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December Issue

James Skinner
keeps a diary for the first week of the Euro

‘On December 31st, 1999 the world stood still awaiting a possible universal catastrophe. Planes would fall out of the sky, pacemakers would stop, your bank account would either turn you into a millionaire or put you on the dole. At least that is what some doomsday soothsayers predicted if most of today’s computers were meant to go bananas trying to set their automatic clocks at the turn of the century. The only effect I have noticed since then is that the electronic weighing machine at my local chemist continues to show the date as 1902 as it tells me I’m eating too much! Two years later the script had been rewritten. The introduction of the new European currency, the Euro told another story.

Spain, as tradition has it celebrated the new year with bells and whistles, fireworks and drunken orgies no different to any other part of the western world. As the municipal building’s tower clock in Madrid’s main square clanked its creaky old chimes at midnight on new year’s eve, millions of Spaniards took to the streets with bottles of bubbly and other goodies to welcome 2002. Private and public parties erupted throughout the country. The world’s problems were placed on the backburner, at least for the time being. As the night wore on, the only pains were those inflicted by overindulgence typical of the consumer world.

There was a difference, however. The most important new-born of the year was not human. Baby Euro had joined the party. Constant flashes on the television screens showing the rest of Europe’s Euro family reminded everyone that Spain was not alone. The rejoicing was twofold. ‘Happy New Year and Happy Euro’! Finally the bands stopped playing, weary partygoers returned to their dens and by morning, silence descended upon the land. That is, until the banks, through special government decree opened their doors.

I decided to wait until midday before I ventured down the road to visit my local bank. Eager to lay my hands on a wad of the awaited notes, I stood patiently in line at one of the tills for over an hour, pen in hand and cheque book open. ‘I would like 1000 Euro, what is the exact amount in Pesetas please?’ I enquired. The clerk looked up and said: ‘Have you got your Euro cheque book?’ I cringed. First new year mistake. Didn’t order it beforehand. He smiled back at me and added: ‘Write it out for 166.386 Pesetas, and… date it 31st December, 2001!’

Being a friendly sort I went on to ask him about the so called ‘black money’, the non declared hidden pesetas. He burst out laughing. ‘We’ve had all sorts walk in this morning to change money. One old dear brought in a smelly bag with over half a million 1000 Peseta notes. She’d kept them in her cow shed for over five years! Another old geyser dumped nearly a million of the same at my colleague’s window. They were soaking wet as he’d just pulled them out of his well. I guess we’ll manage’ he concluded as he welcomed the next customer. Being a holiday, January 1st wore on smoothly. The next day was another matter.

Supermarkets were the wise ones. Second day into January, they were closed for their yearly stock taking! It was the small trader that took the brunt of the onslaught. ‘Many small shopkeepers were unable to purchase Euro cash registers in time as the suppliers ran out of machines. It may cause certain handling problems until the Peseta disappears,’ said Patricia Soni from the local Chamber of Commerce. ‘The main difficulty as we see it is the coexistence of both currencies. Curiously enough, most merchants would’ve preferred to move straight into Euros, like the Germans did’, she
concluded. ‘It’s not fair', said my newspaper vendor. ‘The big stores have had six months training at the tills on how to handle the new currency. Frankly, I’m quite scared. The coins for instance all look the same!’
‘Come off it!’, pitched in a fellow customer. ‘You lot will round up your prices upwards and we’ll all have to pay more for our shopping basket!’
As the row started, I walked out taking my daily paper with me. I paid for it in Pesetas.

However, there were arguments at the bus stops. The government had allowed bus companies to accept Pesetas provided the fare was paid in the exact amount. No problem if paid in Euros as the change would always be given in the new currency. I tried out the system, took a ride and sat near the driver-conductor to see the effect. ‘If you don’t like it, take a cab!’ argued the conductor with an irate passenger who insisted for her change in Pesetas. ‘They’ll take anything’, he concluded. I got off at the next stop.

It so happened that one of the many cruise ships was visiting the seaport of Vigo at the time. The town was swarming with passengers off the ‘Aurora’, mostly British with the odd American couple meandering through the town’s shopping centre. I’m quite used to bumping into these tourists when they’re around. I was curious to see their reactions to the new currency. ‘Quaint’ uttered an elderly lady from the south of England as she was handed her Euro change in a shop. ‘Souvenir for my grandchildren. Pity. I liked the Peseta’, she muttered as she left the shop.

She did touch though on the ever present thought in our minds – nostalgia. In his article ‘Goodbye, Peseta, goodbye’ Florentino Llera describes it’s 134 years of life and relates it to the history of Spain ever since it was created by Elizabeth the Second in 1868. Like all other currencies it suffered its ups and downs of devaluation including a period during the Spanish Civil war whereby different issues were minted by the opposing warring sides. Neither would recognise the other’s Pesetas. ‘It has been liberal, totalitarian, democratic, centralist and autonomous. It’s been made of silver, bronze, paper, cardboard, copper and aluminium. And from the 1st of January, the Peseta will simply be history!’ he sadly concluded.

Into day three, January 3rd, and life seemed to be returning to its normal pace. The converted Euro cash machines had had a field day, and my newspaper vendor had overcome her nervous breakdown. Most Spaniards were accepting the Euro as their new currency. Some of us old codgers, for sentimental reasons will miss the Peseta, but the younger generation see it as a further move towards European unity. Without batting an eyelid they have adapted to it like a duck to water. Currency is a means to an end, not an end in itself. I guess that is what the Euro is all about as the old continent consolidates its world position and continues to open its doors to future members. Britain take note!

© James Skinner. 2002. Vigo Spain

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