User’s Guide to the Powers of the Illogical. Much “Achtung!” About Nothing. Episode 26

An Introduction and Easy Guide to Using the Powers of the Illogical.


Where the monkeys wear man-suits. Defeating the bureaucratic mind with diplomatic bluster.

In the footsteps of Milo Minderbender.


Among the three vices: laziness, cowardice, and falsity, the former seems to be the most contemptible.

– Immanuel Kant


You can always reason with a German. You can always reason with a barnyard animal, too, for all the good it does.

– P.J. O’Rourke


Sometimes it helps to know a Roman Emperor.

Ben the Queenslander and I stood in the forecourt at Europe Car scratching our heads in the cloying heat of a Saturday morning in early June. We were on the point of admitting failure. The legacy of last night’s adventure on the Bavarian Weissenbier was now oozing from my pores like molasses and I was definitely not feeling so hot. We had just spent an hour arguing with a monkey in a man-suit who was determined to make our lives difficult at any cost.

We’d offered to help Jonathan, an Australian colleague at RFR, who was moving out of his flat in Cologne to go off to an illustrious future at the BBC in London. As he scrambled to offload his worldly goods, Kate, another Australian expat had already bought most of his gear to furnish her flat in Bonn. I had bought his bed and was looking forward to finally not having to sleep on the concrete floor in my room at Dransdorf any more. Ben was getting a futon couch, and a few sundry items were going to other RFR colleagues. We worked out our pick-up and distribution run and booked a van for Saturday with Europe Car, as they were significantly cheaper than international firms like Avis, Budget or Sixt.

No matter which size vehicle you wish to hire, you must have German citizenship.

The plan was simple. Collect the van in the morning, drive to Cologne, pick up Jonathan’s stuff from the flat, drive to Bonn, drop the bed off at my place, drop the sofa off at Ben’s place at the other end of town, then go to the centre of the Altstadt to drop the remaining bits and pieces off at Kate’s new place.

Our careful organisation started to unravel almost as soon as we turned up at the pre-fab box that was Europe Car’s Bonn office. Ben had booked the van the over the phone, and had asked what documentation we were going to need. Just a valid passport and driver’s licence, he’d been told.

The Europe Car customer service hindrance behind the desk twisted his moist bulk in the direction of a tiny fan on the filing cabinet behind him. His shirt had dark patches where it was sticking to his skin. The Bild Zeitung lay tits-up on the desk. Bild Zeitung is one of Germany’s two leading tabloid papers, and the most widely circulated paper in the country. This is because it features topless models and around half of its pages are devoted to write-ups of soccer games. With time I was to learn that the presence of Bild Zeitung, as with the Rhineland’s very similar Express, is usually a symptom of limited brain function; but I was still pretty fresh off the boat.

We had decided that Ben should do the talking, because his German was at least coherent. My progress with the German language had so far been negligible. Actually, Ben spoke German fluently, but with a country Queensland drawl. This made him irresistible to women who treated him badly, but was not going to help us deal with our Europe Car customer service officer. His tiny black eyes swivelled towards us, and the glare of the flourescent tube picked out a scar running from the corner of his mouth and across his left cheek. His name tag told us he was a Herr Novak.

This is not a valid document,” Mr Novak informed us, running a sweaty mitt over his crew-cut as he peered at Ben’s Queensland driver’s licence. He inspected the Australian passport again.

No. Absolutely not.”

In a flash of inspiration I pulled my Finnish passport out.

This one Europe” I informed him and passed it to him with my New South Wales licence. He looked at both documents intently, holding them upside down.

This is not valid either,” he informed us, placing them back on the counter.

Why this not valid? It in date and it cover him class vehicle we wanting hire. See here” – I took the licence and turned it over, pointing to the back – “Class C: Vehicle seating up to 12 adults, up to 4.5 tonnes GVM. Tractor. Implement.”

This is a tractor licence,” he asserted, recognising two syllables in the torrent of unfamiliar English words.

At this point Ben chimed in with his superior German.

It allows the licence holder to drive a truck or van up to 4.5 tonnes Gross Vehicle Mass. Yes, this is also for tractors, but only because tractors are easier to drive.”

This is not written in German.”

Well of course it isn’t,” Ben countered, “because it’s an Australian driver’s licence and nobody in Australia understands German. It’s written in English, which happens to be one of the official languages of the European Union.”

German family laughing at foreigners who tried to hire a car.

This was beyond the comprehension of our adversary. I could almost hear him listing off the countries in which German was the lingua-franca. Germany. Austria. Switzerland. Liechtenstein. Then there were also the Benelux countries, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Poland, France and Spain, Paraguay and Argentina, Turkey and Thailand, where all you had to do was shout loud enough in German and someone would eventually bring you what you wanted. These two guys, saying they were from a country that didn’t speak German? Liars or perverts. Probably both.

And,” said our friend at the desk, “these cannot both be Australian driving licences. They are different.”

Ben tried to explain that each of Australia’s seven states and territories had different licences, but it was no good.

This passport is not Australian,” he told me, closing it violently and pushing it back towards me.

No, it is in Finland!” I said indignantly. “Finland! Europe!”

Not valid with Australian licence,” he said, turning back to face the tiny desk fan.

I dug in my satchel for my Australian passport and gave him that.

Here, this Australian passport.”

This threw him completely, as Germans are not allowed to hold dual nationality and most are highly suspicious of the concept. He eyed me with interested mistrust and I’m sure he contemplated calling the police – before deciding that it would take too much effort and only create unnecessary paperwork.

This is not possible” he said. “Anyway, it is also not written in German.”

So, you tell me now Europe Car not give car to people other country because they not have licence German writing?”

Genau!” he said emphatically. The German word for “Exactly!” is often used as a final parry by quarrelsome civil servants, bank employees and Teutonic desk jockeys in general when faced with a rhetorical question. He wasn’t budging from his position and had already gone back to examining the Bild Zeitung’s breasts.

Ben tried a different tack. Go higher up the command chain. Get a superior officer to pull rank in a face-saving maneouver.

Is the manager here?”

No, it’s the weekend. He will be back on Monday.”

Listen, I telephoned the office in Cologne two days ago to make this booking, and they informed me that all I needed to hire the vehicle was my Australian licence and my passport. Could you please call your Cologne office and check with them.”

He sweated even more profusely, his face reddened and the scar on his cheek went purple and began to throb.

No. I will not.”

The tone said ‘You are already wasting my time and I am not going to let you waste theirs as well.’

Our time was ticking away too, and we had a lot to do. We retreated from the office and held a carpark conference. I suggested Sam ring the Cologne office on his mobile, talk to them and then get them to talk to Roundboy.

He dialled Cologne. Yes, we were right and we had all the documentation we needed. Could we put the employee on, please? Ben handed the phone over to the Fatman, who looked less and less happy with the way the conversation was going. Finally he hung up and passed the phone back to Ben.

And?” Ben inquired.

No. I have already said to you, you cannot hire a vehicle from here,” he growled, pulling his polyester shirt away from his sweaty bulk.

Clearly we had lost round two.

We had our second carpark conference, and suddenly it dawned on us: call Tiberius.

As a private serving as a quarter master’s assistant, he had learnt a great deal about getting things done which would have been impossible through official channels.

Tiberius was a short, fat Mr Fix-it with a blond comb-over. Despite his Imperial Roman namesake, he bore a closer resemblance to the Hermann garden gnome mentioned a few episodes ago.

A certain talent is required to get things done through unofficial channels.

Like many German men in their early forties his days of compulsory military service in the Bundeswehr had been the high-point of his life and he remembered it with fondness. As a private serving as a quarter master’s assistant, he had learnt a great deal about getting things done which would have been impossible through official channels. He had been to university in Oxford and the way he spoke English reminded me of German officers in World War Two films of the 1950s. He imagined himself to be something like Milo Minderbender in Catch 22, and sometimes it wasn’t far from the truth.

No-one really knew what Tiberius did at Radio Free Rhineland, but he was the bloke to see if you ever needed anything. Mouse malfunction? Office chair seen better days? Need an electric kettle, a microwave oven? You only had to tell Tiberius and it would appear. If you needed a set of headphones, a brand new pair of top of the range Sennheisers would be on the desk within the hour, almost like magic. If you needed a ballpoint pen (always in short supply at RFR), Tiberius would make a whole box of them appear. Printer on the Fritz? Mention it to Tiberius and a technician would come running. He was the personal manifestation of German efficiency.

He leapt from the taxi before it had even come to a halt and crossed the forecourt with his bouncing business-like stride. Tiberius entered the office like an emperor and Mr Novak of Europe Car was drawn irresistibly into his forcefield. Minutes later we drove out of the lot in a large Mercedes van with a SatNav, fridge trolley, packing materials and tie-down straps all thrown in free of charge.

You should have called me earlier,” Tiberius said as we screeched out of the lot and into the traffic in the Potsdamer Platz roundabout. “You cannot beat the German bureaucracy with reasonable argument and logic. It is a waste of both the time and the energy even to try.”

The van found itself briefly on two wheels as we accelerated out of the on-ramp and into the stream of autobahn traffic headed towards Cologne.

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