It was a lovely summer day in the north of Germany–one where the cool of the morning and the cool of the evening sandwich in a warm midday–perfect for a drive through the countryside and through quaint villages. We would soon catch a train to our final destination–the river harbor city of Hamburg.
I was riding in the backseat of my son’s car next to my daughter-in-law and small grandson. I had the window seat to take in all the splendor. As my son drove, he talked with my husband, who sat next to him, about life on the German farm where they lived. Everything about the day was extraordinary.
I recall being engaged in a conversation with my favorite two-year old about all the tractors we were passing, when I noticed my son’s sudden and furtive glances in his rearview mirror. Then I saw him check his speed. Thirty kilometers. Spot on. The look of relief was short-lived, quickly replaced by a look of confusion.
“Are you kidding me? Are they seriously pulling me over?” he asked.
Yes. They were.
The Schupo. The Schutzpolizei. The German police. I saw them when I looked over my shoulder.
You know what my favorite genre of book is? Historical fiction–specifically World War II historical fiction. I know things, fictionally speaking. I know one must never tangle with German polizei.
And yet, it appeared tangle we would.
My heart rate doubled.
In the states, our sirens start at the highest pitch and free fall down the musical scale for about an octave before repeating. Though alarming, this is the sound of my homeland. It’s familiar. Oddly comforting, even. The German sirens vacillate between a high D to an A, two-and-a-half steps down–in a sort of “Wee-ooh” fashion. Discomforting. Like nails on a chalkboard.
As we were slowing to pull over, I whispered to my daughter-in-law, a German citizen, “should I buckle my seatbelt?” For some reason I’d forgotten it. I whispered just in case the car was bugged and the polizei might hear me–my well-informed imagination now on high alert.
“Yes,” she whispered back. “It’s the law here.”
I quickly reached behind me and pulled the buckle over my chest, tucking it under my arm with no time to click it in before the officer reached my son’s window. I was only mildly ashamed of my deception.
My son handed over his documents and the two of them begin to converse in German. I held my breath.
Documents. It’s a much scarier term than “driver’s license” or “proof of insurance. It has an almost sinister feel to it.
I, however, was prepared. Right there, zipped into my brightly colored Patagonia fanny pack, were my documents–my passport, my driver’s license and my credit card. Everything I might possibly need to get out of a German jail. Just that morning, my husband had sweetly scoffed at me when I told him one should always keep identification on his person when in a foreign country. I was fairly certain he’d not heeded my warning. If indeed we were hauled in, I supposed he would rot there–all because he didn’t listen to me. I would write to him, though. Everyday. And I’d pray fervently for his release.
I was in the middle of such thoughts when the Polizei played their next card. I suddenly heard three knocks on my window.
My window. How could he have known about the seatbelt? How could he have seen? Of course! It’s no secret they have eyes and ears everywhere!
I slowly turn my head to meet the second officer’s gaze–his own face a mere twelve inches from mine, separated by a layer of auto glass. Our eyes met, as he again rapped on my window with the backside of his knuckles.
One. Two. Three.
He had blonde hair, his face handsome and young, and he wore a smirk that worried me.
I slowly rolled down my window, determined he would not see the fear coursing through my veins. He began to speak to me in German, until my daughter-in-law interrupted and told him I was American.
He said “Ahh”. Another smirk.
He motioned to my seatbelt and in broken English questioned me.
I told him I’d put it on. I thought I was convincing.
He replied with a heavy accent, “Yes, but just now you put it on”. I was guilty, and he knew it.
I crinkled up my nose in regret and said “Yeah. Sorry”. I heard my Texas accent thick on my tongue.
He then positioned his thumb and two fingers in the snapping position–I feared if he snapped, officials would instantly appear and haul me off to Lord knows where.
No snapping, though. Instead he did this.
He rubbed those same fingers together in the international sign of “money”.
“It will cost you,” he said, raising one eyebrow as he spoke.
I’ll do anything, I silently pled. Just don’t haul me off to jail. Not in front of my grandson. Please….
From the front seat I hear my husband calmly asking “Do you take American Express?” Texan oozed from every pore of his body.
Are you kidding me? I screamed in my mind. What do you think this is, the freaking mall? This is the German Schupo!
So yeah. Turns out they took Visa instead.
And just like that, 35 Euros were charged to our credit card right then and there, and I was free. No jail time. No interrogation in a room with a single chair and a bare light bulb dangling from the ceiling. None of it.
A little money, and it was swept under the rug as if it never happened.
I began to hum “count your blessings, name them one by one” as I clicked my seatbelt into place and my grandson offered the officers a cheerful “thumbs up”.
It’s over, I thought. It’s really over.
Or is it? Because you and I both know I know things.