The prospect of buying a car in a foreign country is overwhelming at best and downright nightmarish at worst. But in the Balkans, having friends in the right places can make any daunting challenge a whole lot simpler.
I knew it was time to buy a car—it would take my research to a whole new level. And yet, the dread of this unknown process caused me to prolong embarking on such a cross-cultural endeavor. Finally, I realized that I needed to be “more Croatian” in how I was thinking about it.
So, I have a friend….who has a friend…who knows something about cars and the “car scene” in Zagreb. One morning, I left Osijek with my friend, T., after he got the call that his friend had found some suitable cars for me to check out.
“It’s better for you not to talk,” T. told me as we approached the car dealership. I had no problem with this instruction, especially since I felt a little like I was in a disoriented fog. Could I really just go out and buy a car? It felt so…strange. I had a large sum of cash hidden on my body that I had taken out of an ATM the night before; unfortunately, I knew I didn’t have enough and I couldn’t take out anymore until my account reset at 8 p.m. that evening. I decided I would just play along and see what happened.
We looked at a car and drove it, the two men checking the engine, lights and the feel of the motor. “Most people reset the kilometers to make it look like it has less,” T. told me, “so you have to look at other clues as to how worn it is.”
“Ummmmm….do you think this is the best one?” I hedged, as they looked at me expectantly after their inspection. I tried to look thoughtful and knowledgeable, but in reality I knew I was completely dependent on them.
Of course, in the land of used cars, nothing is ever a guarantee, but the two men agreed that for the price, it seemed to be a good car. I took a deep breath and gave the go-ahead to start the process of buying. T.’s friend stepped inside to begin bargaining the price down. I had my own problems to think about —how was I going to come up with the rest of the cash?
I called my American friends in Zagreb—the kind of friends from whom I could ask such a tremendous favor—and they took out what I needed from their bank. As soon as they called me back with the requested sum, I ran over to the two men and told them I could access the money. However, T.’s friend offered to front the money right away so we could finish with the car buying process. We drove to his nearby house and picked up the money. When we returned, I pushed the stack of money over the counter to the dealer, and within 15 minutes, I dazedly walked out as the owner of a car.
But we still had loose ends to tie up. T. and I drove over to my American friends’ house, picked up the money they had withdrawn, and drove it back to his friend’s house. I handed him the envelope and he put it quickly in his jacket pocket without looking at it.
“You can look in the envelope and make sure it is all there,” I said to him.
He gave me a wide smile and put his arm around T.
“This is my brother,” he said.
Relationships and networks of relationships…this is how we do things in Croatia.