After weeks of language barriers, missed deadlines, 3AM phone calls, technical hurdles, confusion and frustration, we’ve got it!
Behold, our Fiat Seicento:
I picked it up today in Bielefeld, Germany, from a little used car shop called ALKIS Automotive. The Alkis brothers are Turks who emigrated to Germany a few years ago and got into the used car business on arrival. In fact, it seems everybody in the used car business in Germany is a Turk. When Mr. Alkis brought me to the auto registration depot in Bielefeld, he knew every other guy who walked in and greeted most of them in Turkish. (These guys, also dealers, also had customers in tow.)
“He is my brother,” Mr. Alkis told me, as each auto dealer trailed in. There are a lot of Alkis brothers, it seems. When we first arrived at the used car lot, we discovered that the Mr. Alkis who was in today was not the Mr. Alkis we had been in communication with for several weeks, but actually his brother.
This Alkis wore a black leather coat, had his hair slicked back, and had dark and angular features. He walked with swagger — a smooth walk, slightly slumped shoulders, but with an extra bounce in his step. This walk was not unfamiliar to me. Our family’s exchange student from Georgia, Turkey’s neighbor to the North, walked almost the same way. I found out later that Alkis came from a small town just a stone’s throw from the Georgia border and 150km from Tbilisi, where our exchange student friend had come from.
Waiting for our number to come up at this German version of the DMV, my father and I chatted with Mr. Alkis. I expressed my concern that we were only getting temporary German “export” license plates — the only type allowed by a foreigner — because they have an imprinted expiration date on them. Our one month temp registration puts our expiration date smack dab in the middle of the Mongol Rally, when we will be crossing border after border, and our fate will be determined by a bunch of corrupt Central Asian border guards who are on the lookout for any sort of technicality to nail you on…or at least, elicit a bribe.
“So what happens if some border guard in Uzbekistan sees that our plates are expired?” I asked.
“Cover it with a piece of tape. Black tape. No problem.” said Alkis.
I guess he knows a little bit more about how things work in Central Asia than I do.
Alkis led us around Bielefeld for two hours a German car registration scavenger hunt. When Alkis was running off to grab a number and schmooze his way to the front of the registration line, his jolly assistant who spoke about three words of English and ten of German, would find us parking spots of questionable legality. After driving in what seemed like circles, and making stops at the German “DMV,” some tax agency, and a little shop that printed our license plates into sheet metal, Alkis brought us back to his car lot and — finally — handed me the keys.
It was time to roll. But not quite yet. As he relinquished ownership of the Fiat’s little blue key, he explained to my father in German that sometimes on the Fiat Seicento, it would not start on the first turn of the key…it usually started on the third try. Sometimes the fourth. “Don’t worry, it works fine. It’s a common problem for Fiats.”
As we turned the key for the first time, I could tell that Mr. Alkis was holding his breath. Luckily for him, the engine roared to a start on the *first* key turn. Since then, it’s never happened sooner than the third try. The following day, the starter would just emit a pathetic click four out of five times that I turned it, before begrudgingly starting up.
Alkis offered me some parting advice as we left his dealership with our new 1200cc beast. In rough English, he told me when I drive through Turkey or Georgia or Azerbaijan, or anywhere in the neighborhood for that matter, police will stop me for bribes. “You be stupid. Police after minutes get bored, go away. Be very stupid. You have no problem.”
I’ll take his word for it. He knows a little bit more about how things work in Central Asia than I do.