Dealing with the Police in Germany

September 5, 2013

I’m not used to waitresses chasing me down a street because I’m pretty good at remembering to pay the check. When she finally caught up to me, though, it wasn’t to tell me to pay the bill, it was to tell me that the police had arrived.

At some point during our long, leisurely lunch at a restaurant in Hamburg, someone noticed that there was free wifi inside. We were seated at an outdoor table and had not noticed, but when an opportunity to connect to the World Wide Web presents itself, SASers are always eager. I went inside to connect and others followed. Eventually everyone at our table came inside. After checking my email and various social media outlets I went back outside and found that our table had been cleared and that my backpack was gone.

I checked around inside to see if one of my friends had brought the backpack inside but no one had. I asked the waitress if she had picked up a backpack and she had not. The backpack was gone. I was frustrated, but only at myself given that it was my fault for leaving the back at a street-side table unaccompanied. Resignedly I decided to move on with the afternoon and leave the restaurant. Erin and I made it about one block away from the restaurant before the waitress came running after us, letting us know that the police had arrived. I was shocked that the police had actually responded to the waitress’ phone call over the missing backpack, but there was a cop car with an officer interested in hearing my story. I told him that the back disappeared, but added that there was a chance that another Semester at Sea person brought it back to the ship, given that there had been another group of people from the ship at an adjacent table. The police officer actually made notes on the details of my story, again to my surprise, and told me that I could file a formal report if the bag didn’t turn up back at the ship.

In case you’re really that concerned about my bag, it did turn up back at the ship, but that is not at all my point in telling this story. My point is the level of concern that the waitress and police officer had for a tourist’s missing backpack. Can you imagine what the response would be of a waitress in New York City or a member of the NYPD? What does this contrast say about Germany, or more specifically Hamburg?

Well, first off it shows that they have a much lower crime rate, given that the waitress was shocked and seemed genuinely distressed when the bag went missing. I returned to the restaurant later in the week to let her know the back was found and her sense of relief was grand. I think it also might suggest a difference in the level of concern for others. Germany is a socialist country where they look out for people. America is a country with plenty of signs that clearly state, “If you do something stupid with your backpack, that’s not our problem.” This is probably something that Germans take for granted if they haven’t traveled widely, and I’m glad that as an American, the German way is a pleasant surprise.

A day in Hamburg: witbier and the Third Reich

Germany began with another free walking tour of Europe. It began over at the Hamburg Rathaus, the German word for town hall, so we walked towards the city center. We arrived early and decided to sit down at a café and kill the time until our tour started. I decided to order apple strudel (German strudel made me think of Inglorious Basterds) and my first beer in Germany.

In the United States I might get disapproving looks for ordering a beer with my breakfast but there were numerous locals enjoying a cold one despite the early hour. Beer in Germany is cheaper than water, and thus I think their societal attitudes towards the brew is very different. In the United States, a beer normally means five o’clock. It means sitting in the hot sun barbecuing or lying on the beach, or out at a bar getting the party started. In Germany, it seems like just something to drink. I don’t mean to suggest that the Germans don’t take their beer seriously (there are so many varieties available that it’s importance is quite clear). It just seems that Germans are responsible enough when drinking beer that it’s not anything close to being taboo.

Our tour guide Ralph was a colorful character. In his lifetime he’s has many professions including tour guide, courier, cocktail waiter, and taxi driver. He led us around to the various sights in the Hamburg city center. Hamburg is a beautiful city but I find myself going numb to old cathedrals and cobblestone lanes. What I really appreciated about Ralph’s tour was his commentary on what life in Hamburg was like through the various centuries. He began his story at the beginning when Hamburg was a small village and continued the tale through its rise as a trading port, the destruction of World War II, and it’s modern revival. I’ve always wondered how native Germans feel when talking about World War II and Ralph definitely answered my question. There’s no shame amongst Germans in 2013. Most of them weren’t alive during the Third Reich, or if they were, they were the ones suffering under the oppressive regime, not the ones oppressing. However, they are fully cognizant and weary of their country’s past and feel that it’s an important to remember what happened to ensure that it does not happen again.

After our tour we settled at a small German restaurant on a quiet pedestrian street for lunch. The restaurant offered a special deal on schnitzel or haddock for members of the tour group. As much as I enjoy schnitzel, I wanted to order something different; a German food that is rarely found in the US. I ordered labskaus, a Northern Germany specialty consisting of corned beef, potatoes and onions that are boiled, minced, and fried in lard. It looks like corned beef, especially in context with the fried egg that’s plopped on top, but it certainly doesn’t taste like breakfast. It was yummy and a finished every bite, but I don’t see myself ordering it again.

Once we were settled into the restaurant, our tour guide Ralph bid us adieu and was on his way. Some of the other SASers essentially stiffed our guide, tipping him at the rate of 83 cents an hour, and so I felt obliged to make up the difference. One of my biggest frustrations in traveling on “a college budget,” is that people use this as an excuse to short change people when they’re given the opportunity. The “college budget excuse” is readily given when it’s time to pay the tour guide, who works only for tips, but at the bar there’s usually enough money in that same college budget to make do. Regardless, I paid the man what he deserved and we enjoyed some hours in the warm sun sipping witbier and watching life in Germany go by.

Gourmet Russia

The next day Erin and I spent exploring the city again on foot. We saw Peter and Paul’s Fortress, ate little Russian donuts from a hole-in-the-wall, and made it to a Russian supermarket and marketplace. I’d say that the supermarket and marketplace were the biggest cultural experiences of the day.

In the supermarket there were very few aisles with packaged goods, and rather many more counters for seafood, meats, bakery, and all the other freshly prepared items Russians want to buy. It definitely seems to be an American thing to devote most of the supermarket space to the frozen foods and the things that are packaged and preserved well enough to survive a nuclear winter.

I wanted to try Russian caviar during my visit but I noticed that the caviar was in a locked refrigerator. This did not bode well. I did the math and the smallest jar of caviar cost the equivalent of $70 USD. I’d spend $70 on a steak or something that I’m positive I will like, but I know nothing about caviar and was not willing to spend that much money on fish eggs.

After the Russian supermarket we headed to a Russian marketplace. This marketplace was in the open air and hawkers were pushing their fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, chocolates, and everything else. The bounty was beautiful, but the biggest surprise to me was the butchers. It seems every organ in a cow is sold in Russia. Whether it’s brains, tongues, or intestines you crave, you can buy them in a Russian marketplace. I’m not sure how much they cost or what dishes they’re used for, but my educated guess is that there’s a marketplace for these organs because for a long time Russians didn’t have access to bountiful markets, and so they were probably far more willing to try cow intestine during the Soviet era if that was the only meat available to them. The people buying it in 2013 are probably the people that grew up with it. That’s only a theory though. Maybe all Russians like brains.

It was interesting to see the supermarket and the marketplace and it made me regret not eating more native dishes while I was in Russia. My problem was generally that at most restaurants everything is in Cyrillic, there are no pictures, and no one speaks English. I enjoy trying new foods, but I’m not going to gamble completely and just point to a random line on a menu and hope for the best. Thus, the only authentic Russian meal I’d say I ate in Russia was when Erin and I went to a Russian cafeteria and ate chicken Kiev and Russian salad. Should I ever come back to Russia I will try to do a better job of seeking out the local foods so I can experience the country with all five of my senses.

St Petersburg

Russia was not as scary as I thought. Maybe it’s the professors who do their best to scare us into behaving or maybe it’s what I remember from global history about Soviet Russia, but when I stepped off the ship in St Petersburg I was expecting a more rough-and-tumble town than I encountered.

Our dock was located along the picturesque Neva River, a tree-lined waterway that flows through the heart of the city. We walked along the wide pedestrian walkway, where Petersburgers spend warm summer afternoons fishing, biking, and rollerblading, heading towards the city center. We crossed one of many drawbridges; a passage that caused anxiety amongst some students. The drawbridges are down most of the day, but are raised late at night to allow assorted ships and barges passage through the city. This didn’t bother me much because I think returning to the ship before 1:30 AM while we’re in Russia is a good idea anyway, but a large contingency of students felt the need to check into hostels in the city center so they would be free to drink and be merry late into the night without any hesitation. I would rather sleep in my cozy bed bug-free cabin on the ship, so Erin and I were mindful to remember which streets we wandered down so we could retrace our steps later.

We were wandering in pursuit of a booking agent, planning on taking a train to Moscow. We stopped into a boutique hotel, hoping the concierge desk might be of some assistance. It is there that we received our saving grace: a free map of the city of St. Petersburg, conveniently written in English. Empowered, it didn’t take much longer before we had tickets for an overnight train to Moscow. We were then free to begin checking out scenic St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg is notable for its cathedrals and architecture. The city was built with the intention of being more European in style. Many of the beautiful, Italian-designed buildings seem almost out of place. The city is beautiful, but at some points excessive. These amazing cathedrals, the ones we’ve all seen in photographs with the funny-looking roofs, are gorgeously decadent and were built centuries ago, when the tsars ruled and most of the country suffered. Before we arrived in St. Petersburg the resident geography professor gave a condensed history of Russia, broadly speaking about the monarchy, which clung to power far longer than the monarchies in other countries. The beauty of these buildings astounded me, especially considering the societal conditions at the time these gold-domed towers were erected.

We walked around the city, the Church of the Savior on Blood, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and the Winter Palace, stopping for lunch at Subway (which serves beer in Russia, FYI), and then returned to the ship once our feet had suffered enough. We formulated plans for the evening over dinner on the ship and then headed out in search of an ice bar. I’ve never been to such a bar, but apparently everything is made out of ice, and there was supposedly one in St. Petersburg. I’m sad to say that after two hours of searching, the St. Petersburg Ice Bar turned out to be pure myth. The Irish pub that we visited instead, though, did not disappoint.

When we walked into O’Hooligans we were glad to simply be sitting down after 2 hours of questing for a mythical place. O’Hooligans, though, turned out to be a Russian cultural experience in itself. On a Thursday night young Russians were packed into the small pub. The ales were flowing and the patrons and the staff were puffing away. It was a shock to see people smoking in a restaurant but in Russia it’s still totally legal. There is a small and separate (less fun) non-smoking section. I met a young woman named Jessica who spoke English excellently because she works for a marketing firm where she must speak the language for her job every day. I was excited to finally meet a local who I’d be able to speak to in English.

Jessica answered my questions on a range of topics. We discussed national politics (how Putin does not have popular support but will probably remain in power until he dies), local politics (how the police in St Petersburg don’t enforce the speed limits unless they can get a bribe out of it), culture (what Russians like to drink, where they like to go on vacation), and a selection of other topics. Besides our conversation, the other interesting part about the bar was when a friend of mine ordered absinthe. There is a misunderstanding amongst most people that absinthe is illegal in the United States. The ban has been lifted since 2007, but that hasn’t led to any sort of American absinthe craze, so it’s fun to order it in a foreign country. There’s many different ways to prepare absinthe, but the Russian version involves lighting it on fire, extinguishing the flame, then huffing the vapor, reigniting the absinthe, adding sugar and water (distinguishing the flame) and drinking the mixture. It was a gimmicky way to have a drink but nothing is more fun about traveling than trying something you’ve never done anything like before. After a fun time at the bar we headed back to the ship before the dreaded raising of the drawbridges and rested for another day in Russia.

London summary

The next day was our last in London before Erin had to head off to Southampton for her work-study job duties. We spent the morning at the Imperial War Museum, learning about the various conflicts that Great Britain has played a role in (they are numerous). Erin was mostly humoring me because, as you can imagine, my interest as a male in learning about wars is far greater than hers. She did, however, enjoy the exhibit on British espionage and the work of MI-5 and MI-6.

I’ll summarize the rest of our time in the UK because at the time I am writing this we are 36 hours away from Germany and I need to stay current on this blog.

London is a very approachable city for Americans. I felt almost like I was in New York City, except everyone had different accents and there’s a lot more history to it given that it is a much older city. It’s no wonder that London is a favorite for American students traveling abroad. I enjoyed my time in London but I didn’t feel that I grew as much from my visit than I have while visiting other foreign cities. Personal growth is about leaving one’s comfort zone and exposing oneself to different ways of living; different ways of thinking, working, worshipping, eating, celebrating, communicating, etc. In London, the contrast with the United States is not very sharp, and therefore as much as I enjoyed the comfort of being able to speak English with everyone I met and knowing exactly what to do and how to behave in almost every situation, I don’t think I grew as much.

The most enjoyable cultural experience I had in London was afternoon high tea in Soho with Erin. We sipped tea and nommed on finger sandwiches on a balcony; a highly enjoyable and different experience than any that I’ve had in the United States. However, I can’t say that the experience challenged my perspective very much. And so it was with great excitement that I returned to the MV Explorer after a 15 month absence and set sail for Russia: a country that would definitely take me out of my comfort zone and challenge my way of thinking.