Friday, May 9, 2014

Cars and their Germans

When I got into my husband's car the other day, it dawned on me that, although the car is three years old, it still has that "new car" smell. I got to thinking that I could probably write a blog post of titanic length about Germans and their cars. I am not the first; many articles and chapters of books about Germans and how they live have already been written about this devoted and dedicated relationship.

This is mainly a man thing. Most German women, like American women, view cars as a means to get to where we're going and back. But for many German men, their identities are intimately connected to - even wrapped up in - their cars. They take great pride in the car's appearance and cleanliness and will spend more time washing and polishing it than anything else they possess. Their office desks might resemble a disaster zone following a hurricane, but their cars will be spotless inside and out. You will rarely see a car on the road in Germany (especially in the Schwabenland) with a spot of rust on it, and you'll never see duct tape holding parts together. You won't even see many dents or scratches. A German will tell his son to "toughen up!" if he gets dented or scratched on the soccer field, but he'll call the car doctor for an appointment before leaving the scene of a fender-bender.

Here in the Schwabenland (Swabia), Saturday is car-washing day if the temperature is above freezing. The car doesn't need to be washed every Saturday, but when it needs doing, it's done on Saturday, preferably in the morning while his wife does the Kehrwoche. He washes the outside, vacuums the inside, cleans the windows inside and out, washes the wheels and tires, and then polishes the body. Although automatic car washes are becoming more common, the proper Swabian washes his car himself in his driveway. Lovingly. Martin says that the true frugal Swabian washes his car with a cotton swab, and when he's finished the second tip can still be used to clean out an ear.

It has been (jokingly?) said that German men love their cars more than they love their women. While that's not the case in our family, I can understand it objectively - the car doesn't give the man lip or complain about how long it's been since he last spent quality time with it, it doesn't nag or tell him what to do, it doesn't gossip or tell him about problems it doesn't want fixed, it's ready to go as soon as he is, it doesn't make him wait for hours while it browses through racks and racks of new, stylish tires, and it doesn't blame him for things that aren't his fault.

Photo by M.H.
Nothing for ungood, but the long-standing stereotypes associated with German drivers of certain cars may be informative and fun.*  Apparently...
  • Audi drivers are impatient, aggressive, tail-gating social-climbers.
  • Porsche drivers are incessant, reckless speeding egomaniacs.
  • Drivers of classic Mercedes cars always assume they have the right-of-way and are usually over 50. 
  • VW drivers are moms and dads (or grandpas, if the car is silver).
  • BMW drivers are manly, athletic, arrogant, and lack the sex appeal of Porsche drivers.
  • Opel drivers are working class wage-earners.
These are just stereotypes, of course, which are often enthusiastically discussed and debated at man-gatherings.

So why does our car still smell new? Not only does Martin wash, clean, and polish it when necessary, but we do not drink anything except water while in the car, so there's no chance of spilling any beverages. We do not eat in the car, so it will never take on that stale, greasy odor from a forgotten French fry that fell between the seats. No one smokes in the car, we don't get into the car with muddy boots, I don't apply perfume while in the car, and we don't have smelly, hairy pets or small children. Therefore we don't need to use an air freshener to cover the smell of old coffee, hamburgers, tobacco, mud, poo, or wet dog. Our car is a car, and not a bathroom, make-up parlor, restaurant, smoking lounge, or kennel - all the things my first car after college in America was.

What does this mean for American visitors? I often told my students before their homestays:
  1. Do not lean on any cars!
  2. Do not let anything bump the car when getting in or out.
  3. Do NOT eat or drink anything in someone's car - don't even ask permission to do so.
  4. Do not finger-draw on the windows if they fog up.
  5. Close the doors and trunk - do not slam them.
  6. If the driver offers to put your heavy suitcase in the trunk, let him. It's not that he's being gentlemanly - he does not trust you to do it without banging the suitcase against the car.
If drinking coffee or a Coke is not done in cars, you might wonder why cars here have cup holders. The Germans don't know either. They're usually used for storing the driver's wallet or sunglasses.

The photo above is Martin's previous car. I would have taken a current photo, but our car is at the TüV today getting its biennial safety and emissions check-up...

*Do remember - all generalizations are false, including this one.

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