Europe's new, all-inclusive currency, the euro, looks like Monopoly money. It has bland colors, bland artwork and no distinctive nationality. If a carrier pigeon were instructed to take a euro home, the bird would not know where to go.
The pro-euro arguments sound good. Non Europeans will have to change their currencies only once. Prices will stabilize because consumers can more easily compare costs of items and services across borders. Confusion will be lessened as people won't have to figure in their heads, or on calculators, the price difference, say, between items for sale in Spanish pesetas and French francs. Still, I will miss the pictures of kings and queens, revolutionaries and marvelous architectural triumphs on the old money.
The euro is linked to nothing. That's because there are no more francs or marks or lire or drachmas (Greece's currency survived for 2,500 years and was the oldest in Europe).
The euro has stars on both sides and something that resembles a Star Trek space ship caught in a confused jet stream. It has some letters on it (BCE, ECB, EZB, EKT, EKP) and the date, 2002. Is this a secret code to be unscrambled, or the initials of the uninspired people who created this numismatic nothingness? There is something that vaguely mimics an ancient Roman aqueduct (but the arches look much newer and, besides, using such ancient symbols would conjure up memories of Roman glory; people pursuing world peace by purging nationalistic feelings will have none of that).
A silver strip looks like a zip-tab for easier package opening. It is one of several attempts to make the money difficult to counterfeit, though counterfeiters appear undeterred. Bogus euros hit the streets within the first 24 hours of the currency's release.
Euro coins are slightly more attractive. A 50 "cent" Irish euro resembles a gold Sacagawea American dollar. (Cents in what sense, anyway? Not as fractions of dollars or French francs, once called centimes.) On one side is a "map" of Western Europe with some stars and vertical lines. On the other is the Celtic harp. How did the Irish get permission to stamp that musical instrument and symbol of national pride on this coin?
Contrast this with the beautiful old money. My 10-pound sterling paper note from the Northern Bank (established in 1824, thank you) is a work of art. On it is J.B. Dunlop of Belfast (1840-1921), inventor of the pneumatic tire. An old bicycle stands in the lower left corner. The more distinct colors and design make the note pleasing to the eye and connect the bearer to history. The lines on this legal tender appear to have been drawn by an architect. They recall those grand intersecting arcs I tried, but failed, to create in geometry class. The note is signed by the bank's chief executive. The euro is signed by no one, perhaps because its creators wish to be able to deny authorship.
On the reverse of my 10-pound note are two depictions of Belfast's beautiful City Hall, an architectural delight. Highlighted is the triangular frieze over the entrance, a home to ancient historical and mythical figures worthy of our attention.
Thirty million people in 12 nations are laying aside the currencies they grew up with in favor of the euro. They have no choice. The old money, like old Europe, is fading away and will no longer be legal tender, except in Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland and also in Britain, where God continues to save the Queen and the Pound Sterling.
Some are benefiting in other ways from the money change. The euro was a boon to French prostitutes, who used the new currency to "massage their rates upward," as the London Times deliciously put it. Winners on the French version of "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?" will now be paid in euros, earning them six and one-half times more money than the 1 million French francs they might have expected to take home. Vive la France, but the death of the franc and the other currencies are cause for some traditionalists to mourn.