July 2, 2002

Dear Euro, They Sigh (Not Fondly)


BERLIN, July 1 — Gernot Rotthoff, a fruit-and-vegetable seller here for 25 years, was explaining that his strawberries had not really become more expensive. But Ulrike Knapphaide wasn't buying it — or the strawberries.

"Everything's gotten more expensive, whether I buy cheese, tomatoes or fruit," she insisted.

"No! No! That's just what people are saying," Mr. Rotthoff responded.

"Huh, maybe," Ms. Knapphaide said. Shoving her hand into her jeans, she pulled out a crumpled note. "I just want to know what I get for my 20 euros in my pocket. I went to Karstadt and a sweater that cost 59 marks was 59 euros! It comes from my soul!"

The euro is worth almost two of the old German marks, the currency much beloved by the nation as one of its proudest achievements since World War II. But ever since the mark effectively disappeared on Jan. 1, replaced by the common collective currency of most of the European Union, Germans believe that life has grown much dearer.

They have even invented a new word, combining teuer — expensive — and euro, to make "teuro," pronounced, TOY-ro.

For the Germans, careful with money, it has become a kind of collective psychosis, aided by a circulation-building campaign by the popular tabloid Bild. A photograph of Hauke Brost, the journalist Bild chose as its "Teuro Sheriff" to investigate price gouging, appears in the paper with a little badge.

Christoph von Marschall, an editorial writer for the daily Tagesspiegel, compares the issue to the wind-chill factor. "It feels a lot worse than the thermometer says, and so no one is letting themselves be dissuaded by statistics."

Germans took to the euro but have been a bit embarrassed about it, as it quickly sank below parity with the dollar, Mr. von Marschall said. Although the euro is again at rough parity with the dollar, the rise is considered not a function of euro strength but dollar weakness, and Germans are no happier.

For Mr. von Marschall the issue arises from Germans' nature: "We're in a country full of people who love a deal, and most people are always comparing prices. All we talk about is `Schnäppchen machen,' " getting a bargain.

Vanessa Bluhdorn, a 24-year-old who works at a law firm, says it more bluntly: "The Germans love their savings books. They like to look at them and count their money."

Ms. Bluhdorn is another shopper who feels that life has been more expensive since the euro came along, especially fruit, vegetables, bakery goods and clothing. She contends that restaurants and bars in particular have just rounded up from the mark to charge "nice round prices."

A beer that used to cost 5 marks now costs 3 euros, the equivalent of nearly 6 marks, she said, while a small pizza, which used to be 7 marks, is now 5 euros.

The mood has gotten so sour that in a European Commission poll, half the Germans questioned recently said they wanted the mark back. According to the same survey, 75 percent of Germans polled expressed certainty that prices have been rounded up. The eastern German magazine Super Illu reported that, in a survey it did among Germans in the east, 94 percent said prices had risen with the euro.It said, tongue in cheek: "The Volk has never been this unified."

But government statistics indicate that, over all, inflation is actually down compared with last year's rate.

Still, surveys indicate that about 80 percent of restaurants and cafes have indeed increased prices by rounding up the euro. Some consumer items are also significantly more expensive, like breakfast rolls, up 7.3 percent over the previous year, and milk, up 11.8 percent.

Heinz-Peter Hannappel of the statistics office had some support for Mr. Rotthoff, the produce merchant, noting that bad winter weather had caused fruit and vegetable prices to rise.

In another fruit-and-vegetable shop, Wolfram Bauszus is hearing complaints from his customers, too. "This is definitely more expensive," said one customer, holding up a bunch of chives costing half a euro. "Now that's just a flat lie," Mr. Bauszus answered wearily. "That never went up. It was one mark last year."

Ingrid Ernst, a theater director, said she was vexed by the new arithmetic of tipping. "It's a mess!" she said. "You think you should tip 2 euros, and that doesn't seem enough. So you leave 3, and then realize, wait, that was 6 marks!"

When told inflation is down, Ms. Ernst said emphatically: "This has nothing to do with inflation! Everything is just more expensive."

The federal minister for consumer protection, Renate Künast called an "anti-teuro summit" to try to deal with the popular anger. But Finance Minister Hans Eichel and Economics Minister Werner Müller refused to take part. The meeting was "popular theater," Mr. Müller said, although he encouraged consumers to boycott offending businesses.

A chain e-mail message then went around urging a complete consumer boycott of any purchases today, July 1. "Imagine if all of Germany didn't shop for one whole day!" the message said. "Enough is enough!" Well, the instigators can keep imagining. The Germans were never going to stop shopping.

Matthias Wermke, the chief editor of the Duden, a leading German dictionary, said he is considering adding "teuro" to the next edition. "We need to see if it integrates into the language," he said, "and is not just a fashion word."

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