The Empty Space

It’s amazing how attached you can get to a car.

I’ve never considered myself a car aficionado, even though it may have slumbered in me for years. One of the earliest childhood memories I have is climbing behind the wheel of my parents’ car in my grandparents’ garden, testing the lights before we drove the 20 miles back home.

Between 1991 and 2009, my parents drove home six brand-new cars from the dealership. That’s one car in three years.

I myself never saw the use of a car. Sure, I was dreaming about buying new cars. In reality, however, I biked to school, then used bus and train to get to college and later, work. It was a 90-minute commute to college, but it wouldn’t have been less of a hassle to get there by car. I’ve been proud owner of a monthly pass for public transport since school.

What would I need a car for?

All that changed when the first child arrived. Standing in the rain, waiting 19 minutes for the next bus to pick us up at my parents’ neighborhood, pushing a stroller and carrying what normal people considered a week’s supplies for the baby (when we only spent a couple of hours at my parents’ house), just to be back at home an hour later, that’s not exactly what we consider fun. Especially if it takes less than half the time with a car, and no waiting.

We were 27 when we bought our first car, and it was only by opportunity: My parents-in-law wanted to get a new one and asked us if we were interested in the old one.

Since the car was a bargain and quite old, we had a healthy relationship with it – that is, we saw it as a means and didn’t grow too fond of it. Unfortunately, it didn’t grow too fond of us either and started piling up repair bills.

That’s about the time we decided to buy a substitute. In 2012, we bought our dream car: excellent condition, a list of features that makes your jaw drop (built-in sat nav, entertainment system, backup camera), the model in general had an outstanding reputation for durability and high gas mileage. It was two years old at the time.

Our parents supported us, giving us a low-interest loan. They insisted, even though we assured them it was within our means. We paid the last installment after two years, in May 2014.

One afternoon in early June, my son insisted on walking a slight detour home. I discovered that the car wasn’t where I thought I’d last parked it.

Being unsure about the whereabouts of our car wasn’t an entirely new concept. We didn’t move the car every day, sometimes we didn’t need the car for weeks at a time. And with parking space in the city being a scarce resource, you park wherever you find a free spot, not necessarily close to home. On top of that, our car had been towed more than once.

All of this means: It can take a while to realize your car has actually been stolen.

In 2011, the probability for car theft was 18 times higher in Berlin than in other parts of Germany. In 2013, over 6000 cars were stolen in Berlin. That’s 18 cars every single day. Most cars stolen in this city are never seen again, supposedly because of its proximity to Eastern Europe. The police officer who handled my report said: “Don’t get your hopes up.”

All this happened less than two months before we wanted to go on vacation for two weeks.

What followed was a myriad of forms from the police and the insurance. The police wanted to know the details of the theft and the circumstances of its discovery. The insurance naturally wanted to know if there’s any way they could avoid settlement for our claim.

Three weeks prior to our planned vacation, the insurance paid the replacement cost value.

We started searching for cars. Because we still had winter tires and the roof rack (for bikes carriers) and never once doubted the car itself, we wanted the exact same model.

After a few days, we found one just like the previous car. Its price tag left us paying 5% more than what we got back from the insurance, which was okay, given the circumstances.

When we took the car for a test-drive, ours had been missing 5 weeks. We didn’t drive often, but getting behind that wheel felt strangely familiar. The car felt like home. In hindsight, the purchase may have been a bit too emotional (which is never good) but the clock was ticking: Our vacation was just three weeks away, and renting a car and passing up this offer might have been an expensive move. So we signed the contract.

My wife picked up the car the following week, more than 2 weeks before our vacation, and I parked it on a friend’s parking space, behind two electric barriers. We didn’t have our resident’s parking permit yet, and without it, it gets expensive quickly.

The following weekend, exactly 2 weeks before our vacation, we reported our second car stolen from that space.