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 The Brancatelli File

joe SIXTY HOURS
IN EUROLAND


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

January 3, 2002 -- The Eurocrats and political poohbahs who unleashed the Euro on New Year's Day as the unified legal tender of 12 of the 15 European Community nations have spared no expense and left no superlative unspoken in their attempt to convince the world that all went swimmingly on "E-Day."

In fairness, their view is eminently supportable. After all, there were no street riots. There were no spectacular financial collapses. And, for the first few hours, at least the English-language televised view of E-Day was all concerts and parties and fireworks and local politicians gamely spending crisp new Euro notes and shiny new Euro coins on coffee and pastry and the occasional bottle of chestnuts.

But take it from me, here on the ground in the heart of Rome: The transition to the Euro has gone smoothly because virtually no one is using it yet. Most Europeans may have acquired a small stash of Euro coins and their first batch of Euro notes, but they continue to shop and think in "legacy" currency, the current jargon Eurocrats are using to describe the German mark, French franc, Italian lira and nine other local currencies that supposedly began receding into European history on December 31, 2001.

After three years as a virtual currency and an accounting standard, the Euro's debut as real, street-level money is nothing more than an added annoyance. If you're coming to Euroland in the next few weeks, then bring your stashes of Spanish peseta, Finnish markka, Dutch guilder, and Greek drachma and be prepared to think in three currencies: the local legacy money, the Euro and the U.S. dollar.

Next week, I'll have complete details on the intricacies of the new Euro--with seven denominations of notes, eight types of coins and 12 participating nations, there's plenty to learn--and information on the harder deadlines for the inevitable, unavoidable transition from legacy currencies. This week, however, a personal diary of the first 60 hours of life in Euroland.

12:15AM, New Year's Day   Along with hordes of other Europeans, I head out in search of an ATM to get my first batch of Euro notes. Since circulation of Euro notes was verboten before E-Day, no European has seen anything but the Euro coins in their starter kits. Curiosity quickly turns to bemusement: A third of the ATMs in Rome are not dispensing any notes at all and another third seem to be spewing lira, technically a violation of EC banking rules. When I find ATMs dispensing Euros, the smallest note they are offering is the 10 Euro (about US$9), or about 19,300 lira. There seem to be no 5-Euro notes around and precious few 1- or 2-Euro coins. (One Euro is currently worth around 90 U.S. cents.)

12:15PM, New Year's Day    English-language broadcasters are reporting that the Euro launch is going smoothly, although CNN's Richard Quest astutely notes the first examples of "Euro creep," the rounding up of prices as they are switched from local denominations to Euros. He says the charge to use pay toilets at the Frankfurt train station has gone from 50 pfennig to 50 Euro cents, a 50 percent increase. The breakfast at his hotel mysteriously cost three Euros more this morning than the equivalent price in German marks yesterday, he also notes. Italian broadcasters are reporting longer than usual holiday lines at the toll booths on the Autostrada as clerks struggle to accept lira in payment and make change in Euro.

9PM, New Year's Day   I wander out, my 10 Euro notes burning a hole in my pocket. I walk over to Giolitti, the famed ice-cream parlor. The cashier is armed with two cash registers and two calculators. But all the customers seem to be paying in lira and she is returning change in lira, another violation of EC rules. Then a British tourist with a 10-Euro note approaches, trying to purchase a small cup of gelato. This 3,000-lira/1.5 Euro purchase is more than the cashier can handle. She looks at her Euro cash register, turns the cash bin upside down to make the point that she has no change, and sends the tourist away. I decide I can live without a gelato, too.

1PM, January 2   Thirty-seven hours after the Euro's debut, I decide it is time to spend some of mine. I walk to the local grocery story, where all the goods have been clearly marked with both Euro and lira prices for more than a year. I choose two bottles of wine and a kilo of sugar and the clerk hands me a cash-register-generated scontrino (bill) for 7.49 Euros. I confidently hand him a 10 Euro. He panics. He looks at the note, then runs into the back and comes out with a cash till and an unopened bag of Euro coins. Before he opens the bag, I tell him in Italian that it's fine to give me change in lira. He looks at me, looks at the bag, then goes for his calculator. He converts the change due me and hands me 4,800 lira. "You are the first one to give me a Euro," he says sheepishly.

1:25PM, January 2   At the newsstand, I load up: USA Today, The Wall Street Journal Europe, the International Herald Tribune, the Financial Times and la Repubblica, Rome's leading tabloid. The usually efficient newsstand agent needs to calculate the prices three times before announcing my charge: "Otto punto settante cinque" (8.75 Euros). I hand him a 10 Euro note and he scurries for his calculator. He laboriously counts out 1.25 Euro in change. Elapsed time: 4 minutes and 35 seconds. I turn away to find a queue of six Romans, lira in hand, waiting to buy their papers and magazines.

3:45PM, January 2   Lunch for two at a local restaurant and the waitress brings a dual-currency bill: 37.18 Euro or 71,991 lira. I walk up to the counter and hand the cashier a 100,000-lire note. He opens his cash drawer--I lean over and peek: It's filled with lira and I don't see a single Euro note or coin--and makes change in lira. Technically, he should be giving me change in Euro. "How are you doing with the Euro?" I ask him in Italian. "Haven't seen one," he responds. "Everyone's paying in lira and everyone takes lira for change."

8:15PM, January 2   I breeze through the newspapers. The front-page headline of the International Herald Tribune declares the Euro transition "makes history, without a hitch," but the story underneath reports that most merchants are making change in local currency or refusing to accept the Euro. Inside, in the Italy Daily insert, the front-page headline says, "Euro-Shy Italians Still Need the Lira."

9PM, January 2   CNN International and BBC World continue to sell the Euro as a smash success and focus on the Euro's six-day trading high of 90 cents against the U.S. dollar. But a BBC reporter in Frankfurt admits on camera that his flawless purchase of a coffee, using German marks to pay and accepting Euro in change, happened "only because we rehearsed it…and I took it for granted that I got the proper Euro change." On Italian television, the focus is on the long lines at banks and post offices and the chaos at the train stations, where a software glitch made purchasing tickets a nightmare. Spanish and French television show similarly long lines and report that most transactions continue in local currencies.

11:45PM, January 2   Dinner for two and an effortless purchase of 80 Euros, charged to my credit card. But when I hand the waiter a 10-Euro tip, he says, in Italian, "So this is a Euro note…"

11AM, January 3   Back to the grocery store for a packet of coffee. The dual-currency sign pegs the cost at 2.84 Euros. I root around my pocket and come up with exact Euro change and hand it to the clerk. He dumps the coins on the counter, comes out from behind it, and heads to the coffee display to check the price. "Due punto ottanta quattro," he mutters. He returns to the counter, eyes the coins suspiciously, then begins to count them out. "Uno, due," he says, after fingering the bimetallic 1-Euro coins. Then on to the smaller change. "Cinquanta," he says, looking at the 50-Euro-cent piece. He examines a 20-Euro-cent coin, and says "Settante." The 10-Euro-cent piece elicits, "Ottanta!" Then, after looking at the pair of 2-Euro-cent pieces, he says, "Ottanta due, ottanta quattro." Satisfied, he scoops up the coins and tosses them somewhere onto a shelf below his cash register. "Where's your Euro cash till?" I ask in Italian. "In the back," he says. "Nobody is using Euros, so I haven't bothered.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com

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