As all of you should know , I have had several (but not enough) friends visit me since my move to Paris last August. One of those friends is the most money-savvy person I know. She lives for bargains. She finds incredible plane fares. She abhors waste of any kind- mainly food, but also money. When she asked me what to do about euros before her trip, I told her that most of my visitors had used a credit card with a PIN to withdraw money from the ATM machines here, and that I had also heard that some US bank debit cards will work in these ATM machines. She quickly reported back that her credit card would charge her 10% of her transaction to give her cash, and that her debit card would charge 3%. Neither of those was acceptable to my friend. Truth be told, I’m not even sure she has a debit card, as she doesn’t use American ATM machines, probably because she is afraid of being mugged. Did I mention that she also sees danger looming on every corner? Anyway, being the savvy consumer she is, she discovered that American Express in Houston would give her euros for no fee, and that’s what she brought. After a couple of days of traipsing around Paris, I happened to discover that Am Ex had bestowed upon her the ultimate “black bean” in France. My friend had in her wallet a 500 euro note. I was shocked. I had never seen a 500 euro note. I was even more shocked that we had been walking around Paris with such a thing. I was also dismayed, because I knew there was no chance in hell that ANYONE was going to accept that note. Anything bigger than a 50 is difficult to spend around here, unless you are shoe shopping at Le Bon Marche. And don’t you go thinking you can walk into any old bank and change money. No sir. Banks here don’t touch money. I think it’s too much “dirty commerce” for them. I hoped that she had enough smaller cash that she wouldn’t need that bill, and I told her to hide it in her room and not tell me or anyone else where she put it.
A few days later we were actually planning to go to Le Bon Marche, and I was quickly reading through blogs while I waited for her to get ready. One of the blogs contained a link to “how to change a 500 euro note in Paris”, which I found to be pretty darned coincidental. I clicked on it and found myself here, a nice long post on another hapless soul’s attempt to pass on such a behemoth in Paris. The author said that the only place to accomplish such a feat was to go to Banque De France, which, coincidentally, was located practically next door to Le Bon Marche. I told my friend to grab her dough because we were going to change that sucker.
Sure enough, shortly after getting off of the 83 bus, we saw this imposing building staring at us.
It was also very tall, but I didn’t move far enough away from it to capture its height.
When we walked up to the door, a nice woman held it open for us to follow her into a very small enclosure where another glass door confronted us. The woman in front of us stood at the door and pushed the flashing yellow button, which apparently alerted someone that we were at the door. A booming voice inquired what her business was, and she said she wanted to change a 500 euro note (just like us!). Suddenly the voice bellowed something about the two people behind her (they would be us) and she acted confused and he yelled, “The other two people there, get out!” We quickly turned and fumbled with the door behind us, and he yelled “Push the button!”. We felt like we were being blasted by The Wizard of Oz. At last we managed to burst out of there, back onto the outer entryway, and we looked at each other with wide eyes and wondered what the heck had just happened. When we saw the other woman gain admittance to the inner sanctum, I pushed my friend back into the enclosure and told her she would have to go it alone, as apparently one could enter the bank only as a single. She looked scared but bravely pushed the yellow button and then the green button to enter the enclosure. I watched anxiously through the door as she stood there for some time, talking to The Voice. Finally I saw her push the magic button to be let in, but only after she removed her hat. Apparently hats are against the dress code at le banque.
As I waited outside, I really wanted to take a picture of the colored buttons next to the door, but I was seriously afraid that armed guards would jump out of nowhere and take me down if I tried. This is a very serious place. They definitely do not give out candy or calendars or tell you to have a nice day.
She finally emerged back into the sunshine ten minutes later. She said they had asked her all kinds of questions, including the address where she was staying (I think she had to make something up), but ultimately they changed her note and sent her on her way. It was a huge victory for us, but not something I would care to repeat.
So please, when you come to France, don’t let anyone pawn off big bills on you before you get here. It’s just not worth it, people.