Thursday, 1 October 2009

BMW? Must be a knob.

I love Paris. ‘Every moment of the year’, as the song goes.

During my last visit, I was sitting in an outdoors café, sipping my coffee and watching busy streets around me, when I suddenly thought of something that was so different about Paris. Different both from the UK and back home. Different in a very subtle, elegant and, well- French way.

OK, I know what you are thinking-the women are slimmer and dressed better….
But no, not that…It was the cars. Most of them were tiny. Cute. Quirky. Almost humorous. Very French, somehow.

I wonder, I thought to myself, how come the way people view cars in France is so different from the UK? How come the French are so genuinely cool, that they do not care at all about their cars? By seemingly making no statement with what cars they drive, the French are making a statement.

Look at us!- they say- We are way too cool to worry what cars we drive.
Pffft! It is just a car, non?

You see, I would like to think I am a bit French when it comes to me driving my good old Skoda. I would like others to think I am so Frenchiously cool that I don’t care how uncool it is. But, the reality is that I am not French. I can fake as much as I'd like, but anyone who knows anything about Azeries, will see right through me and understand that it is not because I am genuinely cool that I drive an uncool car. But because I can not afford an Aston Martin- my ultimate dream mobile.

Just like the Parisians are so obviously cool without needing an expensive car to demonstrate it, Azeries are the exact opposite. Baku these days is filled with ridiculously huge, black or white 4-wheel drives. Hummers, Range Rovers- the whole lot. Driving along roads that still belong to the 3rd world country.

Of course, it is not just about showing off. Driving a big and reliable car back home has some practical reasons. You get more respect from other, often rude, drivers, and more respect from the police. You have a better chance of survival- should some drunken rich youth (whose father paid for his driving license), smash right into you. And your backside is well cushioned against those bumpy roads.

But the longer I live in the UK, the more I realize that very similar principles apply here. It might not be as obvious. The English are experts when it comes to subtlety. But cars matter.

Back home, I never thought of cars as image makers. But here, you don’t just buy a car. You announce who you are.

Say, you bought a Volvo. It is not cheap, but not flashy. It is safe. It is reliable. It is suburban. You would not drive a Volvo if you were young, trendy and cool now, would you? So you are sending a clear message here: I live in suburbs, I have two children, a nice house, a Labrador and a good, respectable job. Nice to meet you, I am Mr. Boring Middle Class.

If you drive a BMW, you are assumed to be a knob.

Second-hand Mercedes-Benz salon is normally driven by foreigners.
Range Rover Sport is WAG. (I quite fancy one though.)
Bentley Continental –Footballer.
Audi TT- Hairdresser.

And unless your job is either a rapper or a pimp, people would assume you are just too flashy if you drive a Hummer in this country. And flashy is not cool. You are, therefore, also assumed to be a knob.

And people treat you accordingly.

A friend of mine in a Range Rover Sport often complains people are mean to her. And I always notice how hurriedly little cars flatten themselves into the hedges as my husband pushes down the narrow lane in his Pick Up truck.

The other day I was furious about one stupid driver who almost caused us to crash. I was in the correct lane, and he was on my left. We were at a roundabout, and I was going straight ahead. All of a sudden, this Merc cut right across of me. He suddenly remembered he had to turn right, so he did. Without any hesitation or concern. As if I was not there.

-What car was he driving? - A friend asked.
- A Merc! - I announced with disgust.
-What do you expect then? - She laughed. - You are driving a Skoda! You can not expect him to pay any respect to you!? You drive a crap car- you get out of the way and let the big boys pass!

Hmm, I thought to myself. Must get a Range Rover.


  1. I hate Hummers. I'm glad they had a major role in bankrupting GM. There's a big yellow one I often see near work, and it is a real struggle for me not to leave a big glob of spittle on the windshield.

  2. Glad I did not say I wanted one of those then! :)

  3. I fancy a black range Rover HSE Sport with blacked out windows - more pimp-mobile thsan WAG, altho Britney drives one too.
    As for the merc that cut you up - big car, small brain

  4. Sharon,
    Yes, that's what my friend drives. I shall tell her she is more of a pimp than a WAG :)

  5. As you said, it's good to have a reliable car to get you home. So, for me, almost any car would do it. I really don't understand what's with SUV that so many people HAVE to have one. You can see the streets in Lima full of them.
    A tricky question: would you actually like an Astor Martin, or an Astor Martin that includes James Bomd? I really prefer the latter... LOL!

  6. In French-Canada there is a saying: 'Grosse Corvette, Petite Kekette'.

    I trust I dont have to translate.

  7. "Cute. Quirky. Almost humorous." And you think the French aren't making a statement by what they are driving ? Sure sounds like one to me.

    And SUVs in Baku are decidely practical. Given the state of the roads and driving skills, there really isn't any other choice.

  8. @Shannon - Compared to the role the UAW and the USG had in bankrupting GM, the hummer's role was trivial.

  9. Trying to work out if my husband is a pimp or a wag? You are right though about people forming an opinion of you based on cars. I'm scarred from last year when my hubbie dropped me off at school mum's house and she exclaimed with the biggest grin on her face "Oh, you've got a Range Rover!". Like thanks God, she is ok. Up until then she has only seen my little car. We are not friends, needles to say.
    Jurate x

  10. @FabCook: Did you not just repeat what I said? :))

    @ Jurate: There is always a drug dealer? :)))

    @ Gabriela: Honest answer: The car. Only the car. Honest.

  11. @scary - If you mean the SUV bit, I thought the tone of critique of SUVs in Baku was decidely negative even though you did give a few positive remarks. I wnated to offset that.

  12. Of course he was wrong, he should have kept his line and was trying to find U turn. Any way?We all azeri love cool cars. We are 5-6 azeri living in UAE and all of us have bought very expencive cars to show everybody that we are cool boys:-))I dont want to mention what the cars are but I would like to say that They and I never got the cars in Azerbaijan but here we did.

  13. @ Anonymous: Good for you! :))

  14. > I wonder, I thought to myself,
    > how come the way people view
    > cars in France is so different
    > from the UK?

    Actually I think I may be of some use, here. Countries differ systematically in a variety of ways - how individualistic their people are, how important religion is, and so on. One of the more interesting "dimensions" of national culture is Masculinity/Femininity.

    Surveys find that in masculine nations (read: the UK) people tend to be more competitive and assertive. They know more about the car they drive, they wear expensive jewelry and quality watches, and they work longer hours. They have more Caesarian sections too; I read this as "childbirth is fine, but don't dismiss the importance of a good gadget." (I get the impression that masculine cultures make better machinists, but I don't have data for that.)

    People in feminine nations (read: France) are more modest and care more about coziness and good friends. They're more likely to wear cheap jewelry and clothes that they made themselves, and to have coffee makers at home to entertain friends. When answering surveys, they claim that they don't know about the engine size of their car, and they're more likely to involve their spouse when they decide what car they'll buy. (My intuitive sense of the feminine nations is that they're also better cooks, although I cannot back that particular point up with research, either.)

    Of course, MAS/FEM exists on a scale, so the Scandinavians are much more feminine than the French, and the Japanese are more masculine than just about anybody. I understand that in Japan, gift giving is common, but *do not* wrap your own gift. Get it professionally wrapped. The heartfelt sentiment of a hand-wrapped gift is simply not as important to the Japanese as knowing that it was wrapped to professional perfection.