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.

Long street and the longest day ever

After a light lunch at Rocca we had to head back towards the ship because some people had FDPs. I wandered about the ship for a while, looking for my next activity. I ran into my friend Jenni and we decided to head back into town. This time we went towards the city center. Cape Town can be rather deceptive. The city is so clean and there are many well organized, tall buildings, with wide streets and good flowing traffic. You wouldn’t imagine the amount of crime that takes place here. There are police everywhere but regardless, numerous people from the ship were mugged. I try to keep my wits about me and I haven’t had any problems, so far.

Anyways, we walked into town, down Long Street where all the bars and restaurants are. We checked out the Grandaddy Hotel, which has a airstream trailer park on its roof. We then passed down into Green Market Square and decided to settle down for a breather at a restaurant called Capo I believe. Multiple SASers passed by the square. I told Jenni that my feelings about seeing other SAS kids has changed since we started the journey. Originally when the semester began I took comfort in finding other Semester at Sea students. It made each country feel less threatening, knowing that there are other students in the same boat all around me. As we pass from port to port, though, I find myself needing that safety net less and less. By the time we got to Ghana I felt repelled by areas that I knew would be swarming with kids from the ship. I have nothing against them, but in each of these countries I want to have as authentic an experience as possible. When you cling to the known, to the comfort of other Americans, you lose that.

After our beers we perused the market. I was delighted that here the vendors were far more courteous than elsewhere. Yes, they offered “a special price. just for you,” but when you expressed disinterest and moved along, they took no for an answer. It was great feeling that you were free to explore the market stalls without feeling pressured to buy. I didn’t make any purchases because I’ve developed a routine of souvenir shopping on my last day so that I can use up my remaining foreign currency. After the market, we continued walking around the city and returned to the ship feeling that we had thoroughly examined the center of the city.

Once I felt freshened up and had put on my evening clothes it was time for dinner, this time with a third group of people. Five of us piled into a cab, an old diesel mercedes, and headed back towards long street. Our cab driver gave us his speech, telling us that even though we were quoted 70 rand outside of the cab that he would take us for 50 rand, the official price, and that we were not to tell the other cab drivers, because he is an honest man and the rest are there to cheat you, and that if he came to our country, he would expect to be treated with respect, and thus he is treating us with respect. I sensed something was rotten. This was our first cab ride in the country so I wasn’t experienced yet but when I made the same journey in a legitimate cab with a meter it only ran us 30 rand. In fact, this whole cab problem is actually more than just about being ripped off.

My friends living in South Africa called me a cab one night from a reputable company called Elite. The cab driver told me that in South Africa there’s a problem with “pirate cabs,” people buying yellow “taxi” signs for the roof of their car and buying counterfeit taxi permits that are really just photocopies. These drivers can rip you off, or worse. My friend Dave is 6’ 3″ and weighs a ton. How much? I don’t know. He played D-1 football for UC Boulder and was a linebacker so I’ll let you just imagine. He was at a nightclub in Cape Town one night and felt like heading back to the ship. He piled into a cab in front of the nightclub with two other people he didn’t know. A few minutes later, while the cab was in motion, the driver turned around and pointed a gun at them. The two other passengers bailed out. Dave put his hands in the air and was robbed of his wallet and his digital camera. If it can happen to Dave it can happen to anyone.

Anyways, back to the story. Our pseudo-Robin Hood cab driver dropped us of at Mama Africa, one of the most popular restaurant in town. Mama Africa is an authentic african culture restaurant. The decor is all bushland style. There’s a live band featuring drums, wooden xylophones, and a brass section. For food I had an African mixed grill consisting of alligator, ostrich, warthog, springbok, and kudu. Some were delicious, others not so much, and sadly I was not able to keep track of what was what therefore the next time I see warthog on the menu in Connecticut I won’t know whether to order it or not. But, it was a lovely experience, and if I couldn’t go on safari in South Africa, at least I got to eat as though I had been hunting in South Africa. Towards the end of dinner three more girls showed up. These were friends of the girls I had come to dinner with. They were all obviously intoxicated and it was not clear what they had done or where they were coming from. Regardless, they were with us now. We finished up dinner as quickly as possible to avoid making any more of a scene. It was Friday night and the restaurant was full and now we had three drunk girls standing around our table because there were no extra chairs to be found.After settling the bill the girls went over towards the band and started jamming out with them. I shrunk back and listened from the bar. I loved the music. For those who know me, I’m pretty eclectic in my selection. But it had been a long day and I was far too sober to be dancing around in front of the african jam band. The men, of course, got a kick out of my friends’ enthusiasm so it was all kosher.

After a while I was ready to move on with the evening and hit a bar or a club. The drunk girls were becoming progressively more obnoxious (one randomly ran into traffic off by herself. The other one acquired a “boyfriend,” a black guy less than five feet tall that was more than happy to be the recipient of a drunk American girl’s affection. I obviously did not envy their lack of grace but I was thirsting for a drink. The Mama Africa experience had a price tag to match the quality experience so I had drank only tap water (That’s right, guys. Tap water in Africa. I did it.) We made our way down Long Street, which at this point in the evening was slowly warming up. In front of a loud and crowded place we noticed a bunch of SASers so the crowd entered that venue and I went across the street somewhere a little bit quieter, alleviated of any burden to babysit drunk chicks.

Here across the street I found a few friends. We discussed the day’s events as they finished their pizza dinner. The night was young and I needed to rally so I saddled up to the bar to find something that would compensate for my lack of sleep. Everything in South Africa was inexpensive, but I ended up spending more extravagantly than a normally would, resulting in a net zero effect. I ordered a triple shot of vodka and red bull for 65 ZAR ($8.75 USD). Normally this drink in the US would probably run at least $20 but then again back in the US I would’ve ordered just a couple of beers, so there ya go. Net zero effect. Anyways, the drink had its desired effect and now I was ready to brave the masses back at bob’s bar. Back at Bob’s everyone was having a good time. The drunk runaway had now reached a new level of intoxication. I watched as she tumbled over onto the floor, falling flat on her back. Instead of lifting herself up and playing it off like nothing happened, she decided she’d just hang out on the floor and proceeded to engage in some cross between dancing and snow angel making. The bar’s bouncer had to come scoop her up and get her back on her feet. I could take this occasion to explain why this level of drinking is a) bad for you b)dangerous in a foreign country and c) an embarrassment to our country/ the SAS program, but I won’t because it’s obvious.

Anyhow, Bobs was overcrowded and not that interesting so a few of us decided to roll down the street and see what else Long Street had to offer. By this point in the night, Long Street felt like I imagine Bourbon Street feels like. There were throngs of people of all walks of life; blacks, whites, indians, teenagers, adults, the drunk, the less-drunk, the rich, the begging; all types. There were bars for every type. The space-themed club, the irish bar, the jazz spot, everything. We decided to stroll down till we found a place that struck our fancy. Looking up, I noticed my Resident Director standing on a balcony. We decided to join him, and proceeded up a flight of stairs to a place with a DJ and a great balcony overlooking all the action on the street below, but most importantly, it wasn’t overcrowded. There was a comfortable crowd. Everyone wanted to stay here. We talked, drank, danced. I interacted with a few locals, the crowd pleaser, a man less than 5 feet tall, head of hair and mustache like einstein, probably 80 years old with a case of disco fever like it was still 1968. I also debated with one guy my age over whether Cape Town was like Sydney, I felt myself dragging again by about 130 in the morning so I tried the same spell and the magic worked just as well. We had been in the same spot for over an hour though and I knew there were other cool spots to check out so I convinced the group to continue our pub crawl. Walking down the street I slipped into a convenience store and tried to chug a liter of water to make up for my dehydration all night long. I soon felt terrible and decided I should head back to the ship as soon as possible. We slipped into a restaurant that was open all night where a table full of SASers were finishing up fourth meal. Some of them wanted to go home and some wanted to stay so we regrouped and went our separate ways. This is one of the moments where the abundance of familiar faces is a good thing. We made it back in a taxi without incident.

Although Monday night blended into Tuesday morning because I went shark diving the next day at 3;45AM and literally got zero sleep, this point of the evening was the break in the action and thus the natural pause in my story of what is otherwise a 36 hour day….