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Equally ignorant - and tolerant - of euro

French francs, European euros, then sales prices don't even faze Parisians. Everyone is being 'nice.'

The first day of the winter sales in Paris is always a pretty ghastly prospect for shoppers and sales staff alike. Mad scrums at the shelves and tills are enough to deter all but the most determined bargain hunters.

This year, the outlook for the start of the sale season on Wednesday was even more horrific, with prices - old and new - marked in both French francs and the new pan-European currency, the euro. The potential for line-snarling confusion at checkout desks seemed almost limitless.

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Certainly there were numbers to puzzle over. One pair of skis and their bindings that I found in a sporting goods store in central Paris had a label attached setting out no fewer than eight prices: the original price of the skis in francs and euros, the original price of the bindings in both currencies, the old total in francs, crossed out and replaced by the sale price in francs, and the original total in euros, crossed out, above the marked down price in the new money.

I mentally confirmed my decision to rent skis when I go on holiday in the Alps next month.

But given the predictions of consumer chaos, things are going remarkably smoothly. At a branch here of the well-established Printemps department store, for example, shoppers were coping relatively easily with the labels that simply offered "40 percent off" the old prices, even if that meant they had to do the sums in their heads.

"I can do the math," said René Lemaille, an elderly man looking through a pile of shirts. "What I can't work out is the sizes. What does XL mean, do you think?" (I sympathized - it means nothing in French).

"The lines at the tills are longer, because three quarters of our customers want to know what they are paying in Francs, and all our tills are set up to work in euros now," explained Romain Dournelle, who runs the mens' clothing department at the Place d'Italie mall branch of Printemps. "It takes time to do the calculations for them."

At the nearby Sergio Tacchini boutique, selling casual clothes to young people, however, even the labels with four prices on them (the old price and the sale price in both currencies) were not fazing eager customers.

"Eighty percent of our clients are thinking in euros and paying in euros," says deputy manager Patrick Enée. "It's a question of generations: People who shop at Printemps are older, and they are hanging on to the franc. Young people aren't afraid of the euro."

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But young and old are displaying one characteristic in common: patience with each other.

This is not what you necessarily expect from French people, especially in Paris. But there is a general sense that we are all equally ignorant about the new coins and notes in our wallets and purses, and that we all deserve the time to figure things out.

And it does take time. When you pay for a coffee, for example, the waiter is likely to stare at the coins you have given him and ponder for a while. He is not suspicious that you have given him fakes, he is just working out exactly what those bright new copper- and brass-colored coins add up to.

Lines in shops are longer, certainly. As often as not, the delay is occasioned by a confused customer who needs to do his sums out loud, and have his change counted, coin by coin, into his fist.

Or by a customer who is simply not used to picking out the right change immediately from a handful of tiny and unfamiliar coins. The other evening, for example, I was painstakingly sorting out the money I needed to buy a loaf of bread when the bakery lady simply leaned over the counter and smilingly took what I owed her from my open palm. I felt like a foolish tourist, but nobody in the line behind me held it against me. We are all in this together.