FEATURE by Willard Manus
My troubles began as soon as I crossed the Austrian border and entered Germany. A cop stationed just outside the first Bavarian village on my route flagged me down. After checking my papers and poking around in my luggage he let me go, but no sooner did I hit the road again did another cop, this one in a green-and-white BMW, start tailgating me. He stayed so close I could see the color of his blue eyes in my rearview mirror.
I knew I was a target because of my car, a 15-year-old Opel station wagon. It was the oldest car on the highway. Nobody drives a 15-year-old car in Germany unless it's an antique in mint condition, something my clunker was not.
The BMW stayed
behind me for a good ten minutes, during which time the highway narrowed
down to one lane because of construction and he swung out and nipped in
front of me, escalating the war of nerves by reducing his speed to 15
mph and daring me to pass him.
"What laws?" I asked.
Passing in a forbidden zone, he replied. Driving without a national identity sticker on display. Driving in Germany with "Z" plates, plates meant for export circulation only.
I showed him my papers. The car had been bought second-hand in Greece, but its registration and insurance were up to date. And I had a valid driving license.
No matter, he said. You are still in violation of the law. Your car shows rust spots and your rear tires "have a low profil."
When I disputed the latter charge, he pulled out a pair of calipers and measured the depth of the tread. "Nichtsgute!" he shouted. "Low profil, low profil!"
He ordered me to follow him back to the police station.
It was dark by the time we reached it, a lucky break as it turned out. The cashier's office had closed and the cop was unable to break the hundred dollar bill I handed him to pay the fine.
"You must have something smaller," he insisted. "Search all your pockets."
I did have traveler's checks on me but wasn't about to produce them. Instead I proffered a fistful of Greek drachmas, knowing full well he would reject them as being non-convertible.
We had reached an impasse and he could only glare at me balefully.
"Your tires are bald and your car has rust," he repeated through clenched teeth. "We don't allow such cars to drive in Germany."
I explained for the fifth time that my Opel was on its last trip, that I was intending to scrap it and buy another car once I reached Munich.
"You can go," he gave in finally, "but you must promise me that you will buy two new tires at the first service station you reach."
"It's a promise," I said.
Once I was on the road again, I noticed a sign that told me where I was. Berchtesgaden.
I kept going until I reached Munich.
* * *
That was only the beginning of my problems. Finding a good used car, a Mercedes diesel, was easy, but registering it was anything but. It required a trip to the German equivalent of the DMV, which was a huge, gymnasium-like building located on the outskirts of Munich. A friend, Horst, had taken the day off to help me.
We arrived at the office at opening time, 7.30 a.m. "It's necessary to start this early," explained Horst. "We must make a certain window by 10.30 or we are fokked."
The hours went by and I began to get worried. We trooped from window to window, standing on one line after another, filling out form after form, waiting for them to be zeroxed in triplicate, rubber-stamped, recorded in giant ledgers. At each and every window I handed over money, ten marks here, twenty there.
At long last we made it to the final station. As we stood there, sweating, Horst said, "We have 15 minutes left. If we don't get to this clerk in time, we will have to come back tomorrow."
There were three people ahead of us. The clerk worked so deliberately that it seemed like slow-motion. 10.20. 10.25. By the time I reached him, his left hand was resting on the window, ready to slam it shut on the stroke of the half-hour. He looked at me, then at the clock on the wall. I shoved my papers at him. His lips curled back in a sneer, but he took my papers, stamped them and flung them back at me, simultaneously slamming the window down like a guillotine.
Horst and I staggered next door to the canteen, where several hundred other wrung-out people stood drinking and smoking, under walls emblazoned with graffiti.
Horst translated. "The best thing is not to be born, but who among us is so lucky?" "He who doesn't like to eat shit finds nothing here to eat."
That wasn't the last of it. Much to my dismay, I discovered that I had to take my papers to yet another office, this one on the opposite side of Munich, where the license plates were issued. Horst decided he'd had enough and took a bus home.
Only one other person was ahead of me when I reached the office. My joy evaporated, though, when he stepped up to the clerk, opened his attache case and pulled out a stack of applications as thick as the New Testament. The son of a bitch did this kind of thing for a living.
By the time I got out of there, the night was black and cold. I tried to affix the new plates to my car but it wasn't possible without the proper tools.
As I drove across Munich to Horst's apartment, driver after driver honked at me, pointing and shouting, "No plates, you are driving without plates! It is verboten, strictly verboten!"