On Jan. 1, 2002, 300 million people in 12 European countries ditched their old coins and bills and switched to the euro. This weblog kept track of the quirky human side of this gloriously epic yet tediously mundane transition, with correspondents in ten countries sharing their experiences.
Your hosts were David F. Gallagher, an American journalist living and working in Milan, Italy, and Joyce-Ann Gatsoulis, an American journalist living and working in Athens, Greece.
Andreas Purkott is a German graphic designer living and working near Heidelberg, Germany.
Graham Spencer, a.k.a. Graybo, runs a small nursery and event management business in Chichester, England, where he also lives.
Sue Kane, a.k.a. pseudo morph, is an American who has lived in the Dutch province of Brabant for 18 years.
So, how does it feel to be an Italian cashier in the euro era? Cash payments are really slow, people think a lot and take lots of time to count and check their money. We've got too many coins to deal with and they seem pretty difficult to handle, mostly if you put them on the desk and then the customer has to take them, they're annoyed by this inconvenience. Then, many are using credit card payment: today a man came to me and told me he's gonna use his credit card for the rest of his life. He said he doesn't even wanna get in touch with the euro coins. Was he joking? Maybe not. Credit card payment has increased 14% since Tuesday.
The Irish euro coins have the harp emblem on the reverse, just like the former penny coins.
My mother, who is 76, saw some of the old Irish coins on my desk. "It's funny," she said, "we've only had the euro for a few days, and already the old coins look funny somehow".
One distinct disadvantage of the new coins is that they look much more alike than the old ones, which were different in size and shape. It's more difficult to tell the difference between them in a dark pub in the evening. It works both ways, though. My girlfriend got a 2 euro coin in her change instead of a 1 euro...
EuroNews from Austria:
Most notably - for a country like Austria - is that everything appears to run smoothly so far.
How do people react to the new currency?
Apparently quite like in the rest of Euroland they queue up like crazy just to get their hands on the new money. As if the banks would give it away for free.
So many people queueing up every day to get euros ... I wonder if by next week anybody still has Schilling (ATS). I have to assume the 2 months dual currency phase will be an unnecessary burden for erverybody.
One thing which seems new or unfamiliar to me is that every time I get change the people giving it to me count it out loud and one coin at a time. Like:
"68 cents change, that's 50 cents, 10 cents, 5 cents, 2 cents and 1 cent - 68!"
Rather cumbersome, no?
Yesterday one of my 10 euro bills got wet. The paper quality appears to be s*it -- the bill didn't stay flat but rather reacted like any ordinary paper does: it got wrinkled.
After a two week absence, I've finally rejoined the lands of the euro. Isolated in somewhat rural Alabama, I found local reaction to the arrival of the euro almost nonexistent, although people were very politely awed at our glittery new coins, and surprised to learn how complicated our going out to dinner in Belgium sometimes was. The only news coverage we saw was one of CNN's, filmed in Manchester, England ( we really had to ask ourselves ' Why there ?' ).
And so I met the new currency today. Suddenly, paying for parking at the Brussels airport was a breeze - no longer did we have to go through the very disadvantageous exchange rate at the parking lot, the money was simply in my brother-in-laws wallet. Asking my father-in-law how it was going with the euro in the Netherlands, he said quite smoothly. In fact, the only real problem was at the supermarkets. It seems everyone went to the ATMs, and received large bills. After awhile, even the best prepared of stores was out of change and a campaign went up encouraging people to use their pin passes more.
Arriving home, I had to hit the local market for milk and other must-haves. Going to the ATM in our town, I punched in 150 euro, hoping that I would get smaller bills, and out popped 3 fifties. At the grocery store, things were noticeably slower when people weren't paying with paper - the careful counting out and turning over of coins, the cashier helping out. I live in a very small town, and the atmosphere was one of helping each other out with something that was rather fun. My day will come next week, as I broke a fifty and now have a fistful of change.
Our opinion of the paper euros ? We find them quite nice looking. Now to see if they fit in our wallets.
Tobi in Vienna sends a link to an article in a German consumer magazine. The article says the one and two euro coins are 25 percent nickel, which causes allergic reactions for many people. Also the red 10 euro bills contain toxic compounds that could threaten your immune and hormonal systems. Solution: wear gloves at all times.
Gary in Valencia, Spain, says people there are likely to go slow with the euro switch because they've got two months to do it. "This is Spain, and we'll do it MAÑANA..."
Sorge in Canada is paranoid about this story which says euro notes will have radio-frequency ID tags built in by 2005, enabling tracking. "Yet another and very serious reason to be against the euro."
And Gianluca in Rome applauds the move of one cigarette brand there to cut its price 16 percent, instead of using the euro switch as an excuse to round up like everyone else. "Any shopkeeper/marketing director reading us? WAKE UP, it's a good idea, it's easy and it wins customers! Round DOWN!"
The restaurants seem to be having a bit of a problem with little extra change, especially when it's not customary here to leave a tip and the waiters are expected to pay back all the cents. When my friend and I asked for our bill, we both noticed that we didn't have enough cash in either currency. I solved the problem quickly by putting down an euro and the rest in marks, but Laura didn't have enough 10 penny coins to do that and a 7th grader stuck with such calculations in the middle of a vacation is not a pretty sight.
She solved the problem quickly for herself by dumping all her marks on the table and asking the waitress to tell her how much euros she should add. The waitress frowned for a while, took out her calculator and frowned some more, and at last went to a couple of other waiters and asked for help with the calculations. The sum turned out to be 45 cents, and when Laura offered 50 cents, the waitress admitted she actually did not have any 5 cent coins in hand. The matter was getting so ridiculous at that point that we shrugged and the waitress ended up getting a 5 cent tip.
A moment of awe at the boulangerie today. I noticed that the woman was calling out prices like this: "zero euro cinquante". Which in english is akin to saying, "zero euro fifty", instead of just saying "fifty cents". I find this method of expressing prices very peculiar.
I am guessing it's because in french, "cent" means hundred. One says "deux cents" for "two hundred", so saying "cinquante cents", would be like saying "fifty hundred" (wheras centieme is hundredth and was used with the old franc). What a conundrum. Has anyone encountered or heard about this linguistic difficulty? I'll have to ask around.
Italy is very much a two-currency country right now. My supermarket and a bar last night were all about euros. But at a second, slightly grungier bar, the bartender told us what we owed in lire, and my friend paid in lire. (I am not sure euros are considered very cool in places like that.) Same with the taxi on the way home, where the meter was still in lire, as if nothing at all had changed. I made a little euro joke to the elderly driver as I handed over my last lire bills, but I don't think he got it.
A newsstand this morning was very low on euro coins, so we had to do an elaborate little coin swap to set things right. At a street market the vegetable vendors called out prices in lire. Cries of 'mil-le li-re' have a certain musical quality that is lacking in 'cinquante centisimo euro.'
Although more people are starting to pay in euros, they still do so with big notes (see previous post). We had lots of problems giving out change today - not enough euro coins are going round it seems. We lost time (giving back 1.67 euro when you only have .20, .02 and .01 is not easy) and money (by returning euro-fivers when we needed to give back 4.72 euro for instance).
And because banks are very busy these days, you can forget about getting bags of coins for your store, else you'll lose 90 minutes waiting in the queue, and there's no guarantee they'll have the coins you're looking for. Not only that, I discovered that when you do get a bagful of coins, the amount of coins in that bag and their value are not printed! So you have to sit and count 150 coins, or whatever, one by one.
The shortage of coins is apparently becoming a national headache, making the shift to the euro from the merely anecdotal, which is what it should be, to the extremely frustrating.
And by the way, I haven't yet used the euro to buy things, so I don't know how it feels.
So i'm going to the cash machine for the first time in euros, and yes, i was a bit excited. Until the first one was out of service, and then the second, and then third. Five cash machines before i found one that was operational. And of course the fifth one had a big line, but still i was kind of excited. I got 40 euros. And it was kind of thrilling i have to say.. the bills so crisp, so crisp, so darn crisp.
This ad for a bank at a Milan subway station teaches people how to indicate cents on their checks. The lira is so tiny that Italians have never had to deal with cents -- I think the smallest coins I've seen are worth 10 lire, or half a euro cent.
Some people seem to be taking advantage of this unfamiliarity. A colleague says the newsstand guy at her metro stop has been giving people 8 cents in change when they buy packs of tickets, instead of the 80 cents they are owed. When challenged on this, he became enraged and pretended to work it out on his calculator.
Euro pudding at a New Year's Eve party in Brussels.
Yesterday was the first day for everybody to pay with the new currency in Germany (on January 1st most of the stores are closed). Thousands of people changed their marks to euros.
When I was shopping yesterday I had to wait a little bit longer at the counter. This was because a lot of people (including me) paid with d-mark and got change in euro. This was no problem in the large stores but seemed to be a huge mathematical problem in the small shops like bakeries, delis and butcher shops in the small village where I live. A lot of salespersons seemed to be swamped with the new currency, mostly the older ones. A older woman (approximately in her 70's) just showed me her hand full of euro coins and said: "Please pick out your change" (I have to admit that I'm quite often in her small bakery, so she trusted me).
I'm staying in a residence hotel, and the guy at the front desk asked me to pay my phone bill for December, which was in lire. I didn't have enough lire, and was keen to get rid of the lire I had, so I offered to pay in a combination of lire and euros. After some fiddling with the calculator, it was decided that this required consultation with the manager. Word came back that I had to pick one currency or the other -- no fancy stuff. So I handed over some euro bills. The guy had no change, so he consulted the manager again. The manager came out and said that, in fact, it was now just fine if I paid in a combination of lire and euros. In the end I paid 20 euros and agreed to pay the remaining 2 euros when I got some coins.
Total time spent on this transaction: 10 minutes. Welcome to the streamlined world of euro-efficiency!
Things seem to be going relatively easily in Ireland. On Tuesday there was only one bank open - the Central Bank in the centre of Dublin. There was a huge queue from early in the morning of people wanting to change their money into euro. They were given chocolates and champagne by the staff as they waited.
A couple of friends who went shopping came back with euro notes and examined them with interest. They reported slight delays in getting change - paying in Irish money, but getting euro in return. There was also a slight jolt at being told the total - until they realised it was in euro and therefore 27% higher.
Today I wandered round the local shops. There were big queues in the post offices and banks, as people waited to change their punts. My guess is that, with wages and social welfare payments now in euro, and credit and debit card payments automatically switched over, most Irish people will have switched over to the new currency within a week or so. There were large queues in shops, but with the seasonal sales in full swing, that's not entirely surprising.
Every family has been given a free euro calculator by the government, so they can check prices. Prices in the shops are supposed to be frozen for several weeks, but there are reports by drinkers in pubs of being overcharged.
In one of the local supermarkets, to release a trolley to go shopping with, you have to put in a coin (which you get back when you return it). This used to be a one punt coin, but now they've been adjusted to take either one punt or one euro. A quick check at the checkout revealed eight trolleys using punts, to two using euros. This proportion should change rapidly over the next few days.
Things are especially complicated for people like myself, based in the UK, and with three currencies to handle - euro, punt and UK pound (plus one more, because I brought some Dutch guilders to change at the Central Bank). There were no queues at the cashpoints, however, so I was able to use my cashpoint card to withdraw 50 euro from my UK account. I will not know how much that is in sterling until I get my next bank statement.
Today was the first business day since E-day. And because I work in a cell phone store and Spain is in full-fledged gift-buying season, I get to have an idea of how people are reacting towards the euro. One word:
Laziness and procrastination.
An overwhelming majority of our customers preferred to be informed of prices in pesetas, and laughed nervously when given the price in euros, like when you pretend to be amused at a really bad joke. Even foreigners (Germans, Britons, French) didn't feel right when we told them what a mobile would cost them in euros.
Needless to say, most people paid in the soon-to-be-extinct peseta. And not just any peseta - they gave us the larger notes (5,000 and 10,000 pesetas; EUR 30 and EUR 60 respectively), expecting their change back in euros. So we ran out of them pretty quickly.
First official working day of the euro in France, and let me tell you, things were slow. Real Slow. Cashiers were making change like confused tourists. I never realized how adept they all were at slinging coins until suddenly everything became so labor intensive. The tabac's slow lines were slowed even further by the prices of cigarettes going up ten percent on the first. So not only is there the euro price and euro change, but new franc prices as well. At the small grocery near my house, the frazzled cashier was interrupted making my euro change by a frantic restaurateur from next door begging for euros in small coins. He said no way followed by an exhausted laugh.
I've yet to pay by counting out coins in euros. Too much squinting. I just keep giving paper money. This also must be driving the cashiers nuts. I bet they haven't had a customer with exact change all day. It's all just Real Slow.
Helsingin Sanomat reported about the first 24 hours of the new currency in its Wednesday's issue, and instead of the normal titles of "Foreign", "Domestic", "City", etc., the title was just simply and efficiently "Euro", with a fancy sign of the euro in the left top corner of the D-section. Four full pages of euro-related news from both Finland and abroad. It did provide me with very interesting reading for the time it took me to make and eat breakfast. ;)
Minister of Finance Sauli Niinistö only got to hold his first euros on New Year, since he had missed out on the starter kits. He used them to buy a cup of coffee from a casino while the guests were cheering. Other first purchases done with euros include roses for their wives in Wien by Federal Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel and President of the European Comission Romano Prodi and officially the world's first euro-purchase, a kilo of litchi for 75 cents by mayor Rene-Paul Victoria in the French Reunion Island at 20:00:03 GMT.
There was a short queue at the Main Post's cash machine in Helsinki, since it was announced to be the first cash machine in Helsinki to give out euros. A much longer line was found at the National Bank, where the queue extended to as much as 300 meters and people were celebrating the New Year while waiting for a chance to change their marks into euros.
A lot of people are having trouble with the euros in the business world, according to Helsingin Sanomat. Kirsin KukkaKeppi ja Kivi, a floral shop in Northern Helsinki, had only five customers on New Year's Day, a lot fewer than normally, although it had its cash machine full of the new coins and bills. According to the salesperson, the older customers had been talking all through December about how they'll try to buy as few things as possible during January so as not to be cheated on. In a lounge for bus drivers in Eastern Helsinki, the drivers were having heated discussions about euros -- mostly against it. Even just a couple of people paying with both euros and marks during the way can leave the bus behind from schedule these days. At Tornio in Northern Finland, many of the elders in the city have gotten their first bank cards because they didn't want to deal with the change of currency. Near the Eastern border, the salespeople of the tax-free shops are up to their necks in currencies, because January's first days have traditionally been a busy time with all the Russian tourists returning to Russia, and now on top of marks, crowns, rubles, and dollars, they also have to deal with converting everything to and from euros.
On more personal news, my boyfriend had been one of the "lucky" ones to get their hands on an euro bill and bragged about it to me in an SMS. My mom, on the other hand, had not been so lucky: I can currently hear her in the kitchen telling my father how she's been completely cheated on and how it's a disgrace to the whole city. The cash machine she used to try and get her hands on euros only gave her marks.
Reader mail: Leo in the Netherlands reports that people there made more than a million withdrawals from cash machines before noon yesterday. "In my home village there were quite long queues at the two local ATM's. A good opportunity for wishing a happy new year to the ones you missed in the night before."
Tobi in Austria sends word of a cash machine meltdown there today. About 2,600 machines shut down for an hour. Officials denied that the crash was euro-related.
And Grant in New York sends a link to a page where you can download cute little euro icons for your Mac (bottom right on page).
Let the mixing begin. Last night at a semi-touristy café on the Grand Place in Brussels, I paid in Belgian francs and got euro coins as change. Among the euros from Belgium were coins from Germany, the Netherlands and France. (The flip side of the coins minted in each country are different.) I was tempted to start a collection, but in the end I swapped the coins and my leftover Belgian francs for my friend's leftover Italian lire.
I talked to someone in Brussels who spent 15 minutes on a stationary bus yesterday because someone tried to pay in euros and the driver a) didn't know the price of a ticket in euros and b) didn't know how to give change in euros. I hope today is going a bit more smoothly...
This morning I got my first euro bills from a cash machine. There was something anticlimactic about the experience.
While driving home today, my father commented with awe that, "Look, they've changed all the gasoline prices to euros, too! Now we'll have to learn again what is the price of cheap gasoline." The boundaryline for cheap gasoline is now officially set in my family at 0,95 euros.
I took a trip to the grocery store today, to buy some bananas. The system is that an employee weighs the bananas (or whatever), punches in the price on the electronic scale, prints a label, then you take it to the cashier to pay for them.
Well, the scale now operates in euros. But the store guy was so used to working in pesetas that out of habit, he input 170... euros, when he really should have put 1.05.
With the wrong righted, I headed towards the cashier, who had to convert the amount in euros back to pesetas because the store hadn't received their own batch of euro coins and notes (so that they could give back change).
So, to sum it all up:
Electronic scale - euros.
Till - pesetas.
Look of perplexed confusion on customer's face - priceless.
We may not have euro notes and coins here yet, but it seems that the British just can not get enough of the story (if the media is any guide). Every radio and TV news bulletin leads with the story of the introduction of the notes and coins, as speculation and discussion of the prospects for British entry reaches fever-pitch.
The BBC has created a special section at their website, which includes euro trivia, a euro quiz (I got nine out of ten) and a guide to the notes and coins.
A quick study of newspaper headlines in my local newsagent showed that the editors are roughly following current public opinion - about threeheadlinesopposed to the euro for every one in favour.
To get a different angle, I thought I'd trawl a few news services outside the EU to see what the rest of the world makes of it all. And, to be honest, the answer seems to be "not a lot". Very few of the seventeen news services I looked at were featuring the introduction of the notes and coins on their front pages. Those that did feature it were mainly doing a cut-and-paste job with Reuters or Press Association information. But you might like to look at:
Independent (South Africa)
New York Times (US)
Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)
Taipei Times (Taiwan)
The Times of India Washington Post (US)
Today, 900 banks have opened in Spain to make the transition to the euro as smooth as possible. The queues in the morning were spectacularly long - everybody wanted to touch the new currency. ATMs have run out of notes.
Most people at the café were still spending in pesetas though. Seems that the euro is a collector's item and the peseta is still alive and kicking, and not viceversa...
At about 2 a.m. in Brussels we got in a taxi and were a bit surprised to see that the meter had already been switched over to euros, complete with an official-looking euro symbol stuck on it. How did they do that so fast? Of course we had no euros, so we had to ask the driver how much the fare was in Belgian francs. He gave us a number, and my friend who is living here said it was rounded up only slightly, so I paid it. It felt like Vietnam where a lot of prices are given in US$ but they will take payment in the local currency. But at least there I had an idea of what the exchange rate should be. How many Belgian francs in a euro? This was not a problem I felt like tackling after too much champagne...
Happy new year! *g* Finland was one of the two countries to transfer first into euros, and it showed: I went to buy a cup of tea from the local hamburger chain, and they told me it cost 1 euro. It took me a while to figure out how much that is in marks, although the transfer rate is pretty much burned to my skull... It was just such a shock not to have the mark-sized prices there to help me out that I couldn't do even the most simple calculations. In the end, I gave up and told my boyfriend to buy it for me, so I could pay him back some day with just one coin.
On Monday the D-Mark was buried in Germany. "Hereby we bury the 'Mark.' It was our friend, it was strong. But we won't cry: the euro will unite us". These were the last words from Wolfgang Braun, the organizer of the funeral.
As if sensing that certain quarters of the British populace are feeling a bit left out of the euro change-over, our erstwhile politicians have decided to kick up a bit of a storm in the media over the ifs and whens of UK membership. And it seems we may not have long to wait, as our Deputy Prime Minister, the rotund, sock-it-to-'em figure of John Prescott, today told BBC Radio 4 listeners that the euro decision is "on its way". Most pundits reckon we will get the referendum in mid to late 2003, or maybe early 2004, in which case we will be going through everything that the "euro 12" are doing now in about 2004 or 2005.
In Spain, over a million vending machines have been modified (article in Spanish) to adapt them to the euro. This is a complicated task because the machines also have to accept pesetas, then on March 1 they'll have to refuse them. Overnight.
Not only that, but because each nation coins their own euros, the machines have to be tested with each and every one of the variants. The process is so expensive that 400 small vending businesses will be driven out of business. However, companies which design the software and hardware that measure and weigh the coins in the machines are laughing all the way to the bank.
Lots of news from Italy today. A trade group for bars and restaurants said there is no way these establishments are going to be able to give change in euros when people pay in lire, because they don't have enough euros. "They'll give what they have at the cash register," the director says. Um, isn't this kind of a key part of the whole switchover thing?
Good news: Il Messagero reports that prostitutes surveyed in Rome say they plan to round down their fees as the new year starts, from 300,000 lire (155 euros) to 150 euros.
Italians are also flocking to cash machines before the switch, perhaps hoping to cling to the lira as long as possible or to avoid euro chaos. Withdrawals have doubled from last year. I've got a measly 34,000 lire in my pocket and am worried they will be my last...
And Corriere della Sera reports that a euro information hotline that had gone mostly unused for months is suddenly getting a ton of calls from people wanting to know how much a euro is worth.
In many Italian supermarkets and shopping centers, strange things are happening. Concerned that payment at the cash register will be slowed down by people's troubles in dealing with the euros, shops are introducing happy hours (and "happy days" too!!), completely similar to the pub ones, in which people are invited to do their shopping in exchange for some discounts. Are we gonna find appetizers and tapas also in our supermarkets??
Meanwhile this is already working in some music shops, where customers are invited to buy in a specific period of the day in order to get a 20% discount on various items.
Yesterday I picked up the January issue of Nova Magazine, which is the hip monthly guide to Paris, and found that it cost 13 francs and 15 centimes instead of the usual 10 francs. I deduced that this is because, as the magazine used to cost a cool 10 piece, now it will cost a cool 2 euros. As nice as it is for the shops not to have to go through the hellish torture that is making change (note: heavy sarcasm), this whole shebang ups the price by over 30 percent! Unfortunately I'm pretty darn sure no one's upping my salary 30 percent for the sake of round numbers. Harrumph!
According to the BBC, the Italians are going to "miss all the noughts" from price tags after the changeover. "How can a pair of shoes with the impressive price tag of 120,000 lire come to be thrown at you for a measly 61 euros?"
I spent Christmas in London, where I spotted this letter in The Guardian:
I claim to be the first man in Britain to hide euros in his Christmas pudding. My children were not impressed. Which is why I claim another first, that of being the first man in Britain to dismantle the waste disposal to retrieve the first euros ever hidden in a Christmas pudding, jammed in the teeth of the machine.
I had a chance to have a quick look at the 5 and 10-euro notes a couple of days ago and they
seem OK. The texture of the paper is very different to that of the peseta, and the note itself is thinner. But then again may be that's just my
imagination or because the notes are completely new. It's almost impossible
not to detect a counterfeit bill because of the hologram, the watermark, the
relief on the ECB letters, the magnetic stripe. It's even got a copyright notice.
It's not easy to get them though. I'm not completely sure, but as far as I know you've got to have a business and do some paperwork before you have access to them. And even then you're restricted to coins and €5 and €10 notes.