What does Germany mean to you? What images are conjured up by that name? Well-engineered cars? Hitler and the Nazis? Good football team marred by that diving cheat Jurgen Klinsmann? Cleanliness and efficiency? Towels-on-the-beach at 7am? Central axis of the new European project? (Possibly unfortunate use of the word "axis" there, sorry) The country that much of Europe (and the world) aspires to be? Excellent beer? A "cuisine" that is over-reliant on sausages and cabbage? Fast trains and speedy autobahns? 99 Luftballons? Marlene Dietrich? Unnatural love of David Hasselhoff and The Kelly Family?
For much of Eastern Europe, it would seem, Germany is seen as one vast second hand car dealership. And not just cars - lorries, buses, forklifts, I dunno, probably helicopters and stuff too. Just this weekend, for example, I was passed on the road to Sovata by a bus just bought from Germany going like the clappers. It was a bendy bus too (I'm not sure if bendy bus is the technical name for one of those buses with a kind of concertina bit in the middle, but you know what I mean. Omnibus Articulatum or something.) The roads, car dealerships, and free-newspapers-that-sell-cars are filled with recently imported vehicles. In Csikszereda, most of the lorries that ply the town delivering stuff or transporting stuff around still have evidence of their German roots - slogans and logos of companies in Hamburg, stickers in the window saying "Heinrich", that kind of thing, while sporting a Romanian number plate with an HR (Harghita) designation (It may not, in truth, be "most", but it's a significantly high percentage).
If ever you mention in passing that you're looking to buy a car, everyone you know will know someone whose livelihood depends on going to Germany, buying up cars and driving them back. I'm serious. At times I wonder if there is anyone sitting on the planes that fly between Frankfurt/Munich and Bucharest, or whether there are vast bottlenecks in Hungary as swarms of Romanians drive their German vehicles home. A casual observer at the border crossing at Oradea would probably assume that Romania is a vastly popular holiday destination for Germans, based on all the German registered cars coming through.
This year the Romanian government has imposed a punitive tax on these incoming cars, the so-called "first registration tax", by which every car being registered for the first time in Romania is subject to a high tariff. This tax, it is rumoured, comes as a result of intense pressure from Renault who own Dacia and who are therefore the biggest sellers of new cars in Romania. The EU has told Romania that this tax is illegal and a hindrance to free trade or something, but so far it has not been removed, though the assumption is that sooner or later it will have to be (court cases in Poland and Hungary have already put paid to similar laws in those countries). When it is rescinded, apparently, everyone will have to be paid back, but since this is Romania the levels of bureaucracy that will almost certainly be involved in getting it back will be so time-consuming that many people will just not bother, giving the government a nice little tax-windfall which they can use on hushing up the CIA torture camps or whatever.
This trade in vehicles from West to East, by the way, is not limited to the Germany-Romania corridor. As far as I can tell it is common all over Eastern Europe, and, indeed, if you go to www.mobile.de (which is the virtual parking lot for a large number of these vehicles), you will come across loads of dealers who specify which Eastern European languages they speak. Similarly, while Germany is the main source, other countries are also helping supply our quiveringly addictive need for second-hand cars. A friend recently went to Italy to accompany and translate for some blokes from here who drove over a couple of car transporters and bought up a bunch of cars that had been rescued from flood waters, filled with mud and obviously not working. The theory is that you bring them home, clean them up, fix them and then sell them for 4 times what you paid for them (with the danger that they will not be repairable cancelled out by the profits on the ones that are). His story about the whole negotiation and "marketplace" in which it took place is pretty funny - involving the mafia, Bulgarian gangsters, Moldovans, Romanians and god knows who else.
The reason for this post at this time? Yes, I have just bought a second hand VW Golf, imported from Germany, and currently going through the registration process. (As ever a bureaucratic and slow plod, speeded up by knowing someone who knows someone at different stages of the way). It is a very nice car though, with one small complaint - it has a cassette player in it. It was built in 2003, for christs sake, why on earth did Volkswagon think putting a cassette player in it was a good idea? Why not just go with a bloody gramophone? Vorsprung Durch Technic, and all that stuff.