Originally created 02/16/99

After Euro's debut, residents eager for cash and coins



AACHEN, Germany -- Borders and cultural barriers long ago ceased to exist here in the lush, medieval region where Germany joins Belgium and the Netherlands.

Thousands of residents cross from country to country every day. They go to restaurants and jobs. They visit friends and shop for bargains, from electronic goods and mussels in the Netherlands to car parts and chocolates in Belgium. They switch languages easily from German to French to Dutch.

Of all places, Aachen and the other towns and cities in this tri-nation zone that calls itself "the Euregio" symbolize the spirit and purpose of the euro. The common currency is a critical step in the grand plan of the European Union, the bold melding of once querulous nations into a peaceful, economic-and-monetary bloc.

Given all the cross-border action, people here are especially eager for the day when the euro becomes part of everyday life. But while Europe's common currency debuted on financial markets Jan. 1, colorful euro bills and coins aren't set to enter circulation until Jan. 1, 2002.

Having just one currency will make things a lot easier in the Euregio. No more changing money. No more confusing exchange rates. No more whipping out the calculator to figure if it really is cheaper to have your car repaired in Belgium than in Germany.

On a more emotional level, euro cash will be tactile evidence of the region's proud, international attitude, one that dates from the 9th century, when Charlemagne became Holy Roman Emperor and had his court in Aachen.

"There is no more Germany. We're Europe now," says Wilhelm Neese, a taxi driver whose change box jingles with a mix of German marks and Dutch guilders.

Neese often ferries passengers from Aachen to the Dutch city of Maastricht, a 20-minute trip. A small sign, "Welcome to the Netherlands," has marked the border since the region tore down its passport checkpoints about five years ago, the first to do so after the 1985 Schengen Treaty allowed visa-free travel across western Europe.

As for the euro, some politicians and economists inspired by the successful launch in the financial markets are looking for ways to speed up the introduction of bills and coins -- a project easier said than done.

Banking officials across the 11-nation euro zone warn they need three years to mint and distribute the new money. Countries also must set up equipment to handle the euro, such as new cash registers and reprogrammed vending machines and automatic tellers.

Even some people in Aachen are apprehensive.

"No question -- the euro is going to make our lives much better, but we shouldn't rush it," says Werner Biermanns, an official in the city's chamber of commerce. "Logistically, there could be too many problems."

The problems are so numerous that the best idea for an early debut would speed up the introduction of coins and bills by a mere three months. European finance ministers are weighing that proposal from Belgium, although France and Germany oppose it.

At the heart of the political debate are questions of public opinion: Will Europeans become frustrated if they have to wait too long for euro cash? Or do ordinary people -- as well as banks and businesses -- need three years to prepare for the daring financial experiment.

So far, public reaction in the Euregio has been a mix of caution, enthusiasm and occasional humor.

Here, as in other locales across the 11-nation euro zone, stores and restaurants offer prices in euros alongside the national currency, a largely symbolic gesture to help people adjust.

Bank statements, too, come in euros.

"I thought, where did all my money go?" Aachen architecture student Tillman Lenz says of the first time he saw his account reported in euros. Given the exchange rate, the figure was about half what it was when the account was in marks.

Over in Maastricht, where European leaders signed the treaty for the common currency in 1991, the market is crowded with Germans, Dutch and Belgians shopping for produce, textiles and clothes. Vendors accept money from any country but hand out change in Dutch guilders, often at random exchange rates ungenerous to the buyer.

Set prices and exchange rates are one reason Maastricht trade official Ardy Assink is looking forward to the euro. Cross-border shopping and business deals will be more straightforward, and there will be the ease of having to carry only one kind of money.

For now, Assink needs three wallets to keep track of his guilders, his German marks and his Belgian francs. "With the euro," he says, "I'll just need one wallet."