My crimes of smuggling illegal books, other written material, and East German Marks into the German Democratic Republic (GDR, aka East Germany), purchased with West German Marks (DM) in the west, still haunt me. Not that I regret doing what I did, but in certain situations I acutely feel the fear I felt as a young person. Also probably what haunts me is all the travel as a young person alone, being stopped and searched multiple times, once being put in a room in East Berlin with my friends and made to wait and sweat, and in general, traveling in the east when there were so many police with machine gun type weapons and so many rules to follow.
So, even though I am now fifty and many of those experiences were all between twenty and thirty or more years ago, today I overreact to certain situations that involve security, police, or other forms of authority. Here is a recent story of such an over-reaction in Krakow, Poland.
My legs still feel like rubber as I begin to record this. Luckily I could understand some Polish because of my knowledge of Russian, and luckily Cora sat halfway back in the street car as I went forward to get tickets from the machine. While trying to do so, I dropped the coins in my hand. I had checked earlier to make sure I had enough (2.80 zloty per person), but trying to get my reading glasses off my shirt, they tangled with the sunglasses also hanging there and dropped coins. I thought I picked them all up. I bought one ticket and then proceeded to try to buy the next but realized I was 10 groszy short.
As an aside so that one knows I am an honest adult, I had always bought tickets and never rode “black” (Schwarz fahren it is called in German), and that morning in Krakow, I had also rightfully purchased two tickets for us to ride the street car to Oscar Schindler’s museum.
Since the machine didn’t accept bills, I didn’t know what to do except to go back to Cora and sit down. I guess we could have gotten out, since we had twenty minutes before the first ticket expired, and I could have gotten more change.
Or I could have gotten off the train temporarily and tried to talk to the driver in English. This actually didn’t even occur to me though, although I do not know why. But you cannot speak with the driver while in the car, since he is in a separate area from the passenger area.
So I sat down, briefly told Cora the problem and nervously started counting the stations as the street car made its way toward the center. For some reason, though I was hoping it was my trauma from years back (of which I will write about in more detail soon), I had a strong feeling that Murphy’s Law will prove right – and the one time I am riding illegally (having only one full ticket for me and my daughter), I would get caught.
Sure enough, I suddenly heard something on the speaker about “Billet Kontrolni.” Since it was in Polish, those were really the only words I remember understanding, and shortly thereafter I saw a balding young man with a round face and dark brown eyes, dressed in a white dress shirt, moving his way amongst a crowd of young kids who had jumped on the streetcar after we had. They were surrounding the pay station where I had tried to buy both tickets.
It felt like the train was moving very slowly on purpose, so that the ticket controller would have enough time to make it through the train. I really imagined that was the plan for the city or state, so that no one could escape. I actually caught his eye once, and I immediately looked away, the contact not having been any kind of comfort. Of course, I felt I looked even guiltier because I had looked away.
I immediately dug out the one ticket, asked Cora for her ticket from the morning (on some hope we could show that we had paid for the morning ride) and also my money that was just 10 groszy less than what was needed for the ticket all to show that we had paid four hours earlier for the ride to the museum, that I had one ticket for us, and that I had honestly attempted to purchase another ticket but because the (stupid) machine didn’t accept bills, I wasn’t sure what to do. In my mind I was ready to explain how tired my daughter was, how her back hurt, etc. and play the mother role as to why we had continued on the streetcar despite only having one ticket.
As all this was going through my mind, I noticed that a man kitty corner from us on the train had immediately stood up and was heading to the door next to where we were sitting. I caught his eye, but his face revealed nothing. I believed he was also riding without a ticket. I hoped we were nearing a station and with that thought in mind, I ordered Cora to get up, and we stood by the door.
It still felt as though the car were moving too slowly, and I impatiently waited to see if a stop was coming. I did not turn around to see where the controller man in the white shirt was. I wanted to run off the car. Finally, finally, we stopped and suppressing the desire to shove the man in front of me out of our way, we innocently stepped out, my pounding heart hidden.
I didn’t have any idea what the fine would have been had the controller not believed my story and taken my 2.70 zloty, but I just didn’t want to deal with it. We ended up getting out of the train just on the other side of the main square, so it was a nice walk through the square again (such a lively place!) back home to our hotel on the other side.
Almost ready to post this story, I read online various posts about how harsh and bullish the Polish public transportation controllers are, about a woman and child crying, about one family who was forced to pay 240 zloty on the spot. Since they did not have it, the controller, joined by another one, took their ID and escorted them to a cash machine. They were told they would be arrested if they weren’t able to produce the cash. It is uncertain whether the controller really would arrest a foreigner, but this man had also made a mistake by purchasing the tickets, but not stamping them (they need to be stamped to be valid).
With the adrenaline already rushing through my body and my fear and panic grossly exaggerated, that would have been hard to endure – and yet, I know I would have, though since my bank card only worked in one of five cash machines we found near the Krakow main square, it might have been very trying…
And as I end this post, it also occurs to me that although so many other situations have occurred similar to this one where the fear and anxiety I felt because of security or other authority figures (for example, going through airport security, getting caught recording a concert back in the day when they still tried to control that), it might not be the trauma from the past that spurred my body into panic mode. Perhaps it was a sixth sense I have which rightfully informed me of the upcoming great harrassment and trauma that we would experience if I did not get Cora and I off the bus as soon as I could. Who knows!