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Final Day For Greeks To Swap Drachmas For Euros


Greece is reaching what's turned out to be a bitter milestone today. The Greeks are completing their transition to the euro. Today is the last day to finally swap drachma bills for euros at the Bank of Greece.

It's been a decade since Greece started using euro currency. It's been gradually taking the drachma out of circulation. First coins, a few years ago, now bills. And the process is almost complete, just at a moment when Greeks worry that their country's debt crisis could eventually force them to drop the euro.

Joanna Kakissis has this report from Athens.


JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Abyssinia Cafe is a nostalgic place with antique furniture and traditional food. It opened 30 years ago, during the drachma days. When the country formally fazed out the drachma on February 28th, 2002, owner Nikos Touros says a customer gave him a signed drachma bill as a souvenir.

NIKOS TOUROS: It was a thousand drachmas, and he wrote wishes for good business.

KAKISSIS: The god of sun, Apollo, is on the banknote, but at the exchange rate of about 340 drachmas to the euro - it's only worth about $4. Touros never thought about trading it in the drachma note. As long as he can pay his bills, he says, he doesn't care what currency he uses.

TOUROS: It all has to do with what you can buy with a note. Otherwise, it's money.

KAKISSIS: A few Greeks still call the old currency the drachmoula - or little drachma, as if it's an old friend. Most Greeks have kept some drachma coins or paper money as souvenirs - but they also don't want to use the money again. They say the drachma belongs in the past and the euro is supposed to be the future. Polls show that more than 70 percent of Greeks want their country to stay in the eurozone.

Economist Aris Ikkos says there's still a strong belief in Greece that the eurozone reflects the ideals of a united Europe.

ARIS IKKOS: The European Union with all its problems has given Europe a period of peace and prosperity, and I think an easing of the tension between the peoples of Europe.

KAKISSIS: But those tensions have flared again as the debt crisis has dragged on and Greece has come close to a chaotic default.

IKKOS: We see stereotypes like the southerners are lazy, the northerners are hard workers, or that the Germans are Nazis or whatever. And I think this is really bad.

KAKISSIS: It's bad, he says, because it makes everyone distrust and isolate each other. And it also keeps the idea of a Greek euro exit alive.

IKKOS: Nobody's going to invest any serious money in the economy while this question is pending.

KAKISSIS: That question's also worrying Greeks, who are taking their euros out of banks. In January, private sector deposits in Greek banks fell by almost three percent, according to European Central Bank data.

Despite today's drachma exchange deadline, there are still a lot of old drachmas out there, some $260 million worth, in fact. The Bank of Greece says that money has likely been lost or destroyed. Anyone hoarding the drachmas will be out of luck if Greece ever reverts to the old currency.

Economists say new banknotes must be printed, and new coins minted. The Bank of Greece says that the drachma notes already exchanged have been shredded and packed into recyclable blocks.

For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis, in Athens. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is an international correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she leads NPR's bureau and coverage of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.