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Germany Pitches a Tent to Talk Up the Euro

Money: A traveling show explaining next year's switch to a Pan-European currency plays the capital.


BERLIN — The euro big top came to town Monday to acquaint Germans with the single European currency that will replace the sturdy mark in less than nine months. It was an odd choice of venue for a public already convinced that the changeover will be a circus.

Germany and 11 other European Union countries are preparing to swap their legal tender for shiny new euros Jan. 1--a seismic event for 82 million Germans, who make up the EU's biggest economy and population.

With polls indicating that only one in four Europeans is even aware that the euro is coming next year and that fewer than 20% of Germans are happy about it, the federal government, the central bank and EU monetary mavens have cobbled together an information campaign on the how and why of history's biggest money exchange.

The large white tent that appeared Monday at the foot of the Brandenburg Gate is the centerpiece of a traveling show that will visit 100 German cities by mid-December. The aim is to ease worries among savers and spenders, who will go to bed Dec. 31 with their bank accounts full of marks and wake up in the morning with less than half as many euros.

"For those of us old enough to remember the last currency exchange, this is not very comforting," groused Klaus Julius, a retired excavator. The 1948 replacement of the reichsmark gave postwar Germans what has proved a remarkably stable currency, but one that was widely mistrusted at the outset.

"This being Germany, I'm sure it will all be organized well in the end, at least from the banks' point of view. But what about the rest of us?" Julius wondered. "This business of having two kinds of money at once is going to be very confusing."

For two months, euros and each country's individual currency will circulate simultaneously, with retail outlets taking both kinds of cash but giving change only in euros.

Hubertus Pellengahr, spokesman for the Assn. of German Retailers, has warned shoppers to expect long lines and confusion as cashiers juggle 16 different coins in tills designed for half as many.

In kicking off the tent tour, German Finance Minister Hans Eichel noted the logistical behemoth that officials will face at the end of the year, when they must provide German banks and businesses with 2.5 billion new notes and 15.5 billion new coins while retiring even larger numbers of marks and pfennigs. There are 100,000 tons of old coins in circulation--340 for every man, woman and child in the country.

"Obviously, everyone isn't walking around with that many in his pocket. Most are probably in jars that we'll have to get people to gather together and exchange," Eichel said.

France has the opposite problem, according to retailers there, who complain that the national mint has prematurely ceased making francs and centimes, leaving the business world short of change.

Berlin's choice of location for the opening of the euro tent was as perplexing as the big top symbolism. The Pariserplatz square, where the tent stood for less than six hours, was sealed off by security police for much of that time because visiting Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was staying at a nearby hotel.

Eichel and central bank President Ernst Welteke were on hand for a short ceremony before being drowned out by police sirens and motorcycle escorts. That left a pair of Bundesbank employees handing out leaflets to the few adults who braved the security cordon and offering chocolate euros to the children.

" 'What does it look like?' is the most often-asked question," said Angela Joosten, one of the tent's trouble-shooters. But even that cannot be answered with satisfaction, because none of the seven new bills or eight new coins are available yet for public inspection--a precaution against counterfeiting.

Euro coins are already being minted and stored in bank vaults, but they can be acquired by the public only after Dec. 17, when banks will be allowed to sell 20 marks' worth of euro coins in "starter kits."

Bank employees across Germany are being warned already that they will have to work through New Year's Eve to stock the country's 60,000 automated teller machines, and many local branches have told their workers to forget about winter vacations.

If banks and big retailers are wary of the impending replacement, managers of small and medium-sized businesses are frantic.

Said Karin Koethe, a cafe manager: "We ask our bank what we should be doing to get ready and they tell us they don't know themselves. All we know is what we read in the newspapers. It's scandalous."

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