Don’t fool yourself – you like Audi the most
– contemporary Lithuanian folklore
An overcast apartment block yard. The wooden entrance door opens wide and five kids in rustling tracksuits run out, their pants tucked into their socks. Their colourful tracksuits are the only bright moving dots in the gloomy yard.
Jumping over the curb, benches and trash cans, the children run into a small paved lot. One pointed kick at the battered ball, and the yard is enveloped in the painfully familiar car alarm melody: wheeoo-wheeoo-wheeoo-wheeoo-wheeoo-wheeoo-wheeoo_tow-tow-tow-tow-tow-tow-tow_oouee-oouee-ouee-oouee_wheeeeep-wheeeeep-wheeeeep_beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep_yawyawyawyaw-yawyawyawyaw. The kids have long vanished without a trace, while apartment windows light up and heads fearfully watch the yard from behind the curtains.
Not so long ago, this well-aimed kick would have gone unnoticed. Cars with alarms have shown up in the yard only this year. Just last summer dad took Dainius to the Latvian seaside with an old Moskvitch. That time, just like every other before it, they did not travel those 300 kilometres without a fault. Dainius’ dad bought the Moskvitch after he got an allocation when Dainius was seven, and this car was never parked in the yard. Even after a very short ride, Dainius and dad would drive to the faraway garage where they would leave the Moskvitch and go back home by bicycle. Dad would pedal, while Dainius sat on the frame. When they got back, they would put the bicycle in the cellar. And they would repeat the same routine the next time. Only in summertime, though. The car would spend the winter in the garage. ‘To have a car is to have not just a vehicle, but also a shelter on wheels, a status symbol, a means to an end!’ – dad would proudly tell Dainius. Hence, the car OUGHT NOT be simply irresponsibly left in the yard. It had to be parked in the garage.
That was before, while now the Moskvitch is in the garage only because it does not start anymore. Together with the Moskvitchs, Volgas and Zhigulis stowed away in the neighbouring garages, it is waiting for its last trip and participation in a demolition derby. As the legendary Lithuanian wild ox, the aurochs, had gone extinct back in the 16th century, it was decided to employ the metal beasts on the brink of extinction – Moskvitchs, Zhigulis and Volgas – in the Lithuanian ‘bullfights’. After sending their first car off to the derby with a sore heart, Dainius and his dad did not dare to even think about buying a new one for a long time. Not just because of the sentiments, but also because dad had sworn off borrowing money from anyone, including the banks. Travelling by train and bus became increasingly inconvenient, and the number of new cars in the yard grew. For some time now, there was talk of the incredibly lucrative business of importing and selling cars, due to which apartment block yards, used car markets and parking lots were flooded by Western cars imported from Germany. Only the bravest ones dared to drive those cars to Lithuania. It was not just the distant journey, during which one risked falling asleep at the steering wheel or getting into a traffic accident, that was difficult. The danger of losing money also lurked at the state border crossing, at gas stations, or simply at any stop. Even buying the car entailed the risk of overlooking its defects or catastrophic condition. Yet the desire to race through Europe in a German car and build a house of one’s own from the profit of selling it outweighed any danger.
Gintaras Beresnevičius aptly wrote: ‘We’re not good at sitting in one place, being a nation of horsemen who have becoma a nation of transit. Driving cars from one edge of Europe to another is like driving horse herds; it is ingrained in the genes. There is no other small nation whose license plates would be so pervasive on heavy trucks in the European autobahns; we are very capable of movement, we cannot sit down. […] Lithuania is not enough for us. We feel at peace only when we expand our influence. The Vytis [the armoured knight on the Lithuanian coat of arms] is calm only when mounted, a horseman’s place is in the saddle.’
And so one day, persuaded by a cunning neighbour, Dainius’ dad left in a minibus with five other passengers to the car hunting grounds in the unfamiliar West. One hunt after another, failures gave way to success, and eventually Dainius and his dad were no longer residents of an apartment block but rather the owners of their own white silicate block house in the suburbs of Kaunas. Bicycle trips to the garage were now just a vague memory: the garage was now in their house and had several cars in it. Dainius’ playground was no longer the apartment block yard but rather the garage, where cars that had ended their age in Germany resurrected like phoenixes for a new life in Lithuania. Even Dainius’ yard friends did not kick the ball anymore and instead gathered to dismantle old cars and exchange car parts. They enjoyed scrubbing, polishing and waxing while listening to Dainius’ dad’s advice and stories from his first hunting trips and the hazards that had accompanied them:
And the returns were… Boy, were they fun… Driving through Germany – pure chill. It’s just that the German gas was very expensive, more than twice as costly as in Poland. This meant you had to fill it up just enough to make it to the border. There was a gas station right after the border crossing, and that was where (slapping his palms) they were already waiting for you (prolonged laughter) and they were TAKING you! You know… if you stopped after two or three kilometres… there were several gas stations in the stretch of 30 kilometres, and they were taking you there, those… Ukrainians, Russians… but not Poles! After driving for a while, you would stop in a parking lot. Then they would immediately drive by, block your front and back just like that! – and about six people would get out, while you were alone or just the two of you… then everything would follow such a scenario: you were either beaten and deprived of everything or you had to give away everything, get beaten, and then they would check if you had really given away everything. Or, you would simply drive, they would overtake you, hit the brakes suddenly, and if you did not manage to turn left (because normally you would turn right, to the roadside, which was safer), they would block you like this, drive up from the back, come to you and do what they please. But one time we almost made fools of ourselves… They were trying to block us, and we tried to escape, so they chased us with two cars: one was a Mercedes and the other one… oh boy… an Opel Senator, three-litre, powerful, that one was really scary. Yet we were not completely at a loss either – we had a good Audi, Audi 80 fitted with a 2.3-litre engine: very powerful for a car like this, and we had enough gas and everything, so I matted the gas pedal as hard as I could, because the road was unfamiliar and that was exactly why they were lurking there… they were still on our tail, we could not get away. Then we managed to get ahead. Gintas was holding a map on his lap and shouted: there will be a turn into the woods right there, go for it! So, in a word, we drove back to Germany without taking a u-turn (laughing), and when we were already out of the woods and in the open field, and I saw the road clearly ahead of me, I pressed 160 or 180, whatever the speed limit of the car was… So when we entered the woodland again, they were very far behind already… a number of turns, left turn, we arrived at the border, and I saw the border guards standing up and approaching us… you know, they stood up in this kind of pose… we hit the brakes swiftly as we drove near them.
– What do you think you’re doing here? What is this? Does this look like a training ground for you to race?
– Well, we are… I mean, were chased by…
– Who chased you?
– Well… the mobsters…
– Oh… Well, don’t be scared, but get away from here, just in case.
Dainius’ friends took a deep breath, this story never tired them. And, as if by providence, the radio in the garage played: ‘Message Audi 100’ [a line from a popular Lithuanian comedy song]. Dainius turned up the volume.
Soon, the car, particularly an Audi, became important not only to Dainius’ family but to the society at large. On weekends it served not only as a means of transporation or a commodity, but also as a counter. There was no better stall for the goods on sale in the markets than the hood of a car. Car resellers flourished, and cities like Marijampolė, Radviliškis, Tauragė and Kaunas became the capitals of car trading in Lithuania. Paradoxically, in 2000 one could still win a new make of Zhiguli in the Lithuanian national TV lottery show Teleloto, although everybody had ridden an Audi 100 at least once in their life by then. The slang terms ‘herring’ and ‘bun’, which referred to the different makes of Audi, effortlessly became deeply entrenched in everyday language – these makes were as habitual as the basic food staples. The car also became the central point of the criminal underworld. It not only served as the Troian horse used to commit crimes, but also became the place of death for some mobsters and their victims. The car burned, exploded, was shot at or stolen. For instance, the infamous car thieves – the Kosovas brothers – not only drove a heavily custom-tuned Audi 100 themselves, but also chose to steal only Audi cars, until in 2010 the police officers put their favourite 4 rings around their wrists. As Dainius’ dad would say, a good (Western) car is a warrant of high social status. Or, as Dainius’ friends would put it, it is an extender of the penis. A good car guarantees the girls’ attention, yet a mischosen car brand guarantees fear. Dainius’ friends found out for themselves. Once, they decided to borrow a recently imported BMW from the garage and have a joyride around the city, but they ended up realizing that girls fled as soon as they opened the car window or started a conversation. In contrast, when driving an Audi one did not have to waste pick-up lines on girls; they would come up to have a look themselves. Audi was the most universal dream that also invaded the musical world together with acts like Radioshow or Bavarija and their tracks dedicated to Audi. Even the song Aidi lopšinė (A Lullaby Echoes) by the Lithuanian pop music maestro Stasys Povilaitis sent a subliminal message of the German car brand. Audi became so widespread and self-evident that it pervaded all spheres of life. The cultural milieu was amused in 2014 by the writer Birutė Jakučionytė’s book The Woman from a Red Audi. The newest Audi Q2 make, which replaced the Soviet-era sculptures on the Green Bridge in Vilnius, marked the end of a historical epoch. In the Lithuanian Audi context, the final blow was delivered in 2019, when one of the country’s most prominent light industry companies, Audimas, lost a lawsuit against the German Audi AG enterprise itself regarding an attempt to register the Audimas brand in the EU. The number of passenger cars has tripled in Lithuania since the beginning of Independence. Even now, Lithuanians are more disposed to choose a used car over a new one, and if there are multiple options, Audi will often be the favourite one. ‘Progress through Technology’, proclaims the Audi creed. In Lithuania, it is a history of culture through the prism of one car brand.
Written by Goda Damaševičiūtė
Translated by Jurijus Dobriakovas.