Requiem for a Currency

On arriving in Rome the day Europe switched over to the euro, and how I got rid of my remaining lire

1 January 2002, A Tuesday

I am quite the Eurotrash. Last year I rung in the New Year under the Eiffel Tower. This year I am doing it in Rome. Well, technically the annual odometer clicked over to 2002 somewhere over the Atlantic for me, and I was trapped in a plane (they didn’t even serve us champagne or anything), but when I landed, it was new Year’s Day, and it was Rome.

Of course, first thing I did was start looking for some Euros. As of yet, I have only been able to catch glimpses of the new notes clutched in the hands of bewildered or bemused Romans as they drift away from their bank machines, staring in wonder and slight trepidation at this new reality they're slipping into their wallets to snuggle alongside the lira notes, all those extraneous zeros of which about to be retired forever.

I specify "Romans" because unfortunately the ATMs here seem only to be honoring Italian-issued bankcards today. I've seen (and joined) packs of panicked foreigners dashing from ATM to ATM trying desperately to milk some local cash out of them, to no avail. I even saw a young French couple get turned away from one, which struck me as odd since the whole point is that now there is officially no difference, in a fiduciary sense, between an Italian and a Frenchman.

Apparently, no one told the Italian ATMs that, and the poor French were turned away. It's nice to know the joyful snafus of European travel won't end, even as some of the old symbolic speed bumps between nations are getting smoothed over.

Luckily, I came prepared with a bit reserve lire—just because the Euro is making its debut today doesn't mean the old currency is no good; it won’t go out of fashion for a few months yet. That meant I could hop on the train downtown from the airport while my fellow Americans were trying to get the automated ticket machines to work (a software glitch kept all train ticket dispensers off-line that day).

Once that stash of lire petered out, I managed eventually to find one ATM in the train station basement that was still stocked with lire notes, and it honored my bankcard.

Plus ça change...

Of course, it being January 1, this is a national holiday, which means the banks—along with everything else—are closed. Not that I'd deny them their traditional day off, but I thought there might be some concession to this momentous event, some sort of skeleton crew of brave and superhumanly patient souls left in the office to oversee the Big Change.

But the banks were locked, and their sidewalk ATMs left to fend for themselves, even though today marks the biggest change in the European monetary system since they stopped trading chickens for services and began using discs of metal stamped with the king's profile. Europe hasn't enjoyed a single currency since the Roman denari two millennia ago, and even then the bulk of the citizenry lived and toiled in the chicken-trading economy, not the monetary one.

The Italians are doing marvelously well at adapting quickly—though it's taking them a while to get a hang of paying even for everyday items such as coca cola in just coins rather than bills (frankly, I think they even miss the lira's three superfluous zeros). Using a main unit divided into cents comes second nature to we Americans, so we've had it a bit easier adjusting (actually, the Brits are probably the best case, as the gradations of pounds and pence corresponds even more closely to the new Euro).

I overheard a desk clerk assuring the hotel owner over the phone that their four-pocket pouch was working out fine for transactions (two for lire coins and notes, two for Euro coins and notes). But people operating cash registers seemed a little overwhelmed by the plethora of different coins, as their cash drawers didn't have enough cubby holes for them all, presumably because four slots are still doing temporary duty housing lire (the Euro, on the other hand, boasts eight coins).

At the only restaurant I found that was open near my hotel, the bespectacled lady behind the register got a little flustered when she totaled my meal in lire, then had to convert it to Euros in order to charge my credit card. But she seemed grimly determined to get used to this New Continental Order, and proudly showed me her special calculator that automatically keeps running displays of her calculations in both currencies.

I watched as the bartender at Ned Kelley's—an erstwhile Australian pub with XXXX on tap patronized by U.S. Marines and rugby fans (and players) of all nationalities for the televised satellite games—excitedly Scotch-taped their first 10 Euro note in amongst the Polaroids of favorite patrons and just below the yellowing garland of other currencies—many of which are, as of today, officially defunct.

Politics in pocket change

Maps have long been more concerned with politics than geography, which is why our outdated world maps show Europe and America far larger than they are and shrink Africa down considerably. But the Euro designers have gone too far.

On the next day, I finally got a fistful of Euros to call my own out of a bancomat, only to discover that the €50 note doesn't fit into a conventional wallet. They're like 20£ notes: too tall. I've heard that Florentine leather workers got in a bit of an uproar over this, as their entire stock was going to be outdated along with their lire. Then they figured out that this meant everyone in Europe would now have to buy a new wallet, which shut them up pretty damned quick as they went back to stitching furiously.

Euro billsEach bill is supposed to represent a different period in European architecture, with a window/arch on the front and a bridge on the back (Roman on €5, Romanesque on €10, Gothic on €20, Renaissance on €50, etc.). Problem is, the supposedly "baroque" €100 note shows what is clearly Florence's Ponte Trìnita on the back—not baroque at all, but rather a Mannerist design by Ammanati.

Now, the structures shown were supposed to be "generic" representations of their era so as not to favor any one country's heritage, but it's clear that many are but thinly disguised, especially the Roman bridge, which is quite obviously a retouched Pont de Garde.

Why the EU continues to deny this is beyond me, since in this instance it cleverly manages to straddle two nationalities, an ancient Roman (and therefore by association Italian) bridge in what is now southern France.

Euro coinsEven worse are the coins. Glance at any euro coin. Just because those neutral Swiss didn't want to play banker with the other kiddies and kept its Francs when most of the continent switched to Euros, that's no reason to delete it from the map. There's just a small, Switzerland-shaped hole in the map on the back of the coin. Look more closely and you'll notice they did away with Norway, too, as if it calved off and floated away into the Arctic. (Note: They have since fixed these omissions on newer coins.)

At the same time, they've hopefully stuck Britain on there, even though the Brits still refuse to give up their pounds sterling (perhaps because they realize that, if they translated all prices to Euros, they'd see how ridiculously overpriced everything in England actually is). Once they finally are approved to join, Turkey is going to be pretty steamed up, though, as the map on the back of every Euro note cuts their country at the halfway mark, the ink fading out to the east a ways into the Asian part.

Each country was given free reign to design the backs of their own coins as they saw fit. Most failed spectacularly to rise to this occasion, decorating the coins Old School-style with the visages of princes, presidents, and potentates. Only Italy and Greece went all out and put something different on the back of each coin, still echoing the old pride in cultural accomplishments and national history that made the old currencies of each country so interesting, and—despite the undoubted convenience of the new Euro—a lamentable loss to the traveler.

All hail the cultural heroes

U.S. bills have always been boring—and not just because they all suffer from the same color, size, and basic design. We've unimaginatively just slapped dead presidents on each—plus Ben Franklin, a father of our country brilliant enough not to try to become president. And not always sensible ones, either. Every time I hit the ATM, I'm forced to stare at a handful of Andrew Jacksons, perhaps the most evil bastard ever to sully the White House, a man who made his reputation by slaughtering Indians and marked his presidency by causing the deaths of thousands more who weren't even fighting us. But I digress.

In Europe, banknotes have tended to celebrate historical figures who made a difference (sometimes small, but significant), and, above all, cultural heroes. European currencies once proudly displayed artists, writers, composers, and scientists whose accomplishments did more to establish national identities and whose impact on universal human culture will thankfully live on far longer than any politician.

Italy is closest to my heart, so I'll enumerate them all. The lowly white-and-bronze-colored 1,000L bill (worth less than 50¢) featured the kindly face of Montessori, founder of a progressive kindergarten program still applied throughout the world (she replaced the old Da Vinci 1,000L notes over a decade ago). Radio pioneer Marconi was relegated to the infrequent brown 2,000L—Italy's version of the $2 bill—while Venetian composer Bellini spread his green over the 5,000L note. Seminal scientist Volta blazed in electric blue across the 10,000L.

Whenever you visited the ATM, you'd get a mixture of the world's greatest baroque sculptor Bernini on blood red 50,000L bills, and on golden 100,000L notes his contemporary Caravaggio, whose chiaroscuro baroque painting influenced artists for generations. As it was only introduced two years before the Euro phased it out, I only once ever got to see Raphael on a 500,000L note (worth about $250—which is why I rarely saw it).

And to think that the Italians didn't even hit their true A-list with these notables. They left out maestro Michelangelo, nationalistic composer Verdi, operatic golden boy Puccini, and Enrico Fermi, the 20th century master of the atom and the only Italian scientist to have rated an elemental slot on the periodic table (fermium).

But the loss of this daily financial reminder of cultural heroes goes far beyond Italy’s lire bills. Who, in a few years, will recall that Germany, not always viewed as the warmest and fuzziest country, had more Deutsche marks figuring historic women than men? Or that a gorgeous sunflower brightened 50 guilders (Dutch currency always won, hands down, the Most Joyfully Colorful award).

We'll no longer get to watch Wagner looking wild-eyed out of 500 Austrian schillings (Mozart, 10 times the composer, graced the 5,000 AS); or the bespectacled grin of James Joyce gracing 10 Irish punts. European money used to treat us to such extremes as the stern but kindly gaze of a nun named Catherine on an Irish fiver to a bona fide God (Apollo) on 1,000 Greek Drachmas.

So I'll miss Portugal's melodramatic explorers, especially the grizzled visage of Vasco de Gama on 5,000 escudos, who looked carved from stone and worn by the salty sea wind. I'll miss the hole in the middle of a 25ptas coin in Spain. But most of all, I'll miss an honorary Frenchman.

France, as Italy, once saw fit to remind us what their cultural giants actually looked like, with portraits ranging from musically minded Debussy on the 20FF and the (arguably) greatest impressionist Cézanne on 100FF to towering engineer Claude Eiffel on 200FF and those pioneers of dangerously unstable particles, Marie and Pierre Curie (it took a 500FF note to hold them both).

But the only piece of European currency I'll never forgive them for doing away with is the lowly 50F note, celebrating lost aviator and beloved author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. There was a portrait of the writer, sure, but more importantly the bills featured a picture of Saint-Exupéry’s greatest creation, le Petit Prince himself, perched atop his small planet and reminding us all that the lessons of childhood and pride in our land and origins are not to be taken lightly.

That said, Italy managed to get in a large swathe of history on the backs of their coins, from the ancient (Colosseum on 5 cents, the Campidoglio's Marcus Aurelius statue on 50 cents) through medieval (the Castle del Monte on 1-cent, a profile of Dante—taken from a drawing by Raphael for a cultural double whammie—on €2) and Renaissance (Da Vinci's Vetruvian Man, a.k.a. the Perfect Human Figure—who, far from perfect, has four arms and four legs—on the €1 coin and Botticelli's Venus on 10 cents) to modern (Turin's weird Mole Antonellina on 2 cents and a chunky flowing Boccioni sculpture on 20 cents).

And the Euro is undoubtedly international. By the very second day of its existence, the first 1 Euro-cent I got in change was not the Italian one with a picture of Apulia's hexagonal Castel del Monte on the back, but rather a French coin embossed with the latest portrait of La Française.

Losing my lire

As exciting as the new Euro was, I grew more and more apprehensive as the lire I had from that final New Year's Day ATM visit dwindled fast. It was with heavy heart that I handed over my last 3,000 lire in bills to buy a Coke at a favorite pizza rustica, especially as I was unsure what I would be able to find that cost 600 lire (about 30¢), since I still had three golden 200L pieces in my pocket—and I was determined to spend it all.

I had a slight setback at the end of the evening (by which I mean 3am) when my bartender friend Job, an American ex-pat living here, gave me two rumpled 1,000L notes in change (even though I paid in Euros) for the bit of my bar tab that hadn't been covered by the excited-to-be-in-Rome-and-also-rather-tipsy American sisters who had befriended me (I showed them that magical panorama of the Forum from the backside of the Campidoglio, then found them a taxi by way of repayment).

First thing next morning, though, I stopped at a newsstand and divested myself of the extra 2,000L with a copy of the events guide Roma C'é. That still left me with the 600L, which I finally removed from my change purse as their tarnished gold just added to the confusion in the jumble of shiny new Euros. I stuck them in my pocket instead, where they jingled plaintively.

Then, paying for a bottle of water at a bar, I saw next to the register the perfect way to rid myself of almost all my remaining lire, a 500L piece of candy. Not just any candy, but a chocolate coin wrapped in foil and stamped to look like one of the new €1 pieces. Perfect.

I was kind of expecting to let the cashier keep my change, but when she held up one of those rare-ish 100L coins I love on which lady Italia is crowned by a coronet of Monteriggioni's towers, I couldn't resist and pocketed it. Even though I already had two of these squirreled away at home along with the rest of my pell-mell collection of European currency souvenirs, I figured one more wouldn't hurt, plus this one was special in a way. So I half resolved to keep it.

Later though, without realizing it, as I followed a meandering backstreet route from a restaurant I was updating to the cinema where I was planning to catch the latest Leonardo Pieraccioni film, I turned a corner and was presented with a better idea, one I really should have thought of in the first place.

So I threaded my way through the thicket of tourists on the stairs, elbowed past the ever-present flock of swarthy, sad-eyed sellers of single stem roses, and didn't turn around until I got to the edge of the fountain. I took out my last 100L piece and lightly flipped it over, just once, in my palm. I looked down at Italia with her coronet of towers, and said softly "Ciao, lira."

I took the coin in my right hand, tossed it quickly over my left shoulder, and pushed back through the crowds, without a backward glance, as my last 100L disappeared under the waters of the Trevi Fountain and settled amidst the Euros now piling up in its basin.

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