To wear the shoes of a German doing humanities research in Eastern Europe would be an inaccurate description of my recent months in Europe, while at the same time, exactly how I have been described on many occasions. In the past, I have always found while traveling internationally, I could remain rather ambiguous when it came to race and nationality. I am darker in complexion, so people would make a wide array of assumptions, but the moment they got even the slightest hint of the truth, I was forever branded as “the American”. Being American comes with attached baggage and perks. Without naming places, sometimes Americans will experience more aggressive street vendors, thieves might see a lucrative target, and in some countries, Americans are just not welcomed. On the flipside, some places see Americans as the cool folks from Hollywood movies or are welcomed as major political allies or cultural friends. Regardless, I was quite used to staying ambiguous. Otherwise, no matter how little the hint, when people found out I was American, I might as well walk around in an Uncle Sam costume carrying a bald eagle with no health care.
As shockingly unexpected these last couple months have been, I was thrown a more interesting surprise. I officially hold a residence in Germany. This documentation allows for several little perks, one of which, I can buy and register a car with my German county of residence, Ostholstein. So, when I moved here and got settled, that’s exactly what I did. I ended up buying an inexpensive, tiny, lime green, Peugeot. This car got so much attention, we ended up setting up its own Instagram, dubbing it the Limette Peugette (L’Peu for short). Add the neon green mountain bike strapped to the back for scale, I was hitting the road in an adorably small style. The surprise did not come from the car itself, though the attention and compliments I received caught me off guard. At one point, a NATO soldier in Kosovo was snapping pictures of the little fella, and while stopped by soldiers in Ukraine, one expressed how much they liked the car.
In Germany, besides the first two letters, you’re free to configure your car’s license plate based on the pattern of two pairs of letters followed by up to four numbers. For mine, OH represents my county of residence (Ostholstein), I chose CA for my home state of California, and lastly, we tossed in some lucky number sevens to bring good fortune to my trip. This customization overall represents a more personal touch only I would likely understand, but among the general public, I was surprised to find how many people assume nationality, and thus identity, based on one’s license plates. This even presented a legal problem while crossing an international border. Croatia has either a special deal or favoritism with select countries, Germany being one of them. When confirming my route with neighboring Slovenian officials, they suggested almost every border crossing would welcome me with open arms. They were wrong. What they should have said was Germans are welcomed with open arms – And though my car has German license plates, my car and I are different nationalities. This caused quite some confusion as I sat at the Slovenian border crossing, staring at the Croatian countryside across the fence. I was so close, yet still, so far. Since my car was not going to drive itself across, we were forced to backtrack and find our way to an appropriate crossing.
This assumption on identity was an interesting experience. I myself have been guilty of assuming one’s identity solely based on their license plates. Working in Eastern Europe, watching refugees pour out of Ukraine in an ever-flowing stream of cars and convoys with the signature “UA” license plates. Upon seeing a Ukrainian license plate at a gas station, or outside a home, most generally assume the owners are refugees. Another example was the abundance of Swiss license plates in Kosovo for Easter weekend. We can assume this reflects the sheer number of people who have emigrated to Switzerland during or after the recent war. It’s the more rare plates that often catch the eye. As I traveled through the Balkans, into Eastern Europe, and even through Ukraine, my lime green Peugeot with German plates undoubtedly generated assumptions, or at least piqued curiosity.
As for field research, this had been a blessing and a curse. Assuming I am of German nationality, or even just of the European Union, had gotten me plenty of waves through busy checkpoints or even pushed into the expedited EU lanes of international border crossings (even though my passport is not EU). I had even noticed preferential treatment by some local police as they stood in the road pulling cars over their little ping pong paddles (they’re actually tiny handheld stop signs). While they were seemingly pulling everyone coming through, sometimes with a quick glance at my plates, I’d get a dismissive hand over the shoulder signaling me to continue on my way.
Unfortunately, being from a NATO touting country like the United States or Germany, or one that is assumed to be brimming with affluent people and wealth to spare, it presents potential hazards while abroad. In one case, while in a country we’ll keep nameless, I had some suspicious folks run into the road looking to get me to stop for them. I instinctively veered around them and tried to ignore the commotion. At first, I had no idea what was happening, but as I looked in my rearview mirror, the car behind me get caught up in the ambush. There was panic from the driver, but instead of stopping, he hit the accelerator, charging right for them. They dove clear, and we both sped away. Whether or not they targeted me based on my car or its nationality, I had seen anti-NATO graffiti throughout this part of town and thieves commonly look for foreigners as priority targets. Regardless of their motivation, I knew I needed to keep a better eye out and watch myself.
Hazards like these are extremely rare, and despite my experience, I personally never felt that I was in any grave danger. I absolutely enjoyed my time in Eastern Europe. Parking out front of a public place, I often received questions and comments beyond my unusual automobile. People would wonder how I ended up in their country or ask me questions related to Germany. Sometimes, speakers of German would go out of their way to squeeze a chance to practice their second language. Whatever the reason, I was no longer labeled as the American. Even once I explained my situation, they often found it hard to shake the German image. Fortunately, I welcomed the conversation and the language practice, and overall, Germans seem to be well received.
A French car, registered in Germany, driven by an American, working in Eastern Europe – A license plate is merely the book’s cover.