Once upon a time, I had a holiday job working in a Thomas Cook foreign exchange bureau on the rue de Rivoli, opposite the Jardin des Tuileries.
It is fortunate that I do not suffer from claustrophobia, because this involved being locked in all day behind the (probably not) bulletproof glass (because the safety instructions mentioned ducking as well as pressing the panic button) until a security man came to let me out in the evening. And the office was rather cramped.
Fun aspects of this job were that I got to open a proper combination safe every morning – like in a James Bond film: 10 to the left, 100 to the right – to get my hands on the cash stash. Then there was the fact that I could read a book when there were slack spells, or sing along to the radio, and no-one saw/heard. I also got an (albeit small) thrill from wheeling and dealing. The French Franc was in its death throes and consequently the exchange bureaus were all in fierce competition with one another to make as much money as possible before the introduction of the euro wiped out half of their business. In order to win over customers who were wisely shopping around before changing their money I had to haggle. The rate shown on the board was for mugs. My goal was to entice people to change more cash so that I could give them a (slightly) better rate. I pretended to do lots of complicated sums on my calculator and this usually did the trick.
Bad things about the job were that I had to deal with a lot of very dodgy/ignorant people on a daily basis. There were the gypsy ladies who probably put Romany curses on me when I refused to change their huge bags of centimes into Francs (I wasn’t allowed to) and hassled my customers. Being in a glass bowl like a goldfish makes you rather impotent in such situations . There were shifty looking men (pimps?) who came to change vast amounts of low denomination dollar bills late at night, and didn’t take too kindly to my confiscating the forgeries that they had slipped in for good measure. (I was trained to recognise forged dollars: a missing tree here, insufficient detail on a president’s face there.)
Then there were the tourists. Some of the things they came out with left me speechless.
Female tourist: ‘Honey, I don’t understand. Can you tell me why the restaurant over there won’t accept dollars?’
Petite : ‘Ah. That’ll be because you are in France and the only legal tender in France is the French Franc…’
I then proceeded to change her dollars at the rate on the board because clearly this customer would not be doing any negotiating.
Female tourist to French colleague: ‘Oh my gawd, isn’t it cute the way everyone speaks French here? Y’all are so clever.’
I struggled to make sense of this one. Finally realisation dawned that she thought that every human being was born speaking English and that French people had learnt French as a second language from an early age. No really. That was what she meant.
The most distressing part of the job was however the International Money Transfer service. How I hated taking hard earned cash from some poor immigrant worker and sending a tiny fraction of it home to their needy relatives. Those services are outrageously expensive, but people without bank accounts have very little alternative but to use them. When I was working alone I broke the rules by trying to explain the cost of each transaction, but either I couldn’t make myself understood or the customer knew but wanted to send it regardless.
If you are travelling to France with large amounts of cash or travellers cheques, a word of warning. Life is harder for exchange bureaus these days, and they are consequently meaner. Don’t assume that because you have euro denomination cheques they will be exchanged without commission. I learnt this to my cost when my well meaning mum gave Tadpole some money in M&S Travellers cheques. There was a 10% charge. I was livid. No negotiation possible. Walking away and pretending to go to another agency didn’t have the desired effect (i.e. of them calling me back over to make a new proposition).
Evidently the rules of the game have changed since I last played.