It is now just over a year since the advent of the euro, and Romes tramps were the first to sum up the upshot of the money system more clearly than anyone else as yet. Soon after it was introduced they began shouting up at passers-by from their supine positions: Give me a euro! In the olden days, their cry was: Give me a thousand lire! Sometimes, even L.500 would do. But with time on their hands and wisdom in their heads, they twigged the apparent essence of the changeover: one euro did not equal L.2,000, as the pundits claimed, but L.1,000. Overnight, the dimensions of the world had doubled. A psychological trick had taken place. By association, the figure 1 had remained 1.
For lesser mortals, this writer included, realisation only came late in the day. In the autumn, for instance, barely four days had passed since leaving the bank with funds that would normally have lasted a week when, suddenly, the money was no more. There were self-administered kicks for having lost such a sum. Back-reckoning revealed, amazingly, that the cash had actually been spent.
Again only recently did it dawn on Diletta Liverani, a young interior designer specialising in classical and renaissance backgrounds, what had happened. Yes, she mused. Last year you could have a really good night out with all the trimmings for L.100,000. Now you can do nothing with e50. She concluded that if the big outlays, such as rent, had not changed much, many little things like chewing-gum indeed seemed to have doubled in price.
Marco Bagliani, a 36-year-old waiter, goes further. For me, the cost of life has tripled. You pull out your pockets and oof! theres nothing there. The lira was much better. It was clever of Britain not to join. The bar owner said customers who once drank two bottles of beer now left after just one.
The economic research centre Eures discovered recently that in Lazio 13 per cent of people interviewed had had to cut back their spending dramatically, while a further 30 per cent had applied the brakes firmly. As many as 57 per cent blamed shopkeepers for upping prices, while 19 per cent thought politicians were the culprits. (In the eurozone, by the way, only Italy and Germany have failed to impose stiff fines for price fiddling.)
Officialdom did not want to know, doubtless for fear of reawakening lightly sleeping trades unions and new wage demands at a bad time. However in December, for the first time, President of the Republic Carlo Azeglio Ciampi warned that not only had Italy gone into economic decline, but that an escalator effect set off by the euro had pushed up prices more than expected, and beyond the European average.
Still, no one would confirm the subjective perception that full wallets were lasting half the time they used to. Even the outspoken consumer association Codacons would not go so far, despite calculating that families had lost a whole week of their monthly income. However, the association Cittadinanzattiva has eloquently detailed the consequences. Bars and restaurants are the worst offenders, with their increases ranging between 24 and 60 per cent, and they are the object of 70 per cent of the complaints received. Pubs are charging 21 per cent more. Tomatoes cost 28 per cent more than they did, apples 18 per cent and cooked ham 6.2 per cent. Parking fees have gone up by 21 per cent, parking fines by 100 per cent, public transport in some instances by 40 per cent and cinemas by 14.8 per cent. Figures produced by Italys statistics institute, ISTAT, putting inflation at only 2.7 per cent, were scoffed at by Cittadinanzattiva as way off mark, as they were by other consumer groups.
Even so, Giustino Trincia, the number two of Cittadinanzattiva, thought it excessive to conclude that overall things had doubled, opaquely pointing out that a doubling of prices does not infer a doubled cost of living. He also pointed out that post-euro inflation was common to all EU countries, though Italy had underestimated the impact of the euro adventure more than its partners.
But Martin Hilmi, a former FAO expert in the food sector, with a masters from Leicester University, believes that thanks to the euro all food products except meat have indeed doubled in price because of the transliteration of lire into euros, and that the same upward trend had hit many other items, such as cleaning liquids, tissues and beer. But he ascribed many increases to what he called instinct buying , with many customers, still unclear about the euro, piling things into their supermarket trolleys irrespective of price tags.
In fact, everyone seems to agree that mental attitudes and habits have abetted the spiralling trend, as has the publics slowness to catch on. Trincia noted, for instance, that because of the previous banknote culture in Italy the euro coins were instinctively equated with the old lire coins, and so greatly undervalued. He believes the government should have issued one-euro notes from the start, instead of coming up with the idea, as it did, when it was too late. Until recently this writer felt embarrassed at leaving a minuscule 10 cent coin as a tip in coffee bars, so 20 cents were left. Among fashion-conscious youngsters a year ago L.100,000 was considered the minimum respectable price to pay for a pair of presentable shoes. Today, because e50 seems negligible in comparison, one cannot be seen dead in Via Condotti with shoes that cost less than e100.
So the tramps got it right. They didnt mind rocking the boat, blithe souls.