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European Times: Malaga - Spain tests the common currency

I DON'T know what Ernest Hemingway would have made of it. In the courtyard of La Consula, the villa where the writer spent most of the summer of 1959 and celebrated his birthday with fireworks and a wild champagne party, hundreds of children, off school for the day, wriggled in their chairs yesterday while a man in a suit told them how good the euro was and how easy it would be when they travelled to Germany.

Then a clown sang and made risque jokes about what to do with a melon, and the young audience, kitted out in T-shirts and baseball caps bearing the slogan "Euro communication campaign", laughed and clapped and swayed with their arms in the air. Meanwhile, the real party was going on down the hill in the village.

Churriana, an unpretentious suburb of Malaga bisected by the airport runway, was chosen to test drive the euro for four days in Europe's first experiment on this scale. All the shops and bars were prepared for the experience of conducting all their transactions in euros.

It was selected as an urban community with the feel of a village, because it has a representative mix of young and old and because the mayor of Malaga, Celia Villalobos, is a feisty and influential member of Spain's ruling Popular Party, which is passionately committed to the single currency.

How would this modest 12,000-strong community deal with the revolution in their spending habits more than two years before the coins are widely available? In the fish market, Julia was already laden with shopping. "Oh, it's easy, I have two separate purses, one for euros, one for pesetas. I thought at first things would be more expensive but I realise they aren't."

The fishmonger was swift in his calculations, whipping out a bright blue calculator programmed for instant conversions, donated to traders, protected from fishy fingers by a plastic cover. After handing Julia her change he gave her two tickets for a draw to win a free trip to Paris, a gift to anyone spending two euros. "If you're alone you can take me," he flirted, and Julia and her friends shrieked with laughter. Some 75 per cent of his day's trade had been in euros, he said.

I joined the queue at one of the village banks to buy a 3,000 peseta packet of 17.83 Euros - about pounds 12.50. Many in the queue were back for the second or third time, and this was only day two. I was handed a cardboard ready reckoner, with a moving circle giving euro equivalents of one, 100, 500, up to 50,000 pesetas.

Also queuing was Leopoldo, 45, who had come specially from his village 45km away. "It's something new and exciting. I`ll go and spend them in the town, have a drink, something to eat, get used to it, feel more European," he said. Eugenio, 38, from Malaga, was keeping his coins. "I'm not going to spend them. I want to keep them as a souvenir," he said. "They're of sentimental value because after Saturday we can't spend them can we?"

Close inspection reveals the words "Trial Euro" written round the coins. One euro equals 168.22 pesetas, I mutter, baffled by the complexity. "There's a trick," explained a helpful gipsy from whom I bought a "Churriana of the Euro" ashtray: "You just multiply by six and knock off three noughts. Three hundred pesetas times six, that's 1.8 euros." He was rounding up two cents, but then this was a street market.

Carmen Ruiz, proprietor of the haberdashers and underwear shop (knickers 2.82 euros) said her customers had quickly got used to it. Was business holding up? "Well, it coincides with the end of the month so people have their pay packets. That was obviously well planned."

Down the street, at the delicatessen, a customer asked for blood sausage. "With euros or without euros?" asked Diego, the boss. "With euros, of course," was the reply. "We've got to keep them moving."

It might have been a bit modern for Hemingway. He wouldn't even allow a telephone at La Consula, which is now a catering school. But the author of Death in the Afternoon would have relished Saturday's special bullfight: "The first great bullfight of the euro, with musical band", according to bright posters pasted down the street.

Julian, proprietor of the Cafe Maxi, seemed to have it in perspective. As orders for beer, fortified wine and dishes of pickled anchovies quickened towards midday, he fielded queries with aplomb. Was it compulsory to pay in euros? "Compulsory yes, euros optional." At moments of doubt, out came the big blue calculator.

"The problem is the lack of small change," he said. "I bought 20,000 pesetas' worth, but I'm short of one and five-cent coins. But it's not for long. These euros are like sardines aren't they? After three days they're no good any more."