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 The Brancatelli File

joe WELCOME TO EUROLAND:
NO SNOW, NO CURRENCY


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

January 7, 1999 -- I know a place where the airports aren't clogged with snow, where the terminals aren't jammed with tired, rumpled leisure travelers struggling to get home from their New Year's trips, and where the flights actually arrive and depart as planned.

Where is this magic kingdom that is immune to the miserable winter weather creating havoc with our travel schedules?

Allow me to introduce you to Euroland, the nickname for the 11 European Community nations that adopted the euro as their official currency on January 1.

Funniest thing about Euroland, though. Not only isn't there any snow to bollix up air travel, there aren't any coins or notes to prove there is a currency called the euro.

I've been kicking around Euroland for more than a week now and, except for the odd snatch of tape on CNN International or SkyNews, I've got no idea of the snowy horror you folks are coping with back home. The media here is naturally obsessed with the dawn of the euro, how the 11 participating nations are dealing with the euro and what the man on the street, rue, strasse and piazza is thinking about the euro.

Euro. Euro. Euro. That's all you hear about here. But, as far as business travelers are concerned, there is no euro of which to speak. While the euro theoretically exists in trading rooms and in computers, you can't touch a euro note or a euro coin. And despite what I see and read in the English-language media here, I haven't seen a store, a hotel, an airline or a taxi that quotes its prices in euros.

Now, to be fair, this isn't a matter of much ado about nothing. The euro, one day, really will matter. In the year 2001, Arthur Clarke and Stanley Kubrick willing, local currencies such as the French franc, German mark, Italian lira and eight others will be phased out. In 2001, you won't be able to pay your bar tab in Finnish markkaa, buy your tapas in Spanish pesetas, book a flight to Amsterdam in Dutch guilders or pay for your Lisbon hotel room in Portuguese escudos. All these currencies--and the Austrian schilling, Belgian franc, Irish punt and Luxembourg franc--will be replaced by the euro.

When 2001 comes, you'll change your dollars for euros, travel anywhere and everywhere in Euroland, and never again wonder what to do with your leftover lire or francs or marks. Everything in all 11 participating nations will be priced in Euros and all 11 local currencies will be gone. No more strange coins, no more odd notes and no more looking like a fool in Belgium when you accidentally try to stuff a German pfennig into a vending machine.

Until then, however, the powers that be in the European Community are foisting a gigantic fraud on the American business-travel public. Without notes or coins in circulation, the euro remains primarily an accounting tool for banks and a lovely way to pretend Euroland is one big happy family. Right now, despite what you may have heard back in the states between the snow reports, the euro is absolutely meaningless to frequent flyers. You'll still have to carry a calculator to figure out what a 540,000-lire hotel room in Rome costs (that's about US$325) and you'll still have to sprint through Euroland carrying markkaa and guilders and francs and pesetas.

In other words, the less you worry about the euro right now, the better. For a while, at least, forget the damned thing exists. Trust only in currency you can see. Believe only in coins and notes you can change at the cambio booth.

And, please, don't think I'm being peevish or an Ugly American. I am not alone in this "believe-only-what-you-can-spend" skepticism about the euro.

On Monday, in Amsterdam, anti-euro protesters nailed the Dutch finance minister with cream pies. Right in the kisser--and right on television. The Germans, who believe the creation of the modern Deutschmark literally saved the nation after World War II, aren't necessarily keen to switch to the euro. The British are so torn by the whole idea of a pan-European currency that they've decided not to play for now. And, as if to prove that they are the most infuriating people on the planet, the French are seething because the monetary union has been dubbed Euroland. They think the term is another Anglo-Saxon attack on their language and some French nationalists are demanding that the term be changed to Le Terre Euro.

And so it goes here in Euroland. There's no snow, but, as usual, plenty of les jerks at whom you'd like to heave a few snowballs!

This column originally appeared at biztravel.com.

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.