“I have to sign Untruegerman this time” I told Francesca when we discussed this weeks topic. “We haven´t got a car”.
While the Abwrackpräme, the 2500 Euro the government grants for getting rid of your old and buying a new car, makes the first page every day, my family is dreaming about getting money for handing in our old bikes. We do have a more than nine year old fridge as well, and how about my 30 year old skis?
By having no car, our family is most untypical German. There are a lot of good reasons for non-ownership: we live in the city, the Underground stops in our cellar, the last time we owned a car we used it an average of 2000 km per year, it is much cheaper to go by train and taxi than to maintain a car, at night we don´t have to circle our block ten times to find a parking spot and we can drink a glass of wine at a party. Those are reasons but no excuses. As Germans, we should own a car. And we should buy it now, to help the ailing industry.
I quite like to buy something to further a good cause. At the annual Kindergarden party, I indulge in selfmade cake and salads to support the playground funds. I eat my Bratwurst with more delight if I know the profit goes to the Good Samaritan. Therefore, when I passed the local Mercedes-Benz dealer on my bike yesterday, I was really tempted to go in. “Save 7500 Euro”, the letters on the showroom said, “we add another 5000 Euro to the government grant.”
“Oh Lord, won´t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz” Janis Joplin sang and in the seventies, everybody in Germany understood. For decades, the car with the star symbolized success, the German way. It stood for good craftmanship, security, solidity, power. BMW was acceptable, too. Though it signalled a slightly more relaxed lifestyle and more taste for risk than the majority approved of. A Porsche Carrera meant wanting to show off and was only acceptable for showbusiness people and their like.
In Germany, the make of your car defines who you are. It is more important than the place you live or the schools your children got to. After the Fall of the Wall, the first thing to vanish in the East was the Trabant, the GDR-version of a Volkswagen: it was small, it was slow, it was made of plastic, and nobody “weint ihm eine Träne nach”, nobody misses it.
Though, a few years later, the media praised a new type of car: it was small, it was slow, it was made of plastic. As, this time, it was produced by Daimler, this car became quite fashionable with the fashionable people. But it never sold in masses.
Maybe this “Smart” was too smart for people. Everytime I tried to drive a Smart, I ended studying the manual. The first time, I couldn´t figure out how to start. The oldfashioned way of turing the ignition key didn´t work. I tried and tried and tried. Had I been a member of the German Auto drivers association ADAC, I would have called for help immediately. As I´m not, I fished for the manual and learnt that I had to turn the key first to the right for a few seconds and then to the left–or vice versa? This served as a Wegfahrsperre – so nobody could bypass the ignition and drive away. It certainly stopped me to drive away.
Another time I panicked because I was afraid I had broken the key. When I wanted to get the key out of the ignition, the lower half was stuck. Incredoulous, I stared at the plastic upper part I held in my hands. Only my trust in “Made in Germany” gave me the idea to fish again for the manual in order to find out what this might serve for. It served to … I forgot, but at least I know the page number where I can find this vital information. Unfortunately, this didn´t help me when I decided to drive a convertible Smart to some business meeting last summer. I pushed a button, opened the ragtop and enyoed the sun. When clouds started to cover the sky on arrival, I decided to close the top. As I was already 15 minutes late, I jumped out of the door, grabbed my suitcase and pushed the button I had pushed before. Nothing happened. I pushed again. Nothing. Frantically I looked for another button to push. I didn´t find one. And I didn´t find the manual, either. So I left the top open, hurried to my meeting and spent the afternoon sitting on the edge of my chair, in case it should rain.
Yes, I drive cars, though I don´t own one. In my wallet I carry a “Stadtmobil”-smartcard. This is my magic key to more than a hundred cars in Frankfurt. Whatever I need, a small city car, a sports car, an SUV, I can get it through my car sharing organisation. I book through the internet, pick the car up, and drive. My sole responsibility is to be back on time, and to fill the gas. Once a month, I get a bill. I´m charged for time and kilometers, but not for minimum time or insurances.
Unfortunately, I can´t hand in my Stadtmobil-card to get the Abwrackprämie. Therefore, like Janis Joplin, I have to rely on God to get my Mercedes-Benz. And even to her, I learnt at the Rock Museum in Cleveland, he delivered “only” a Porsche.
But this is another story.