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The World and Nation

As Euro Debuts, Cashiers See Double

Money: Some vendors segregate old and new currencies, keeping two tills to spare confusion for one more day.

January 02, 2002|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FRANKFURT, Germany — Clerks at the convenience store in the train station here kept two tills open Tuesday, one for marks and the other for euros.

Aboard the Intercity Express from this German financial capital to Berlin, the waiter in the restaurant car polled diners about their payment plans before taking orders, gauging his supply of the incoming and outgoing currencies with each meal served.

At the few other shops and services in business on this quiet New Year's holiday, money mostly remained segregated as merchants and vendors staved off for one more day the inevitable confusion over the new euro.

E-Day, as the launch of the continent's common currency has been called throughout the elaborate planning period, dawned with hardly a hitch as citizens of the 12-nation euro zone celebrated 2002 much like the start of any other year.

"So far, so good," said Andreas Goralczyk, spokesman for the Federal Assn. of German Bankers in the largest and most influential euro country. "It appears our preparations were more than adequate."

Resistant consumers in Italy sabotaged some automated teller machines with chewing gum, and French bank and postal employees were threatening a one-day strike when commerce resumes today after the holiday.

But for the most part, the first full day for the economic bloc newly solidified by the euro was cause for pride and enthusiasm among the currency's users, even in countries where voters had little or no say about surrendering their old money.

In the Netherlands, one of the more euro-enthusiastic populations, more than 300,000 ATM transactions were conducted in the early hours of Tuesday as Dutch revelers took their champagne and pastry with them to stand in line for their first look at the cash, said banking industry spokeswoman Jannemieke Zandee.

French television news focused on glitches at cash machines--one of the few activities involving the euro available on the holiday. But the French Banking Federation reported that the dispensing of the new currency was proceeding smoothly, with more than 25 million euros withdrawn in the first six hours.

In Brussels--headquarters of the 15-member European Union, which the currency is intended to more deeply integrate--officials hailed E-Day as a quiet success: "No news is good news," said executive commission spokesman Gerassimos Thomas.

Cash machines in some countries were shut down overnight as a precaution against robberies. In Belgium and Ireland, consumers got their first look at their new money after daybreak.

In Spain, some banks opened for three hours in the middle of the day to provide customers with a chance to obtain the currency. The gesture was so successful that lines stretched a football field's length from the teller counters and required more than two hours to negotiate. Most of those taking advantage were late-night revelers just headed home from their parties or taxi drivers and bar owners who needed money to do business.

The European Central Bank's strategy for disseminating the euro is twofold: ATMs are expected to put bills in shoppers' hands before business resumes today, and merchants are supposed to have armed themselves with euro coins and notes ahead of time so they can give change only in the new money.

But workers at the eateries, newsstands and transport offices that were among the few businesses open on New Year's Day mostly kept their national and euro currencies separated.

At Rome's Bar Brasile, few people were paying with euros, according to cashier Fabio Moschini. "Pay in lire, get your change in lire. Pay in euro, get your change in euro," he said. "I have only a little change. I am afraid this week might be difficult."

Geerke Netten, a visitor from the Dutch city of Leiden, said that after paying in euros at a Roman supermarket, she was told that euro coins had run out. "Now when I go back home, I'll be stuck with lire coins that I don't want," she said.

"It's too busy to convert from marks to euros for every sale," said a harried clerk at the Markt im Bahnhof convenience store in Frankfurt as she shelled out change for travelers' fruit, sandwich and soft drink purchases from two registers.

Consumers can pay with their national currency or the euro through Feb. 28, the end of a two-month transition period. But Goralczyk of the German bank association has predicted that more than 90% of transactions will be in euros by next week. Once banks open today, consumers are likely to turn in their marks, francs, guilders, pesetas and other outgoing currencies in exchange for euros to ease the scene at checkout stands. Commission-free exchanges will be available for at least six months; banks will be allowed to charge a modest fee for the swap after that.

The euro launch went so smoothly that even some officials in holdout Britain were observing, for the benefit of the deeply skeptical citizens, that the country stands to lose influence if it stays outside the euro zone.

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