There’s something odd about banality – it’s something that is so ordinary, so without newness that it stands out. Why should something that is completely familiar catch your eye? If it was truly without any kind of newness, it just wouldn’t stick out at all; only something that is at once normal and odd can come across as banal. That’s what got me about this Peugeot 306 – amongst all the other automotive European-market forbidden fruit, this hatchback seemed so, so, so very plain that I stopped and stared.
The Opels and the Fiats and Mercedes A-Classes drifted by out the bus window on the ride from Tegel Airport, my head was swirling getting its bearings trying to place just where some street or S-Bahn station existed on my mental map built up last year while on exchange in the Freie Uni Berlin. I had been riding the New York subway just some hours ago and then it had struck me that soon I would be riding the Berlin U-Bahn, and all these American faces would be staring back at me with German eyes. Going from Tegel to the hostel – actually making my way through Berlin just felt rehearsed, lacking any drama.
Later, when my bags were locked up in my hostel and I’d sorted out some old business back at the Freie Uni across town, I took some time to wander my temporary neighborhood and see how the streets linked up with each other. So my pace and my daze slowed down and at the Peugeot it came to a stop.
Parked alone by an Aldi, it must be still serving as the grocery-getter for some Berliner, exceptional in no way beyond having four wheels and a roof. Built sometime between 1993 and 1997 the car is just old enough to in that perfect age for an everyday used car.
So how is this Peugeot different from an American Chevrolet Cavalier or used Ford Taurus? Well, the 306 certainly is forbidden fruit to my eyes, but the other little hatchbacks darting around Berlin were just as unknown to American roads. Here is where the banality of the Peugeot becomes difficult to describe; the other Europe-only cars didn’t seem interesting because they were just European equivalents of American cars.
I’d grown used to the Berlin scenery in my year abroad and the cars just fit into their environment the same way that American cars fit into the landscapes of America. But the wind that flows into this car’s radiator in European wind, wind that I will never feel across my face in the States. You can get tricked into thinking you’re somewhere else, but to really feel the elements of a place and a time takes your whole mind.
This white hatchback was no different, but that’s exactly what grabbed me – it seemed so plain, so ordinary, so European without a second thought. The owner picking up Muesli in the Aldi and watching Tatort that Sunday without a thought, driving through dark snowed Brandenburg Autobahn in utter normality – dreams that shone from the grit splattered up from cobblestone streets onto the sheetmetal.
Little sleep, just covered 6,000 miles, feeling like I was waking from a dream in front of a cheap old Peugeot. The feeling of banality, palpable and gripping, flashed to me from the dimming grey. So what is the banal, that feeling of extraordinary ordinariness? I don’t know why this car seemed so unlike all the others, but it’s hard to know how your mind works when you’re in a daze, especially when returning to a place you knew so well. Do I still know Berlin? My eyes are constantly searching out for signs of whether the town has changed, if I’ve changed, if anything still makes sense and I’m returning home, or if I am in unknown territory. I guess it is no surprise that going back to Germany would fill my mind with my favorite German word.