AACHEN, GERMANY While praising euro, some cash in memories
Euro notes and coins are a year old, but older currencies live on in the minds of shoppers.
AACHEN, Germany (AP) -- People in this cosmopolitan German border town are the first to praise the euro. After all, the 12-nation currency freed them from the need for calculators and extra wallets to handle money from Belgium and the Netherlands, just a few minutes' drive away.
And yet, when Aacheners look at a price tag, visions of old money -- marks, francs and guilders -- still dance in their heads. They still figure prices in extinct currency and often blame the euro for inflation.
In Germany the calculation is easy -- divide the old currency by two. Italians also divide the lira price by two, but then have to lop off three zeros. And Spaniards find the conversion of 166 pesetas to the euro so difficult that many shops still advertise in the old currency.
The result is strangely mixed feelings over the euro. Even as people universally admit it has made life easier, they found their first euro-only Christmas shopping season haunted by the ghosts of currencies past.
"For us, it is much simpler now. The euro is practical," said Ursula Clasen, who no longer has to sort through different currencies while selling marzipan and chocolate to the multilingual throng at Aachen's open-air Christmas market.
"But the customers this year are a little reserved," said Clasen, 59. "They are stopping to recalculate in the old currency."
If the euro was going to find easy acceptance anywhere, it would be in Aachen. People speak several languages, work and shop across borders, and are proud that their city was the headquarters of Charlemagne, who united much of Europe as Holy Roman emperor in the 8th and 9th centuries.
The euro was introduced on financial markets in 1999, and notes and coins followed last Jan. 1, in an unprecedented currency switch that went smoothly for the most part.
But the difficulties of adjusting are borne out in the latest European Commission poll, which surveyed 1,200 people last month in the countries that use the euro.
Only about 12 percent think in euros for major purchases. About half say they still have trouble counting their new cash, though the degree varies widely: 72 percent of Irish (one euro equals 78 old pence) reported no difficulty, compared with only 36 percent of French (one euro equals 6.6 old francs).
At the same time, most European consumers are convinced the euro is responsible for price hikes -- particularly at restaurants.
"An espresso now costs 0.70 or 0.80 euros while before it didn't go above 1,200 lire (about 0.60 euros)," said Angelo Zilli, a driver waiting for a client outside a Rome cafe.
Yet the inflationary euro is like the abominable snowman: Many claim to have seen it, but where's the proof? Annual inflation in the euro zone was 2.2 percent in November, down from a peak of 3.4 percent in May 2001, and the European Commission said the euro effect was 0.2 percent at most, concentrated in specific sectors such as restaurants and cafes.
Still, perceptions are different in shops and cafes.
"Officially prices have gone up by some 4 percent, but field studies of certain everyday products like a cup of coffee, a cinema ticket or a roll of bread show the increase is closer to 12 percent," said Itziar Marin, a spokeswoman for the Spanish Confederation of Consumers.
High prices in Greece spurred a daylong "consumer strike" in September.
Asked if they were personally happy with the euro, 53 percent of Europeans said yes -- down 14 points from January, according to a poll of 6,000 people in the euro zone taken in September by Gallup Europe.
Fully 82 percent said price conversions came at the consumer's expense, and only 19 percent said they figured prices only in euros.