience to chastise someone who clearly relishes her status as "I'm a B*tch!"
Maybe she thought she was making me look like a stupid American, but I know better. For pennance, I will return to Casino. And buy a small bag of cashews every week.