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Shrinking Europe, shrinking world

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It was when we tried to pick up our bags from the left-luggage counter in Antwerp's soaring Central Station that I really wanted the Europeans to hurry up and introduce their future single currency, the euro, as soon as possible! We'd arrived in Antwerp by train a few hours earlier, midway between interviews in Brussels - also in Belgium - and a full itinerary the next day in the Dutch city of The Hague. So we'd checked our bags at the station before walking a few blocks to do an interview with a local specialist on Central Africa.

We got back to the station around 8 p.m. "Two hundred and seventy francs," said the baggage clerk. That's only $5 - but I didn't have it. I thought I'd done my currency planning well, but what with doing interviews in four European countries in less than a week, I'd failed to keep enough Belgian francs in hand that day to redeem our bags. The clerk was adamant. He couldn't take credit cards. He couldn't take any of the other four currencies cluttering my pockets. The foreign-exchange booth around the corner was closed. And our train to The Hague would arrive any moment....

As despair set in, a Dutch fellow passenger took pity: "Here, I travel to London a lot, I'll change some of your pounds!" I quickly agreed, and ran back to the baggage clerk with my francs. My relieved research assistant and I hauled our bags away to await our train.

The receipt the clerk gave me was made out - like all Belgian receipts these days - in both francs and the future euros. But euros, which will be common currency throughout Belgium, Holland, and a dozen other major European countries in 2002, will not exist in tangible form until then.

The changeover will doubtless be a challenge for the countries undertaking it. But once it's happened, millions of small transactions like the ones I conducted along the Paris-Hague rail corridor last month will be much easier to plan.

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