The other day I had a new kind of European shopping experience. I took my daughter, who wanted to buy a pair of jeans, to Gap Kids on the Rue St. Dominique. Although I've lived in France for several years, I found myself blanching at the price: 200 francs. Then I saw it was also marked in euros: E31. These days, one euro equals one dollar, and that number made the whole transaction seem more doable -- and Louise really likes her new flares.
When the leaders of 11 European countries joined their currencies into the euro a year ago, they did so hoping they were creating an alternative to the dollar. What they have actually created is the dollar's doppelgdnger, a parallel currency that after a year of weakening now equals the value of the greenback.
Actually, $1.03 equals E1, but let's not be picky: The euro ran neck and neck with the dollar through the fall. At birth Jan. 1, 1999, the euro was pegged at $1.17.
Instead of one-world government, we are verging on one-world currency (not to mention one-world retailing). Not only do nations trade freely with each other. Not only does capital whiz around the world to where it gets the most favorable treatment. Now, all major economic exchanges happen in essentially equal units of currency.
And that includes Japan. The world's second-largest economy has more good news for math duds: The yen is worth almost exactly a cent.
Economists say this congruence is both meaningless and temporary. Exchange rates fluctuate based on inflation, economic growth and the like. The euro is forecast to rise later this year. But for now, the euro's parity with the dollar -- bear in mind that in the 11 euro countries, most prices are now marked in both local currency and in euros -- has been an eye-opener for many in Europe, including many Americans and including me.
In the three and a half years my family and I have lived and traveled here, we have coped regularly with serious currency confusion. It's as if you were driving from Virginia to Maryland and had to stop at the state line to exchange 3.3 Virginia jeffersons for one Maryland oriole. That's what happens countless times a day on the Franco-Belgian border. Imagine the lines at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport of all the arriving New Yorkers waiting to turn in their five catskills for one Texas gusher. That's what it's like at the change counters and cash machines in the Frankfurt airport as the early morning business flights arrive from all over Europe at 9 a.m.
My husband, Post correspondent Charles Trueheart, and I keep stores of cash for different European countries in case we have to travel on short notice. At last count, we had 11 fat little envelopes at the office, and seven more at home.
(Foreign desk editors, please stop reading here.) These envelopes allow us to land in a foreign country, grab a taxi, buy a coffee, accomplish our business, taxi back to the airport and go home -- all with no idea how much the bills we spent were worth until we do our expense accounts later.
We remain almost as ignorant when we're traveling for pleasure. During a family vacation in Venice last fall, I bought four tickets for the water ferry. The cost was 8,000 Italian lire, or about $4 (and prices were not given in euros). I blithely handed the teller 100,000 lire and waited to get 2,000 lire back. Fortunately, the man knew Americans were clueless about Italian currency -- and he was honest. He gave me the correct change.
Most Europeans don't understand this mess any more than visiting Americans do. At an EU meeting in Luxembourg two years ago, I witnessed a shouting match among French reporters gathered around the cash machine in the press room. The subject: whether the French franc was worth six, 10 or 15 Luxembourgian/Belgian francs.
When euro cash arrives starting Jan. 1, 2002, those days will finally be over. For now, though, the euro is just a fixed financial unit. Exchange rates among the 11 currencies of Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal and Spain are tied together permanently. That is, one German mark equals 3.35 French francs yesterday, today and tomorrow. Stock prices in all the euro countries are quoted in euros, and financial newspapers have started quoting prices for big mergers and corporate deals in euros only.
There are a few left-behinds. Britain, in particular, is not a euro participant. So it is left with its clunky pound ($1.63 and E1.59), its island mentality, its euro-hostile population and a lot of really unhappy investment bankers in the City financial center.
Euro member countries and the euro's managers aren't crazy about euro parity. Wim Duisenberg, president of the European Central Bank, which manages monetary policy for the 11-nation euro zone, says about once a week that the euro has the potential to rise. So far, few markets appear to have listened.
But with the euro nearly equal to the dollar, travelers can leave the calculator at home. In a French restaurant, you don't have to divide to know that the foie gras appetizer costs $13. It's right there on the menu. Same for the Benetton sweater in Milan or the Krups coffee maker in Munich or the Dutch chocolate I always pick up for the kids in the Amsterdam airport.
Still, the euro is easing its way only slowly into daily financial intercourse. When it was first introduced, I was one of the very few to convert a bank account into euros: I asked our office assistant to pay the office bills only in the euro checks we had ordered. The idea was to see whether ordinary institutions really accepted the new currency.
The results were astonishingly banal. All of our suppliers accepted the checks without a word, with one exception. The little shop that furnishes our newspapers and magazines (and presents us with handwritten monthly bills xeroxed from a hardback ledger) asked us to wait until February before beginning to pay with euro checks.
Only one recipient asked us not to pay in euros: a journalists' lunch group I belong to that specializes in coverage of EU issues. How about dollars, guys?
Anne Swardson, who is based in The Post's Paris bureau, covers European economic issues.