Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Black Rider's Last Stand

Or, Why you should always buy a train ticket in Berlin

The first night I was in Berlin, while waiting at a bus stop, Jason slipped me the key to Berlin: A temporary transportation pass. Berlin is riddled with trains, buses and streetcars and Jason offered me the temporary pass he had been given by the university when he first registered. On a piece of flimsy paper, the pass states the bearer is a student and can ride whatever he wants whenever he wants. In bold, capital letters in also states his name. Jason has since received a more permanent card but keeps the temporary one around.

"You can just wave it at the bus driver. He usually doesn't even look at you, let alone at your ticket and name."

So the system was enter, wave the tattered pass and go to my seat. Simple. I entered the bus, performed the operation and rode to Jason's apartment. I used the temporary pass the next day on the bus and had it in my pocket when I got on the train.

As I discussed when I first arrived in Bonn, the ticket system here is very different than it is in the states. You don't swipe a card at any point when boarding the train. Instead, employees of the transportation department rove the trains asking for your ticket. When you're asked for your ticket, you've been "patrolled."

Personally, I have never been patrolled in Bonn. I don't know if it's a function of being a small city, or if I just have the luck to never be on a train they're checking out. I always have my student card with me, which gives me a free ride anywhere in Bonn or Cologne, but I've never needed to get the thing out. Jason had only been patrolled once in Berlin and the procedure was much like the bus. He got out his pass and the officer glanced at it from a distance, noticing he was waving a piece of paper, but not investigating any further.

Friday, we were on our way back to Jason's house to get dinner going before heading out to the goofy Berliner club. We were chatting on the train when Jason announced:

"Next stop's ours."
"Got it."

Back to chatting when suddenly a piece of paper was being waved in my direction. Earlier there had been a homeless guy looking for change on the train, so I put my head down and tried to ignore the imploring hand.

"Uh, Matt, you need to show them your ticket."

I looked up and saw a squat woman in a black parka brandishing a badge of some kind. Presumably it gives her the authority to check my ticket. Right then our train pulled to a stop.

"Oh, Entschuldigung." (Oh, excuse me)

I dug around for my wallet and whipped out the tattered piece of paper Jason had let me borrow, giving me free reign over the city. She squinted at it and took it from me, beckoning that I should follow her. Crap.

Jason and I were led from the train and onto the platform where another guy dressed in a black parka and a black beanie was waiting. Patrollers aways where "street clothes" when they go around looking for "Schwartz-Fahrer" or "Black-Riders." I think this is a very cool name for people who ride trains without tickets. At that moment I wasn't feeling cool, though. I was mostly terrified they might notice Jason and I apparently share the same name.

The guy on the platform was holding a palm-sized digital device that looked like a portable credit card swipper. The woman who had found me on the train handed my (read: Jason's) tattered pass to the second Patroller.

He held the piece of paper out and read the expiration date "13.11.1008." Just so you know, in Europe (and around most of the world) the date proceeds the month and year. This makes a lot of sense as it has the values in increasing order. The day first, then the month and finally the year. When you write the month it becomes "13 November 2008" conveniently separating the numbers from each other. No comma necessary. As you may have noticed from my writing, I am generally not a fan of commas except as breathing indicators. I'm not sure where our American order for the date came from, but I'm going to side with the Germans on theirs being the best way to write a given date.

Regardless of what I think about the order of the month and day, the point was it 13.11 had passed. He then began to lecture me about having an expired card and where I should go to get a permanent pass. I nodded and said my "Ja's." I also threw in a few "Yes's" so that I would come off as a particularly incompetent recent immigrant who wouldn't have noticed that the pass clearly enumerated the steps I should take to get a permanent pass. Things were looking pretty good for me. He didn't seem willing to dish out any penalties.

He then asked for my ID "either your passport" my eyes got wide "or any government ID." He repeated this in English as I hesitated. and made pleading eyes at Jason. As I said before, his name was clearly printed across the top of the pass. A very different name would be found on my documents (one with multiple "T-H" combinations which really seem to terrify the German tongue).

I shifted my weight uncomfortably, explaining that I didn't have my passport. This was a true statement. I also contemplated the penalties of identity theft. "Uh..." Then the female patroller, who was scrutinizing Jason's pass looked up and squinted at the temporary one, which lazily tilted the upper corner, and Jason's surname, straight into her line of vision. Crap again.

She grabbed the temporary paper, held it to Jason's and glared at me. Now what. Her partner saw what had happened. "Okay, ID, bitte." I deflated trying to express my deepest apologies in my body language as I dug into my wallet and got out my drivers licence. He then demanded 40 Euro, the standard fine for Schwartz-Fahrer-ing. I again dug into my wallet and handed over a little bit of Fulbright's stipend and Jason and I were allowed to walk away without incurring any further German scrutiny. Crime doesn't pay.

Jason apologized. He figured the Patroller on the train must have heard us speaking English and examined our papers with a little more enthusiasm than they normally would. I was just glad to rid myself of the sinking feeling I had felt as I stood next to the Patrollers. Jason offered to split the fine as a consequence for his poor advice (It should be noted here that Jason was also the source that told me Tchibo was the best place to get a cell phone in Germany).

The next day, I bought my day ticket and rode public transportation completely legally. And that is the story of the Black Rider's last stand.


Erin Davis said...

How many times does Jason need to lead you astray before you stop listening to him?? : )

Ashlan said...

Oh, dear. I am sorry that this happened to you, but the way in which you wrote it honestly kept me on the edge of my seat.

Carolyn said...

Why does the "T-H" combination terrify Germans? I thought that your name was German...