'It's a little like being on holiday, all these calculations'

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The Independent Online

A spending spree through three euroland countries in three hours could begin nowhere better than Maastricht, the Dutch frontier city where European Union leaders agreed on the single currency a decade ago.

And, at noon yesterday, the little action the city could muster was around the waffle stall in the freezing main square where a team of TV crews gathered to watch the Dutch finance minister, Gerrit Zalm, spend his first euros. Mr Zalm paid with the correct coinage, produced by an aide, before biting into a doughnut and professing himself delighted with the changeover.

He conceded early problems with cash dispensers and said the early weeks would be difficult for retailers but added: "People like the new currency, they are enthusiastic and they want to see and feel it."

In the Bonbonniere bras-serie the minister seemed to be right. The bill for a coffee and sandwich arrived and a computer print-out in four currencies, Dutch guilders, German Deutschmarks, Belgian francs and euros, and change for a 50-euro note followed in seconds.

"It is a little more difficult that usual but we have calculators," the waitress, Laurie Verdonschut, said: "In fact, it is a little like being on holiday with all those extra calculations. But people here are used to accepting Belgian and German money and it is going to be much easier."

At the cashpoint at the ABN Ambro bank in Bredestraat, the commercially minded folk of Maastricht seemed unperturbed about any loss of sovereignty or national identity, and focused on the benefits of not having to hoard three currencies. "In a sentimental way I am sad to see the guilder go," said Eugene Glimmerveen, who has put together a collection of the old Dutch coins and notes for his two-year-old son. "But the euro is a great idea. It makes things so simple."

It took me little more than half an hour by car to cross the the border to the German city of Aachen where that hardly proved the most apt description. True, cashpoints were producing euros to order and Tina Stützer confessed no sadness at the loss of the mighty mark. "It's handy to be able to pay for something here in the same money as in Belgium and the Netherlands," she said. "It's a shame London isn't part of it."

But neither is all the German economy, so far. The Spielomat gaming arcade promised massive jackpot winnings but euro users need not apply. None of the slot machines will accept euro coins until 28 February.

Down the road at the cake stall belonging to Aachener Printen, Heinz Klein seemed supremely confident of handling the big problem for retailers: they give change in euros even if goods are bought in national currencies. "I calculate by changing the price into marks, then convert and give the money back in euros," he said as customers spent their old German currency.

But confronted with a 50-euro bill for a 4.50-euro packet of biscuits, Mr Klein was plunged into confusion. Back came change of 41.20 euros before Mr Klein spotted his error (he had subtracted the price in marks) and produced a further 4.10 euros. Another look at the receipt led to a formal invitation to come into the office where calculators were consulted and 20 cents more were forthcoming.

Back in the car, the road forked off from Germany and the Netherlands back into Belgium, but the picture seemed to be similar. Euros were available from bank machines but most people were getting rid of their old currency. At the general store, Au Quotidien in Liege, Michel Boger claimed to have little trouble all day.

But he did consult a conversion chart before taking a 10-euro bill, the first he had seen all day, for goods worth 9.07 euros. The problem was, he said, that people were bringing in the larger 50- and 20-euro notes from bank machines and expecting change. He had to dig deep into his small stock of euro coins. But by 3pm almost all the change was gone. In three hours and in three countries problems were technical, with no overt hostility to the euro let alone any sense of threat to national identity. In Maastricht people see, above all else, the advantages.

"From here I am 10 minutes by bicycle from Belgium and half an hour by car from Belgium," Sjef Hofman, a retired engineer, said. "When I go skiing in Austria I might have to use five or six currencies on the journey. Now I need one."