The No. 1 euro glitch so far: Europe needs more of them

Associated Press

ROME — One week later, the photo shop on Paris’ swank Rue du Faubourg Saint Honore had a sign in its window begging customers to use checks and credit cards because it had run out of euros.

So eager were Parisians to get their hands on the new currency that the Photo Service became a de facto currency exchange and couldn’t keep enough of the new money in stock.

"We try every morning to go to the banks ourselves to get more change, but there is always a wait," said branch manager Victor Madelaine. "I simply don’t have the time."

Indeed, the biggest problem one week after the euro’s historic New Year’s debut — glitches, bank lines and one dismissed foreign minister aside — was that there weren’t enough of them to go around.

European Union officials acknowledged the problems but declared the rollout a success. They announced Tuesday that almost three-quarters of all cash transactions in the 12 countries were being conducted using euros, even though old currencies will be valid in many countries for weeks.

Retailers and banks were reporting that their businesses were returning to normal, even with post-Christmas sales starting in many countries, the EU’s executive commission reported.

Also, nearly all automated teller machines had been converted for dispensing euros, lowering the volume of cash withdrawals back to normal levels.

There still were snafus, though.

Italian bank workers upset that they had been overworked during the chaotic first days of the changeover staged another strike Monday, snarling the country’s already lagging conversion process. At Vienna’s Criminal Law Court, a prosecutor was seen kicking the vending machine because it didn’t accept 5-cent coins required for a cup of tea.

But for the most part, over the course of just a few days, europhoric Europeans were embracing the crisp pastel notes and shiny coins, and some even admitted by week’s end they were embarrassed to pay in old cash anymore.

"After nearly a week, it really is time" to switch to the euro, Berlin’s Tagesspiegel wrote in an editorial. "Waving a 100-mark ($46) bill under the nose of a cashier when you only want to buy a newspaper isn’t just embarrassing. It’s outrageous."

Getting ahold of euros, though, was easier said than done — in cities and towns alike.

"There are no problems except there aren’t enough euros," said Arturo Contreras, owner of the El Patas hostel on the edge of the Spanish farming and commuter village of Corral de Almaguer, an hour southeast of Madrid.

"The government probably thought there would be resistance or fear, but people want them."

According to prelaunch surveys, Italians wanted euros more than many other Europeans, but the transition was most problematic in Italy. Lines wound around banks and post offices as pensioners struggled to count their monthly payouts in unfamiliar denominations.

In addition, Italy provided the first euro victim, Foreign Minister Renato Ruggiero, who quit on Saturday after denouncing the government’s lackluster welcome of the new currency.

Italian political analyst Sergio Romano said he wasn’t surprised Italy had some trouble with the euro, and said that considering the cultural hurdles facing Italians, Week 1 didn’t go so badly.

Italians tend to keep a lot of cash at home and rarely use credit cards, he said. As a result, more transactions were carried out last week in cash, which complicated the changeover, he said.

Italian consumer groups also accused retailers of rounding up prices, although EU officials denied any euro-related inflation. A consortium of advocacy groups on Monday published an A-to-Z list of goods and services that had higher prices compared to a week ago, including a 16 percent hike in the cost of a gelato and a similar increase in what prostitutes were charging.

Copyright ©2002 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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