I've been thinking about writing this post since I snapped the photo on the left about a month back. I wanted to craft something thoughtful, perhaps even a little profound, to accompany this image. As I sit typing now I get no sense that I'm going to achieve my aim this evening. Nevertheless, like a fine impressionist painting, I hope these words go some way to conveying the picture in my mind.
I loved cars as a kid. Either my ninth or tenth birthday outing was to the Motor Fair at Earls Court, London. (Whichever it wasn't was a trip to London Zoo!) I can still remember the cars I got my photo taken with that day: the then new Toyota MR2, the MG Metro 6R4 and behind the wheel of a BMW 628 CSi – the 635 CSi was my favourite but there wasn't one of those on display. There were plenty of other super-cars roped off where you couldn't get your sticky little fingers on them. These where the days when the Lamborghini Countach was cool!
Yes, these were the Thatcher years and I was born in the Conservative stronghold of central southern England. While I was too young to be a yuppie I was old enough to appreciate the allure of their aspirational autos of choice: the Golf GTi or the Audi Quattro. Conspicuous consumption has taken a bit of a hit in some sectors over recent years but back then there were plenty of people who had it and were flaunting it. Those of us didn't have it wished we did...or hoped we would when we were old enough to drive!
Sadly by the time I passed my driving test they'd long since stopped producing the Quattro, Toyota were building safe cars for mums and you wouldn't want to be seen dead in a Metro. I never owned a Golf, although I was once given a Scirocco that was well passed its sell-by date, and the nearest I got to being a BMW driver was owning a couple of new MINIs.
When we moved to Bosnia and Herzegovina I expected to see the streets littered with some of Eastern Europe's finest: the Trabants, the Ladas, the old-school Skodas. I was surprised to find roads full of Volkswagens – every generation of Golf, plus plenty of Passats and Polos – with both the BMWs and Mercedes from the last twenty years putting in a strong showing too. Sure the average age of the vehicles was not a young as in the UK but it was younger than I'd imagined.
The shock came when I started seeing cars I knew where just out driving around Mostar. Seeing my first BMW X6 here springs to mind. Then I started spotting Mercs that had come out of the AMG and Brabus shops. The list now includes nice new Porsches, Ferraris, Bentleys and the very sexy Maserati pictured above. Yes, I'd take the Maserati over the Ferrari! But, living here, I don't honestly think I'd drive either. And not just because the state of some of the roads here could rip the undercarriage to shreds in a matter of minutes.
Perhaps I'm more sensitive now since my work brings me into contact with real poverty. It does weird things to you when your income halves and yet you find yourself in a situation where you are viewed as wealthy by some people. Perhaps it's that fact that my local friends who are not poor still have vastly different value system to my UK influenced one. We have more and we are used to paying more for things. Perhaps it's just that neither a Ferrari and a Maserati is much use if you need to transport guitars about!
So what should I think of these undeniably fine automobiles? I know what one section of local opinion is: you only get a vehicle like that if you're doing something that isn't strictly legit. That may be doing some people a disservice but I can see where the feeling comes from. Given their price tag, these cars represent the almost unimaginable gap between the haves and the have-nots here. The Thatcher-loving kids in my Economics class back in college would have told me to celebrating people's financial success and not begrudge them their profits. Besides, they would argue, ultimately everyone will benefit from their prosperity.
Maybe they would have been right. Perhaps, like seeing Jamie Oliver products arrive on supermarket shelves, this is all part of the country's progress westward toward the bright lights of the free markets and European integration. Can I give them the benefit of the doubt? I'd like to say I can. If I'm honest though, I struggle to shake the nagging thought that these cars, that, yes, I'd still love to own in another life, represent the rewards of crime or corruption. If that is the case it is neither progress or a price worth paying. A head-turning car can brighten your day, albeit in a superficial way. I'd just like to think my head was being turned for good reasons.