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.