Here in Warsaw, I have a corporation that’s more or less the American equivalent of a subchapter S. At the urging of my Polish accountant, I finally decided to register my 1997 Volkswagen Jetta GLX to this company. For some years I’d been skating by with New Jersey tags. Not only did this confer certain advantages I’ll get into below, but I have a somewhat morbid fear of government bureaucracy and red tape. I wanted to steer clear of those potential tangles.
Before making the decision, I overcame my reluctance about the bureaucracy by consulting with Mustang Trading, a U.S. car specialist in Warsaw. They assured me this would be a slam dunk, and they would walk me through the process of converting the car to European Union operating standards and getting it registered.
I committed to this decision in late December when I chose not to renew my New Jersey registration, set to expire the end of January. The Polish conversion and registration was estimated as a one- week job costing $1,500.
Almost immediately I was figuratively sucked into a Salvador Dali painting, from which I barely found my way out a month later. Or maybe it was Dante’s Inferno. If it was the latter, my Virgil was Pawel Koslowski, the owner of Mustang Trading. Here’s that story.
First, there was no easy way to mount European-required headlights on my lovingly maintained Jetta GLX (which has 120,000 miles). After numerous consultations and an additional $300, Mustang worked out a solution. By then it was January 15. That left 15 days to get it registered in Poland before my New Jersey registration expired. Pawel assured the hard part was done.
Because of travel for my job and Pawel’s schedule, we didn’t get around to going to the Polish Customs Office to officially “import the car” until January 28. And that’s where we ran into the branch director, a green-uniformed bureaucrat in charge of one of two customs offices in Warsaw. We’ll call this one Customs Office ‘A.’
She looked to be in her late 30s and had a short blonde bob. She’s about 5’4”, petite and fit, with icy blue eyes, pronounced cheekbones, and full lips — a classic Slavic beauty. Her demeanor is what was so memorable. She was all business all the time, with a military-like bearing and posture. Normally, she deals with big importers rather than small-fry public. But she also handles non-standard cases like mine. She was the one who delivered the bad news.
She said she needed additional documentation on how the car got to Poland because of a new EU law that says the transportation cost must be included in the excise-tax calculation.
The problem was, my car came through the port of Amsterdam some years ago, and has since lived the life of a gypsy traveling around Europe. Oops! She explained that such a declaration would result in an excise-tax calculation on the value of the car at time of its arrival, plus penalties for every 6-month increment that the car had not been declared. Despite my emotional attachment to the Jetta and the great condition it’s in, that was not going to fly. I would have been better off selling it to a chop-shop. Pawel thanked her and we left.
By the time we got outside he had figured out Plan B. It’s a time-honored re-importation maneuver I had heard about, but was hoping to avoid. I would have to drive to Ukraine, then re-enter Poland and declare my intention to import the car at the border.
It was than 11 a.m. and I had 3 days left to complete the process before my Jersey registration expired. There was no way in hell I could manage this process myself. “No problem!” Pawel said.
He ordered his customer service manager, a guy named Robert, to get into my car so I could take him for a ride to Ukraine. Robert’s jaw dropped. To a Pole being taken for a ride to Ukraine is akin to Jimmy Hoffa being taken for a tour of stadium construction sites in New Jersey.
Internet map sites estimated the trip would take 6 hours, one way. By noon we had our passports and were on the road. It was 20 below zero centigrade (-4, Fahrenheit) and I was driving like a madman on my New Jersey tags. One of the chief advantages they had conferred over the years was virtual immunity from Polish speeding tickets. We got to the enormous Dorohusk II border crossing complex by 3:30 p.m., although by then Robert’s nerves were shot.
Until a recent treaty, crossing in and out of Ukraine could take 48 hours, but now it’s typically a couple of hours if neither country chooses to hassle you and you have nothing to declare. My Jersey license tags and U.S. documents caused quite a stir at the border because they’re so unusual. We were invited to cut to the front of the line.
It took us about an hour. The chief problem we had was explaining on the Ukrainian side why we were coming in with no luggage. With a straight face, Robert told them that he wanted to put some flowers on his ancestor’s grave and I was his driver. With the short northern winter day ending, in the pitch-dark night and bitter cold it seemed like an incredibly lame story — but they let us through. About then is when the blizzard started.
We were driving through the snow, east into Ukraine. We were starving and there were no signs of civilization, let alone the imaginary cemetery with Robert’s imaginary ancestors. All we could see were fields blanketed with waist-deep snow. After about 10 miles, I spotted some lights off the highway. As we turned down a frozen dirt road, security guards stopped us at the gates of “The Euro Café and Club.” They were armed with assault rifles.
“We are here for the lunch!” I announced in Russian to one of the guards. I can only assume the New Jersey tags made an impression on him also, because he waved us through. I drove into the walled-in cobblestone parking lot, where we noticed 10 parked Mercedes, BMWs and Porsches, with drivers waiting in each car. This was going to be interesting, I thought.
From the outside, The Euro Café and Club looked neat and well-built — a typical block-with- stucco design. Inside the door was a plain and ordinary anteroom, with two tables, florescent lights, tile floors and bare walls. It was clean but lacked any character whatsoever.
Straight ahead from the door was a rudimentary bar, like something in a home basement, but with well-stocked shelves. There were a man and a woman behind it. To the right was a door to a conference room where a very animated meeting — full of chain-smoking tough guys — was happening.
I persuaded the lady in the anteroom to fix us dinner, and Robert and I sat down at one of the tables. In the hour we were there, we saw no other people. They served an excellent borscht, followed by golden and crispy Chicken Kiev which was amazingly good. When we cut into it, buttery juices spurted into a delicious puddle on our plates. For desert we had crepes, one with cottage cheese and the other with poppy. They were superb as well.
As we chowed down our meals, the tough guys ambled in and out of their meeting, always with a cigarette in their lips and a cell phone glued to their ears. Finished, we paid the bill and headed back to the border. We arrived about 7 p.m.
At the entering-Poland side (the EU entrance), a huge line had formed. I chatted up a border guard, who was happy to switch to English, which he had been studying. The New Jersey tags novelty did it again – he escorted us to the front of the line. After 4 hours, 16 different offices, 20 documents, and various fees that totaled $1,000 – success! We were on our way back into Poland around 11 p.m.
If we had stood in all the lines it would have been a 12-hour process. But we seemed like nice folks and the novelty of clearing a New Jersey registered car from Ukraine was too much to resist- we kept being escorted to the front of the next line. We got to know every building in the border crossing complex, while dodging tractor trailers in a blizzard and 20 below temperature.
Robert and I got back to Warsaw at 4:00 a.m. on January 29th, driving in whiteout conditions, all the while convinced that the problem was solved. Or was it?
At 10:00 a.m., we took the Ukrainian import documents to Warsaw Customs Office B (to avoid Custom Office A where we had told the Amsterdam story 24 hours earlier). We paid an expeditor to walk the documents through. An hour later, we were told nothing-doing. Under new EU rules they want to know how the American-registered car got to Ukraine. And if it had been there a long time, they wanted to see a Ukrainian insurance policy.
Dejected, Robert and I went back to Mustang Trading, half hallucinating after our exhausting Ukraine trip. The business day was almost over, and I had less than 48 hours before my New Jersey registration expires and the car would be un-drivable. With time running out, Pawel quickly devised Plan C.
The next morning, January 30th, Pawel took me to a huge U.S.-Polish import company that’s owned by a friend of his. The company has customs officials on the premise and knows everyone, including the branch director lady at Customs Office A who didn’t accept our documents in the first place. It turned out that in the Polish Customs bureaucracy, she’s known as a legendary ballbuster.
After several hours of phone calls and consultation, Pawel’s friend concluded that I was screwed, because the new rule requiring me to produce the transportation cost from the country of registration (to calculate excise tax) was insurmountable.
Worse, now that I had declared the car at the border, I could not drive it back out, nor could I abandon it in Poland. I was now somewhere in between Dante’s hell and purgatory.
Pawel’s friend offered a Plan D, however – a “Hail Mary” pass of sorts. He noted that the blonde ballbuster at Customs Office A had the authority to waive missing documents. My last chance was to throw myself at her mercy.
Pawel and I headed back to the Customs Office A as the afternoon dusk set in. In hindsight, we suspect she got a call from Pawel’s friend, because as soon as she saw us in the corridor, she ordered us to give her the documents, rather than sending us to one of the clerks.
But when she realized that the car’s “imported from Amsterdam some time ago” story had changed to “imported from Ukraine, on Monday” she launched into a verbal dressing down of us in front of the whole office. She was about 5 minutes into her harangue when I interrupted her.
Her demeanor changed, as if a light bulb had switched on. She called us in her private office. She dictated to us how to write a plea and request for relief. Then she called a technical test center (the equivalent of a Virginia inspection station) and asked them to keep it open for this American who would be coming for an inspection. She told us to be back at 8:00 a.m. the next day, January 31, the last day my New Jersey registration was valid.
When we got there at 7:55, she sent us to one of the windows where a clerk had our file, and 2 hours later, my 1997 Jetta was officially imported into Poland, with a two-business day grace period to get registration.
After a brief celebration back at Mustang Trading, Pawel told Robert to go with me to wrap things up at the registration office. We were done! Alas, we weren’t.
It turned out that for the type of company I own, the car has to be registered in my name, not the company’s. But it couldn’t be registered in my name because I don’t have a Polish residence card. While I do own a Polish company, pay Polish income tax, own a house in Poland and live in it, I can’t register a car without a residence card. Go figure.
On Monday, February 4th, after visiting 5 offices on opposite sides of Warsaw, with Robert’s help I got a 90-day residence card which allowed me to get a 90-day registration and Polish tags for my 1997 VW. I’ve also started the process to get a 1-year residence card, something I really need only to register my car.
I was touched by how many total strangers, including government clerks, were kind and helpful. As for my Virgil, Pawel, other than the payment for technical conversion to European headlights, the only thing he accepted from me is a bottle of whiskey – Jack Daniels of course.
Robert the customer service manager refused any money, arguing “he should pay me for this psychedelic experience.” Eventually I managed to stuffed 200 zloty in his pocket.
So now I can deduct gas and other costs for the Jetta while computing my Polish income taxes, hooray! The drawback, of course, is that without my dearly held New Jersey tags and registration, I’ve forever lost the virtual immunity to traffic tickets.
Driving in Europe will never be the same.