It happened today, in back-to-back instances.
I first went to a small shop here in Vilnius where my tab was 14 Litas. I gave the girl 54 Litas (in an effort to unload some coins). She entered “54” into the till and the till provided an answer: “40”.
Wait a minute, she said, leaving two twenties on the change plate. Wait a minute.
Everything’s fine, I said.
No, wait. Something’s wrong.
The flustered girl, blushing, searched for a calculator. The one she dug out of a drawer didn’t work, so she did the math longhand on a bit of paper.
Oh, she said. Everything’s fine.
Only a half hour later, in a mall coffeeshop, I ordered an overpriced cup of burnt Joe. The bill was 6.53 Litas. I handed the girl, in an effort to unload some coins, 7.03 Litas. She made some mistake while entering it into the till and grew flustered.
Wait a minute, she said, blushing. Her fingers toyed through the golden and silver coins.
I did not want to embarrass her by saying how much I was owed. I waited until she did some counting and handed me, at first, seven cents, then caught herself to offer fifty, two twenty cent pieces along with a ten.
So, there you have it. As has happened to me so many times in conversation with Europeans—a couple who happened across a gas station in Minnesota or a Dollar Store in Manhattan, perhaps a diner in Denver, and encountered an underpaid and exhausted worker who, in the course of doing their mindless and humiliating job, gave the wrong change or got flustered in the process, especially when a customer handed over an unusual amount of money—I now get to extend the gesture:
Because of these two girls in Vilnius, I’ll allow myself to conclude that an entire continent can’t give change. I’ll feel smug about it and decide that I am, indeed, very well educated, while an entire continent looks at me and thinks, What an unfortunate and small-minded little twit.
Or perhaps there’s someone thinking, No, because in America you would have gotten twelve or eighty cents, something like that. I’m certain that opinion exists. There’s also someone thinking, In, America this happens every time you go to the store but in Europe only twice in all the years you’ve traveled. That person’s out there as well. So is this one: The American wouldn’t know longhand.
Etcetera. I could go on for hours.