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Euros accepted, not embraced

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BRUSSELS, Belgium — Kris Kisbulck, a young Belgian photographer, is on the road a lot for his work, so he can appreciate how having one currency for 12 countries will simplify his life.

Yet he still has a nagging feeling that the gain in convenience is coming at a price.

"I'm for it but not really excited," he said as he and his friend, designer Liang Hou, withdrew fresh euro notes from an ATM.

Like many Europeans, Kisbulck worries the new common currency is another step on a path toward producing a homogenized society.

"Pretty soon, we'll all be speaking only English, too," he said, only half-jokingly, in English.

European Union leaders have heralded the single currency as the genesis of a common European identity, a giant leap toward economic and political integration for a continent long divided by language, religion and nationalistic pride.

Even the food is radically different, as anyone who has compared Greek feta with Dutch gouda cheese or Italian mozzarella with German Limburger, can attest.

Yet half of all cash transactions this weekend were expected to be made in euros — just days after the currency's debut on New Year's Day.

Ecstatic EU officials said Friday that such rapid acceptance shows that the public, despite grumblings about price hikes and conversion hassles, is solidly behind the change.

"The enthusiasm of the European people for their new currency has been the biggest asset," said the EU's economic and monetary affairs commissioner, Pedro Solbes.

Even the Germans, who cherished their marks as an emblem of postwar economic might and stability, lined up eagerly during the week to ditch them for glittering euros.

"The new money, until now a synonym for insecurity and danger, has put a spell on people," wrote the Sueddeutsche Zeitung in Munich.

But asked whether she felt like a true European now with euros in her purse, Regine Mailaender, a 34-year-old banker in Berlin, replied: "Not yet."

"Maybe on my next vacation, when I won't have all that hassle with exchanging money," she added.

Euro critics view the shared currency as another blow to diversity and local control. "Personally, I couldn't care less about the euro, and I don't think it matters to anyone else either," Italian Reform Minister Umberto Bossi, a harsh critic of European integration, said in the Rome newspaper La Repubblica.

Jean-Marie Clement, who sells cheese at an open-air market in Paris, said she would have a hard time giving up the franc.

Rearranging her displays of Camembert and Brie, she worried about the loss of national identity. "In France, the franc, that is our money." Yet most seem to reject such notions.

Ireland had its currency linked with the British pound for decades, but no one ever feared a "loss of an Irish sense of identity," noted Eunan O'Halpin, professor of modern history at the University of Dublin, Trinity College.

The same should hold true with the euro. "What will happen maybe is Italians will eat fewer sweets," he said, since smalltown Italian shopkeepers will no longer need to hand out candy in lieu of scarce 5 and 10 lira coins.

Some even argue the euro will help Europeans hold on to their regional idiosyncrasies against an even bigger steamroller: globalization.

"Grandmothers see their children becoming less Italian, less Spanish, less German, but this is something of a generalized phenomenon," said Daniel Gros, director of the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels. "The Mexicans are less Mexican today, and the Russians are also less Russian, I presume."

The euro will give people an opportunity to "put something else in its place" — a slowly emerging sense of Europeanness, he said.

Even the jokes and stereotypes should survive.

"Obviously there's going to be more conformity in some things, especially economic things," businessman Joao Ferreira said at a train station in Lisbon, Portugal.

His country has the EU's lowest average monthly paycheck: 645 euros ($580), compared to 2,674 euros ($2,407) in Germany.

"But no one's going to tell me I'm going to be like the Germans," Ferreira said with a smile, referring to the image of "rich but joyless" northerners held by the "poor but happy" south.