Why I love microcars

Three years ago, I had no idea what I microcar was. I remember seeing them – most vividly on the streets of Italy when my family went there when I was 10. We traveled around Italy, Greece, and the then-Yugoslavia with another family with kids the same age as my brother and me. Our method of transportation was a large orange panel van affectionately named Le Grand Orange. While the van was a great way to transport eight people, it was not ideal for going up and down narrow cobblestone European streets. One prime example of this was when we tried to turn down an alley to get to a hotel, only to be thwarted by a Fiat parked too close to the corner so that we couldn’t make the turn, our mammoth vehicle not meant for centuries-old passageways. The solution was for the two dads to pick up the car and hoist it up on the curb.

Microcars have engines under 700 cc engines (as documented by Wikipedia) – though the shows I have been to allow engines up to 1000 cc. I can’t believe I know enough to write a sentence about engine size, though I admit I still don’t completely know what it means. I also can’t believe I have now gone to multiple car shows and am sad that this season is over. Still, it’s hard not to become fascinated by fully-functioning and useful automobiles that look like this:

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A spiffy Subaru 360 (nope, not a Volkswagen) I have had the pleasure of riding around in a couple of times. On Vashon Island.

Or vans and pickup trucks like this:

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Subaru van and pickup trucks. My friend Rex helps you grasp their size.

In a time when so many things are getting bigger and bigger, I find smaller cars so appealing. They challenge America’s general mentality that things need to be so huge – SUVs, McMansions, Super Size meals of epic proportions. Yes, here in Portland Smart cars are quite popular, and both the Mini Cooper and Fiat 500 have been relaunched into the American market. But have you seen the size difference between those cars now and as they were in the 1960s? Today’s tiny cars aren’t so tiny after all.

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A new Fiat 500 parked next to an older model.

 

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The Fiat next to a Subaru pickup.

But real microcars fit nicely into my desire to simplify my life; their size challenge the assumption that more is better. However, I know that owning a microcar is not so simple; they are old cars and therefore not necessarily reliable. And when they break down, parts aren’t necessarily easy to come by, or aren’t available in the most obvious places. Dave and I once drove one of his NSU’s about 400 miles to transport it from its former owner to its new home in his parents’ yard, alongside others of its kind. As we reached the CA border, something went awry with the clutch and we had to pull over to figure out what was wrong. Not used to cars breaking down on road trips, I was concerned (OK, panicky), but Dave did his best to ignore me as he guided the failing car into a Home Depot parking lot, passing an auto supply store en route. Of course I was confused and annoyed as he assessed the damage in the middle of a sunbaked parking lot, no shade to be had. He peered into the workings of the car (a completely foreign arrangement of metal in my eyes), poked around, and emerged holding a split piece of ring-shaped rubber – only the split was the problem.

“Do you know where to find one of these?”

I did! In the plumbing department! Years of home reno brought intensive practice at finding weird objects in all corners of hardware box stores. Dave waited outside while I ran into Home Depot and got what we needed. It cost a buck twenty-nine, plus tax. He fixed the damn car with a part from a hardware store that cost no more than what you can find in an ashtray. I was amazed with, pissed off at, and in love with microcars all at the same time.

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Dave and the dang NSU. Yes, we stayed at a Tiki Motel. Why not?

We almost completed the journey without incident. The car broke down again less than a mile from his sister’s house. We pushed it the rest of the way in the Sacramento summer heat, reaching our destination tired, sweaty, and pissed. At least I was pissed; little seems to bother Dave. That’s because he’s been a proponent of microcars and other old vehicles forever and is used to them breaking down. I’m learning to be patient.

A Hillman Husky (photo credit for below) might be a great starter car for me – or maybe a Morris Minor.

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Dream car #1 — a Hillman Husky

 

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Dream car #2 — a Morris Minor I saw at the MPH Microcar show in Forest Grove, OR last month.

Hopefully, I will get one in time to bring to a show next summer. And if it breaks down along the way, I know where the nearest Home Depot is.

Alison’s Rule

My office mate has worked at the college for over ten years. When I first arrived, she was quick to offer words of comfort and advice about how to navigate this new culture. One of the first rules she told me was, “Only expect to get one thing done each day. That way, if something else happens, it will be a pleasant surprise.” I thought she was being a little extreme, but I soon realized how literal she was.

Yesterday, I finalized my class schedule and with that, I should have called it a day: I got something accomplished! But no, I pushed my luck – got greedy, even. Later, we tried to get a spare key made. There is one place in Rustaq that provides this service and it’s over the mountain, in the old part of town. “By the bank,” several people said, “You will see it.” We kept asking people where to get a key made, because we couldn’t believe there was only one place, despite the presence of several hardware stores and even more auto shops of various kinds. Yet, the answer was consistent enough and our own efforts to track another location down were, of course, fruitless. So, up over the mountain we went. True enough, we found the place easily enough but were met with the unexpected: It was going to take ten days to get a new key made. The key shop ran out of keys.

Alison is right: Only try to get one thing done every day. So choose wisely.

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Seeing this street sign makes me laugh every time I see it. I think Oman is trying to tell me something.

 

How things work here

All I wanted was a Post Office box. In order to do that, I had to go to the post office, pick up a form that needed a stamp from the college – I guess not any person off the street can get a PO Box; you need to prove employment nearby. Colleagues told me to go to HR and that it shouldn’t be a problem. I surprised myself by actually finding the right office, and showed them the form and requested a stamp. Three women looked up from their lunch and said it wasn’t their job and told me to talk to the Dean.

Not wanting to disturb the highest ranked person at the college for a stamp for a lowly PO Box, I knocked on the door of his assistant. She was extremely nice, and thrilled to meet me, having heard all about the new teachers. However, the Assistant to the Dean couldn’t help me; she had no idea what the form was (even though it was in both English and Arabic), and escorted me to the Office of Administration and Finance. Three more women were in there, one behind the desk, others seemingly socializing. They all looked confused as they poured over the form. They focused on the word “sponsorship” in the place where I needed a signature and the coveted stamp. The one behind the desk argued that my recruiter should sign and stamp the form, not the college. Another, one of the visitors and my apparent advocate, stated that it was only for a PO Box and it should be no trouble to sign it. An argument ensued in Arabic, where I would hear “sponsorship” and “post” and little else comprehensible to me (except for the ever-present “Inshallah” and “halas,” which means “finished”). I sat, waited, and hoped. The result was that they would find someone to sign the form – several phone calls had already been made, but no one seemed to be around. I was to come back at 1:30 to pick up the form. I missed my goal of getting to the post office before my 2PM class; the post office (and all other office for that matter) would be closed by the time I was done teaching at 3:30.

I dutifully came back at 1:30. The office was locked.

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I took this picture of the campus clock at about 3PM.

I stood by the door and my Omani office mate walked by. She went to graduate school in the US and is now an interesting blend of conservative Islam and Type A American mentality. My stamp became her mission too. We knocked on five doors looking for a particular someone (my guess is the person in the office that I was supposed to meet at that time). No luck. Minutes later, my officemate found someone who would talk to me about my plight, and I found myself sitting with the Assistant Dean of the entire College explaining my situation for at least the tenth time. When I told him all I wanted an official College stamp so I could have a PO Box, he told me my issue was an academy, not an academic, matter. I said I understood, and had first tried HR to get my form stamped, but they refused and through an odd game of hot potato, I ended up in his office, with my form somewhere else in the land of bureaucracy. He sighed and shook his head, made a few phone calls, and said,

“Go back to that office tomorrow morning. Inshallah.”

Inshallah.

The next morning I went back to the office that had housed the arguing women the day before. The door was unlocked, but no one was around. I sat in the over-air-conditioned room and waited. And hoped.

I didn’t think to check what was behind the door across from me, but a few minutes later a Bangladeshi (they tend to be employed as cleaners and overall helpers here) came in carrying a couple of pots of coffee, knocked once on the mysterious door, and walked right in. There was someone inside sitting behind a very imposing desk. I find it strange, but it seems that all the higher-ups on campus seem to have windowless offices tucked away in the far-away corners of the campus. I guess they don’t want to be easily found; or they don’t want to see what’s going on.

I followed the coffee in. The Important Man looked up and smiled and asked how he could help, after being somewhat surprised that his assistant wasn’t there. I retold my story. He asked where the form was. I sighed. Thankfully, the assistant came back a few minutes later with my form and several others, all awaiting his signature. We found mine and he started to read. I became hopeful.

“Why do you want a post office box? You will be leaving after a semester anyway.”

I was dumbfounded, angered, and depressed by his words; I had no idea how to respond. I told him that I was happy in Oman, and that the college was a fine one, and that my husband and I planned on staying here. He replied “Well, maybe you will stay a year, but that is no reason to have a box.” My heart sank a little more while my frustration grew. Again, I reasoned with him that we wanted to receive mail from our families, and that we liked it here. Meanwhile, I was simply thinking of ways to either steal a damn stamp and/or throttle this guy.

True to Omani form, he made some phone calls – about four. The final one was to the post office itself, for reasons that are unclear to me. Finally, he hung up, looked at me, and said, “I will not sign this form, but I will stamp it.” On cue, his assistant came in from the other room with the coveted stamp and the form was complete.

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This art is on one of my classroom walls. I didn’t quite feel disgusted during this process, but damn close.

Immediately, Dave and I went to the post office to claim our prize. I have no idea why we thought this part was going to be smooth sailing. We walked into a completely empty office, except for two older bearded men behind the glass—not a customer in sight. We handed them the form. They stared at it as if they had never seen such a strange piece of paper, even though they had handed it to us the week before in order to get it authorized. Translations were difficult, but it sounded like they were saying all the boxes were being used; perhaps in one month/one year there would be one available for us. Dave took the news well and said OK; I stood slightly behind him in shock. Then the more competent of the two told us we could pay for it – 3 Rials for the rest of the year, 10 Rials for 2015 and another 5 for a lock – “18 Rials total, is ok?” Dave got out his wallet and, after the minion slowly, by hand, filled out another form in quadruplicate and had his boss check it over (and had something corrected), we were handed a key to box 241 (but not before each individual page of said form was stamped). I just looked on, confused as ever. It took over half an hour for all of this to happen.

For more reasons unknown, I was not allowed to have my name associated with the box. Just one name, they said. Whatever. We now have a post office box after going through what was a rather typical process here in Oman.