Car Ownership in Poland, Joys of

“Modern Poland’s problems are rooted in symbols,” a friend meditated aloud one afternoon shortly before I left Łódź. “The old symbols are dead. All our lives it’s been the Party or the Church, but neither works any more. The red flag, however illegitimate its authority, however illusory its promises, however corrupt its method was in its time a very compelling symbol. Solidarność, which would like to supplant the red flag, is too ad-hoc to be an effective counter-symbol. A symbol springs almost unsummoned from the psychic depths of a people—neither the red-and-white flag nor the Solidarność logo springs from those deep roots.

“Our other symbol was the Virgin. She defined Poland for centuries. She endured longer in Poland than elsewhere, but secretly we all know this is romantic self-delusion. Today not even the virgin works.”

“American symbols too are bankrupt,” I suggested. “Only in the Heartland do you find any real faith in flag, the cross, or the Statue of Liberty. I suspect we were never strong on the flag or the cross, and wildly extended claims to racial and gender entitlement have stretched faith in Liberty pretty much to snap.”

My companion laughed. “The defining symbol of America is not the flag, and not the Statue of Liberty and certainly not the cross. The symbol of America is the car. Poland envies America not its Statue of Liberty, but its car. The whole world wants your car, but it is the wrong symbol for other peoples, even Europeans. It might work, one day, in Russia, which is immense, like America. Poland? The car can never mean in Poland what it means in America.”

Well, she is right. America is the land of the automobile, and most Americans—even those who live in cities, even those who protest loudly to the contrary—love their cars, rely on their cars, believe in their cars as do no other people on earth. The Germans have adapted well to car culture, building fine autobahns and engineering fine machines. The British have adapted less well, muddling cars the way they muddle everything else, unable even to figure out which side of the road to drive on. The French? The Italians? French and—for all their nervous stylishness—Italian cars are silly. The clever Japanese learned the superficialities of car culture from Americans and Germans, but Japan, a small island better served with trains, missed the soul connection. (Which may explain the attraction of Japanese vehicles for soul-less yuppies).

The Poles? Another case of the general idea…

Car ownership in Poland is not easy, even in the New Poland. The roads stink. Gasoline stations are few and hard to find. Insurance is a nightmare. Repair is next to impossible, and honest mechanics are even scarcer than in the States. Road hazards are everywhere, especially other Polish drivers, who are the worst, worse than the mad Italians, worse than the befuddled Brits, worse than the spaced-out Mexicans. Theft and vandalism are common. Police checks are common and arbitrary. Buying, selling, and registration are confusing even to natives.

Besides, trains and buses will take you everywhere you want to go: who in his right mind owns a car in Poland?

Well, me for one, after days spent in pursuit of international train tickets, after lugging that damned TV/VCR back and forth from flat to Institute on the trams twenty-odd times, after spending one weekend in Gdańsk with Allen Weltzien, who had bought a small Fiat, and another weekend in Poznań with Steve Nagle, who had bought a Czech Skoda. After spending an hour and a half getting to Agnieszka Salska’s house in the suburbs, using a sequence of trams and buses, and waiting fifteen minutes in the cold for each. After hauling 200 copies of the Norton Anthology of American Literature from Warsaw to Łódź on the train. “A car would be a really great thing,” I told myself on the five-hour train ride from Łódź to Poznań, departure at some owl-blinking hour of the morning, leave the flat an hour before departure to catch the tram to Kaliska station, could have been driven easily in three hours. “A really fine thing.”

By the end of my first year in Poland I had convinced myself a car could even be a wise investment: inflation would let me sell it for more than I paid for it, have one year’s free use, travel to Austria and Germany, England and Hungary, not to mention out-of-the-way hamlets in Poland, at my own convenience, explore the Polish countryside as I went, visit the real Poland that most tourists never see. I would skip across borders in a quarter of the time it took trains full of Polish peddlers to clear customs. “Just get the liability insurance,” Nagle advised me. “You can’t collect on the collision, and there’s no way to get body work done anyway. Collision-theft insurance is expensive. Regular insurance is cheap, eight to ten dollars a month.”

It was Steve’s mud-brown Skoda I bought. Allan’s Fiat had a bad rep: two accidents—one with a tram, no less—and overheating problems. Also, the Skoda looked to be—no, it was—a fine automobile, a 130, top of the line, built for export. It had plenty of pep for Polish roads, although in the West, Steve warned, you got squeezed between the BMWs and the Mercedes blasting up the left lanes, and the little East Bloc cars—Trabants, Fiats, Ladas—chugging down the right lanes. All in all, it served me well: I paid $1800 in the spring of 1990, sold it 40,000 kilometers later in the spring of 1991 for $1650, having spent about $200 on maintenance, repairs and tires, and $100 on insurance. Thus transportation for the year cost me $450 plus gas, which is cheap in any country’s book.

Everyone offered advice when I bought the car, beginning with what car to buy. Some held for a Western car, as they were at the time difficult to import into Poland, and here was a good way to get one more older Mercedes or Volkswagen across the border. “You will have no trouble selling a Western vehicle,” folks assured me. “You will have great difficulty selling any East Bloc car.”

Others held for something local, a Lada or a small Fiat: “You will have no trouble finding parts when it breaks down,” they assured me.

The Skoda had a good reputation, even among my German friends, best built among East Bloc cars, a Czech factory bought out, finally, by Volkswagen in the fall of 1990. A Skoda offered the best of both blocs.

Setting a price was another matter. There is no such thing as a Polish blue book, in spring of 1990 ads for used cars were as scarce as Polish autobahn, and insurance valuations were meaningless. Finally Steve and I visited the Poznań car market, looked at more or less comparable vehicles, and settled on a figure, a little lower than the going rate for friendship’s sake and because, as Steve said, “These are four bad Czech tires which ought to be replaced as soon as possible. The one thing I haven’t been able to get is good tires.”

Nowotki and Kościuszki streets, Łódź, 1990

I brought the vehicle home to more conflicting opinions: “You paid way too much,” Jules Zonn told me. (Jules drives a Mercedes.) “They will never believe you paid only $1800 when you go to pay your sales tax. You’d better say at least $2,000,” Łukasz Salski told me. Łukasz drives a Syrena, with a two-stroke engine that generates maybe forty-five horsepower.

When I sold the Skoda, the same difference of opinion: “You did very well for a vehicle with 79,000 kilometers.” “For a Skoda 130, you should have asked much more.” Who really knows the Polish car market?

By the spring of 1991, a brand new Ford Escort in the window on Piotrkowska sold for $14,000. American cars were flooding Poland, mostly used, bought in the States and delivered by ocean freighter, all shipping charges and a handsome profit folded into the selling price. They came with U.S. license plates: Minnesota, Iowa, California, New York. A shop on Piotrkowska sold old U.S. plates, probably from such vehicles, for $10 each. The road from Frankfurt am Oder to Poznań was lined with used car lots, and every time we crossed the German-Polish border spring of 1991, we saw private car traders bringing in a small trailer with two or three used Western machines. I paid what I paid, and I got what I got, and I had many adventures between.

Just registering the car was an adventure. Nagle told me, I thought, that he had paid insurance through the end of the year, so I held off changing registration from his name to mine until after Christmas. “If the insurance is paid, don’t change the registration,” I was told repeatedly. “No Pole would.” It was not, however, insurance he had paid; it was road tax. I drove uninsured from September through December… through Poland, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Greece, and Austria.

In January, friend Łukasz and I set out to complete the sales agreement—Steve had left it signed, blank, and undated—and get new registration and new plates. The registration bureau is just down the street from Poznański’s palace on Zachodnia, so Łukasz and I agreed to meet there at 10:00 one Tuesday morning. Of course the line stretched out a bureau door and around a corner, and of course we both had noon classes, so we agreed to meet again, same place, one hour earlier, on Wednesday.

Which we did, waiting our turn, fingering our sales agreement, anticipating angles and eventualities. When we got to the window, the bureaucrat in charge asked the question we had not anticipated: had I paid my sales tax?

Well no, I had not.

Well, sir, that sales tax will have to be paid before this vehicle can be registered. The bureau for paying sales tax is in another building, three tram stops from here. Then bring the receipt for paid tax back here, and we’ll continue.

(Stop me if you’ve heard this one before).

Łukasz and I betook ourselves to the sales tax office, killing the time spent waiting in line anticipating further eventualities. We covered all possibilities, I thought, except the one problem which actually arose: “Do you have a document with your address on it?” this bureaucrat wanted to know. “How do we know that you live where you claim to live? There is no address on either your legitymacja or your passport.”

Perhaps the university’s rector’s office could prepare such a document?

It could indeed. “Then you must take that document to the city registration office at the police station, where the law required that you registered within two days of entering this country, and they will give you a document that says you live where you live, and then come back here…”

(You see how things work in Poland?)

To condense a long story, I let Łukasz go his way and walked the papers through myself. I am very proud of that fact, since it involved finding my way through four major league Polish bureaucracies: the rector’s office, the police station, the tax office, and the motor vehicle registration office. I lost a day in the process when somebody—I think the city registration bureau—closed just as I arrived. I almost came away with a set of genuine black Polish license plates, but I was discovered as a foreigner at the very last second, with the result that the woman had to write out a whole new vehicle registration, and give me green plates starting with the code ILD, the plates used to identify foreign-owned cars (diplomats get blue plates). When I went to affix my plates back at the flat, I discovered that the holes in the plates matched neither the original holes in the Skoda’s rear bumper nor the new set of holes Steve had drilled because his Poznań plates didn’t match the original holes either. Two days later I borrowed a drill, punched a couple of holes into the plates (plastic, would you believe?), bolted them, slightly askew, to front and rear bumpers, and had myself at last an officially registered, legal, A-okay, uninsured Skoda.

Ewa helped me with insurance two days later at yet another bureau, this only two doors removed from the Institute. Originally the bureaucrat wanted to ship me off to Piotrkowska because of the green plates, but Ewa insisted that foreigners could buy insurance at this office, and the woman did some checking, and wasn’t Ewa correct? Three months of regular insurance cost me 500,000 złotych for coverage I knew I could never use. (When I returned to pay for a second quarter of insurance, I spent half an hour convincing them that my policy was indeed registered in this building, not on Piotrkowska, an argument which was repeated three months after that).

My insurance was not valid for travel outside the former East Bloc, and whenever I wanted to travel to Austria, Germany or Greece, I had to buy additional insurance at the Warta agency. Four times I purchased Warta, or green-card insurance, and never did it go the same way twice. The first time, Ewa and Michelle and I walked to a small agency on Kościuszki, paid 180,000 złotych for two weeks, collected our papers, and walked out. In December I was sent to the office for foreigners, where they completed a form, collected 240,000 złotych for one week… well, two weeks really, because two weeks was the minimum period allowed, and even though I’d be away only six days, I’d have to pay for fourteen, very sorry, but those are the regulations. For a longer April excursion, I returned to the Piotrkowska, filled out forms, and was sent to pay, in dollars, at the Central Bank of Łódź: a very time-consuming process.

For my fourth trip outside of Poland, I faked the whole thing. It was just a weekend visit to Berlin, and I rebelled at the thought of paying two weeks’ premium for three days of coverage on a trip exactly 100 kilometers into the West. Against Michelle’s advice, I took an old card, converted the 04 in the month column into an 05, and took off for the Hauptstadt.

Don’t you know, the only thing the German border guard asked about was insurance? Nothing about passports, nothing about gold, pornography, dope, vodka, or Russian icons. Not even vehicle registration. Just green card insurance. “You got your insurance?” he wanted to know.

“Ja, ja,” I assured him, flashing a stack of car papers with the green card insurance right on the top.

“Ist es gültig?” he wanted to know.

“Ja, ja. Natürlich.”

He studied the card for a long while. Then he announced matter-of factly, “This five used to be a four.”

What could I say? In the back of my mind, I kept hearing the phrase, “Any Pole would have done it. And any East German too.” But what could I say, caught red-handed?

Łódź street scene, 1990

Then the German border guard, undoubtedly a rehabilitated DDR Saxon, an East German hard-ass, worse even than the Soviets, one of those Terrors of the East who so intimidated all of us one short year ago, just waved us through and told us to have a good time.

Welcome to the New Germany!

Paper is not, however, the real problem with car ownership in Poland. The real problems are roads, service, gasoline and road hazards. “It’s a nightmare, little Tommy.”

Poland boasts few superhighways, and what passes for superhighway is nowhere close to American standard. Remember the old West Virginia Turnpike, or that old stretch of I-70 between New Stanton and Wheeling? That’s East Bloc superhighway: crumbling concrete, sometimes even cobblestone, potholes ready to swallow whole a juicy BMW or Honda Civic. No superhighway at all between Warsaw and Gdańsk, a relatively good road from Warsaw to Kraków, one stretch of so-so road between Warsaw and Poznań, an 80-kilometer run you’re on before you know it and off before you know it, dumped right in the middle of downtown Poznań. Security in Old Poland prohibited superhighway within sixty kilometers of any border, so once you pass Kraków headed south, Wrocław headed southwest, Poznań going west, or Warsaw east, it’s two-lane backroad all the way.

The two-trackers lead you right through the center of every village on the route. Some routes circumscribe large cities, not with I-495 superhighway by-passes, but with a series of side streets. Directions are usually poorer than the roads; it’s usually safer to go right into town, and out the other side. All that saves a motor trip in Poland from real chronological disaster is the fact that traffic remains light, except on that road from Frankfurt/Oder through Poznań and Warsaw to Russia, across which passes all the international truck traffic bearing trade and food relief to the old Soviet Union, and all the used Western cars headed for Poznań and Warsaw, and all the… well, that is the Mother of all Roads.

So most of your trip is spent snaking around small Polish villages and not-so-small Polish cities. Depending on time of day, you could be following horse-drawn wagons hauling potatoes, straw, turnips, or hogs; Polish trucks hauling milk, coal, potatoes, or hogs; tractors hauling nothing at all; bicyclists, drunk or sober; buses local and long-distance. Syrenas, small Fiats and Trabants putter along at 70 kilometers per hour and lack power to pass anything except small Fiats, Syrenas, and Trabants. Polish trucks are dark, slow and virtually unlit: 40-watt headlights in front, (maybe) a reflector or a ten-watt taillight behind.

On the up side, standard Polish driving etiquette requires slow-moving traffic to move onto the shoulder of a two-lane road to facilitate passing, thereby allowing you to pass even in the face of on-coming vehicles, which will probably also drift to their left shoulder to accommodate you. This practice could be profitably incorporated into American rules of the road.

On the down side, it is also common Polish driving practice to stop a car for whatever reason in the middle of a traffic lane, not necessarily on the shoulder or on a side street, so you’ll be blitzing along at 80 or 90, and suddenly there’s a truck parked in the road ahead of you while the driver checks his engine or changes a tire. How I drove for eleven months without killing somebody, I can’t say. It certainly wasn’t defensive driving skills of the Poles; they seem lost in the fog of their own anxieties, muddling along the roadways, speeding up, slowing down, swerving in or out without warning, stopping, starting, cutting in, cutting off, worse than the Italians, and slower than the East Germans. When, after 1990, Poles in significant numbers began driving Western cars—all that technology and horsepower they don’t know how to handle, and nobody to teach them proper control, and roads as twisted and dilapidated and hazard-strewn as ever—the number of serious accidents rose dramatically. It will only increase in the foreseeable future.

Theft and vandalism are another problem. My Skoda survived, because it was parked day and night right in front of the Police Hospital across from our flat. The only damage I sustained was a couple of banged up doors, whapped by the doors of cars owned by careless or drunk hospital visitors. A small price to pay in a town where Sławek’s Fiat was completely vandalized one night, and Łukasz’s Mickey-Mouse Syrena was actually stolen while parked in front of Kaliska Station. (To everyone’s surprise, and his great disappointment, Łódź police actually recovered the car, not much the worse for having been seduced and abandoned, a month later… just after Łukasz had filed an insurance claim). “The most important thing about your Skoda,” said the car dealer who finally bought it from me in 1991, “is that it not be stolen. So many cars in Poland are stolen vehicles, especially the big, powerful ones that came from the West.”

Rafał Pniewski remembers driving to Warsaw one day and noticing a loose connection in the radio. It proved to be a defective jack, so upon reaching the city he stopped at an electronics store to buy a replacement. Then he returned to his Fiat Polonaise, unlocked the front door on the driver’s side, and crawled across the seat, back down, face up, twisting himself around back of the radio. While working on the radio, he kept hearing a kind of rattling, a wrenching sound, and felt the car moving. “It wasn’t me making the noise or the movement, I was certain. When I straightened up to look, I found a street thief removing my rear tire.

“‘What do you think you’re doing there?’ I demanded of the fellow.

“‘No problem,’ this guy tells me. ‘You take the radio, and I take the tire…’”

(At the Poznań car market with Steve Nagle, Michelle and I picked up new door molding for Rafał to replace the original, stolen while the Polonaise was parked in a Łódź hospital parking lot).

On the whole, I was lucky with my car in a land where big cars need watched lots and alarm systems, and even small cars are in constant danger of losing radios, tires, parts.

I was less fortunate on maintenance and repair. We nearly blew one bad tire on the trip to Greece, did not, pushed our luck, and by the time we reached Salzburg (our second major trip), the tire was humping so badly I thought it would wreck the shock absorbers. A two-day conference left me no time to shop, but Michelle somehow found, in expensive Austria, a good used Western tire which some Austrian lad at a Salzburg gasoline station—fascinated, no doubt, by this attractive American girl driving a Skoda with Polish plates and a ruined Czech rubber band tire—sold, balanced and mounted for $18. “That tire will last longer than the car,” Dr. Dorota Steiner told us before we headed back to Poland.

A second tire blew thirty kilometers outside of Berlin late one Sunday afternoon when most businesses were very closed. Hitching a ride into town, we phoned Gabriele Jones, who soon rode to our rescue. We stopped at a Shell station, but it stocked nothing in our size. “Used to have them, but I guess we sold them all,” said the proprietor, giving us the address of another Shell station guaranteed to be open and guaranteed to have what we needed. “Guaranteed. Buy it there and bring it back here and I will mount it for you.” This station was open, but it too was out of our size. “165-13? Used to have them,” the owner told us. We had just about resigned ourselves to staying overnight, when a fellow who had stopped for a pack of cigarettes overheard us talking. “I have a 165-13 radial in the back of my car,” he said.

And he did. Half an hour later, we were on the road again with a new used German tire: 25 marks, or $15. “That tire will last longer than the car,” Gabriele told us as we drove away.

The third bad Czech tire went as we approached York, England in June. We stopped at, of all places, a Skoda dealership and were directed up the road to a new/used tyre shop, where we found another Western tyre for 8 pounds, $14. “This tire will last longer than the car,” Michelle quipped as we drove off to Jack Donovan’s house.

The fourth tire I never did replace. “This car has three good Western tires, and one bad Czech tire,” I told the fellow who bought it from me. “The Czech tire ought to be replaced as soon as possible.”

My major problem with the Skoda was overheating, which tempered during the winter, became a problem again with spring. Regularly we boiled off a liter of antifreeze, so that we took to driving with a five-gallon tank of water in the luggage compartment under the hood. I had it looked into once or twice at one of two Łódź Skoda shops, but the advice of their mechanic confirmed an axiom I had already formulated in the States: “Drive it until it breaks; then you will know for sure what the problem is, and we can fix it.”

It broke when Jim Hartzel borrowed the Skoda to fetch his visiting parents from Kutno railroad station, a week ahead of our trip to Berlin. The temperature gauge went all the way to red, steam hissed out the coolant reservoir, the engine was hotter than a fire-cracker. “We had to leave it just outside of Ozorków,” he told me apologetically. “We can go get it tomorrow.”

Next day we refilled the radiator and started driving the thirty kilometers to Łódź, only to have the thing blow at Zgierz, ten kilometers from town. “I’ll let it cool, come back with more water, fetch it later,” I told Jim. “Have a good time with your folks, and don’t feel guilty.”

Next day Lukasz Salski, I and Michelle nursed the Skoda into the nearest Skoda repair shop, shutting the engine off at every stoplight to minimize heat build-up. I let Łukasz explain the problem to the mechanic.

“Can’t do a thing,” the mechanic told him in language I understood even without translation. Michelle and I looked at our broken toy, shrugged our shoulders in silent resignation, and turned to leave. But Łukasz, who understood the situation perfectly, kept talking, and after ten minutes of negotiations, the mechanic motioned for us to push the car over the pit in the garage. Then he inspected the engine from above and below.

When he climbed back out of the pit, he told Łukasz, “I can’t tell anything right now. This may be a split hose, or it may be in the engine. If it is an engine problem, I can’t do anything. Come back tomorrow and I will tell you what is the matter.”

Again Michelle and I moved vaguely toward the gate, but Łukasz was not ready to leave. Another ten minutes of talk, and the mechanic began tearing the head off the engine. Half an hour later, he was holding the head gasket in his hand. “See here, where oil and fumes have been passing from one cylinder to another? This causes water to back up into the reservoir, and the engine overheats. You need a new head gasket. Unfortunately, this is a Skoda 130. They were made only for export. I do not have a head gasket for this kind of engine. There is nothing I can do.”

“I don’t think there’s much to be done now,” I told Michelle.

Łukasz kept on talking.

“We’ll take a train to Berlin. Maybe we can get a gasket there,” Michelle suggested.

But not so quick; the mechanic was saying something to Łukasz. Seemed he had a friend who might be able to help. “My friend is not here right now, but come back tomorrow morning, and maybe my friend will have what you need.”

Then Łukasz stopped talking at last, and we all left.

Next morning, the news was not so good: the mechanic’s friend did not have such a head gasket, and probably there was not such a head gasket in all of Poland.

Michelle and Dave looked glum. Łukasz jez kept talkin’.

“But there is a factory in Katowice which could manufacture a head gasket…”

Given enough time, even the dullest Westerner gets the picture. Later that afternoon I returned to the Skoda shop with two bottles of fine Wódka Wyborowa. The following morning a head gasket had appeared. The day after that, the car was ready to drive to Berlin (on the doctored green card insurance).

More or less. We picked up the Skoda the afternoon before our departure to Berlin, drove to the home of a friend on the south side of town, and don’t you know it, the car overheated, just as it had before being fixed. “That’s $150 in hard currency we’re talking here,” Michelle observed as I broiled hotter than the engine.

“It will be in there 8:00 a.m. tomorrow,” I promised.

It was.

My mechanic was nowhere to be found. “Vacation,” somebody said. Nothing for it but to explain the problem to this new mechanic: “We had this car in here to be fixed, here’s the receipt, here’s the guarantee, same problem, radiator fluid leaking all over the place, see the trail of drops where I drove in?”

The second mechanic examined the engine. “You have a split hose,” he said finally. “At the end there: the water leaks from the hose and drains down the exhaust pipe. I can fix that easily. Oh, and by the way, the bottom bolt on the alternator was not replaced. See there?”

I looked in disbelief, but he was indeed correct: the alternator was missing a bolt. Also, the plastic housing covering some electronic gadget on the side of the engine compartment was gone.

Nothing that another hour of labor (and another ten bucks) couldn’t fix. Then we were off to Berlin, and a fine old weekend among friends, until Sunday of our departure, when we turned the key in the ignition and nothing happened.

No grind, no click, no ignition. No headlights and no dome light either. Gabriele shook her head. Michelle wrung her hands. I steamed.

I raised the hood and opened the battery compartment to have a look, to find a disconnected battery cable. How we started the car in Poland, or when it came loose, I couldn’t imagine. Part of the mystery of East Bloc machines, I suppose. I fixed it easily with a few twists of the wrench, then shut the hood and turned the key. The engine roared, and we were off down the autobahn on our way back to Poland.

And that’s when the second Czech tire blew.