Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Changing Money and Who Says the French Aren't Friendly

Ok, finally time for my first good story. I admit everything up until now has been pretty dry but I was just experimenting to see how all this worked. But now I have answers to TWO questions that may actually be useful to a Paris visitor and I learned these within my first 30 minutes of arriving at our apartment:

1) Where can you exchange US Dollars for Euros? Especially if you have LOTS of US Dollars.
2) Do Parisians actually LIKE Americans?

After I answer these two questions, you are going to wonder how many MORE wonderful insights I will be able to deliver in 11 weeks if I can do this in just 30 minutes!

The manager of the apartment had insisted that the 3000 Euro security deposit be in cash even though I was allowed to wire transfer the rent (despite multiple attempts by email to persuade him otherwise). Go figure.

3000 Euros at the current exchange rate (approaching 1.5, about 10% higher than last spring) is almost $4500, which is a LOT of cash to be carrying from the US to Europe.

The morning of our trip (Monday), I went to the bank and obtained $5000 in travelers checks. I figured I could either exhcnge them into Euros as soon as I arrived or just give the manager the deposit in dollars.

As I ended my previous post, we had arrived at our apartment early. I noticed a BNP Paribus (Banque Nationale de Paris Paribas ) just at the end of the block (see map at bottom of this post), I told the driver (who had to wait for the manager anyway) who I owed 80 Euros for the ride that I was just going to the end of the street to convert my dollars into Euros.

Should be easy right? I mean where else would you exchange money but a bank?

Well, the tellers (?) immediately informed me in their broken but friendly English that currency exchanges are done by La Banque Postale which happens to have an office just a few hundred yards down the street. (Turns out that this is what they call a "post office" so I don't know if it is a bank, a mail center, or both.)

When I walked to the counter and pulled out $5000 in traveler checks to exchange, the lady behind the counter feinted fainting in quite dramatic fashion and wished I would just go away. Fortunately, another employee came to my assistance and could speak some English. After some back and forth and checking back in the office, they explained that they could only exchange $2000. That was their limit.

Ok... after countersigning 20 $100 traveler check notes, I received my 1342.30 Euros.

I was told to go to ANOTHER office to get another $2000.

At this point, a customer appeared after witnessing what was happening and offered to help. He was a pleasant attractive gentleman probably approaching 60. He insisted that he DRIVE ME to the nearest Banque de France. Surely they would exchange the rest of my money.

So we walked across the street and then down a couple streets to where his car -- a nice Audi sedan -- was parked across from his apartment. He said he normally is never in Paris in August (most Parisians go on vacation in August and many stores and offices are closed -- the city is rather quiet right now) but happened to be in town for the week. His name was Gean.

So.... he drove me to the nearest Bank of France, parking on the curb, where he said he would wait for me. At this point, I have no idea where I am. "Please don't drive away while I'm gone," I think to myself.

I rush into the bank, proceed to the nearest teller who promptly informs me that they DO NOT exchange currency. You HAVE to be kidding me!

A young couple sitting nearby (why they are just sitting there, I have no idea, they looked like they were idling on a park bench) overheard and the man approached me, informing me that I could exchange the money at the next intersection at Le Bon Marche.

"Le Bon who?" I asked.

He pointed me to the big building down the street. I was going to tell Gean but I figured it would be faster if I just ran to the next building and back, hoping (praying?) that Gean didn't see me leave the bank and go the other way (or simply get tired of waiting) and decide to give up on me.

Turns out Le Bon Marche is a VERY impressive department store. It was several floors (I never left the first so never counted how many) and rivals any department store I have seen in the US. I was directed by the concierge at the front door to the back of the store after I explained my problem (which basically consisted of flashing thousands of dollars in traveler checks in front of his face).

Sure enough, there was a desk in the back with a handsome young man who spoke great English who agreed to exchange my remaining $3000 for Euros (after a quick phone call to confirm).

Are you kidding me? A department store is willing to exchange $3000 for Euros and 3 banking centers would not? It wasn't that I looked like some dignified business man in a nicely pressed shirt. I was in khakis and untucked polo shirt having just slept on a plane, and unshaven for several days with disheveled hair who had looked like he had been running around Paris in 85 degree heat (which he had!).

Whatever. 30 signatures later I had my 2010 Euros.

I ran back to Gean who thankfully was still there and never even realized I had left the Bank of France. He likewise was surprised that Le Bon Marche exchanged my money but upon further reflection, it made sense. Wealthy tourists shop at expensive department stores and it behooves those stores to exchange dollars for Euros to facilitate business. Pretty smart, huh?

Gean drives me back to the apartment where Amanda and our driver Olivier are waiting. Emily from the management company had arrived and let them into the apartment. As it turns out, Olivier had wondered where I was (since I had not paid him yet) and had actually retraced my steps first to BNP Paribas and then to La Banque Postale, where of course the trail ran dry after they told him I had run off with some unknown gentleman! :)

Olivier had returned just before Gean delivered me. Gean even gave me his cell phone number in case I had questions. I thanked him profusely and he said it was a privilege to help a guest of Paris!

So what ever happened to those rude unfriendly Parisians you hear so much about from Americans? At each step of the way, I had someone assist me with my problem, in sometimes dramatic fashion. Pretty amazing I thought.

I paid Olivier, then Emily for the security deposit and then I was broke again :) Actually I had a few hundred Euros left but that wouldn't last too long.

So the moral of this story is if you want to exchange money -- especially if you have a LOT to exchange -- go to La Bon Marche (or any decent department store)! And don't be surprised if you run into a couple guardian angels pretending to be Parisians :)

Who would have guessed?

NOTE: As it turns out, we found out today that there was an exchange center in Monoprix, the department store that average Parisians shop at, although this one was located on Blvd St Michel close to Notre Dame... in other words, among lots of tourists.

View Exchanging Money in Paris in a larger map

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