A tale of schwarzfahren in Berlin.
“When are we meeting the photographer?” I asked Emma as she changed into her third outfit of the day. We hadn’t even gone anywhere yet.
“Around 4,” she said over her shoulder, studying her newly donned dress in the mirror. “It takes like an hour to get there.”
I glanced at the time. It was already practically 3 o’clock. I’d long since given up trying to make sure we were on time anywhere. As the sort of person who shows up 15 minutes early to a party where no one arrives till 2 hours after the given time, this was a difficult thing to learn.
Luckily, we were fairly familiar with Berlin’s public transportation system by now.
When we arrived a week ago, it was daunting to learn the differences between the U-Bahn, the S-Bahn, the various bus routes and which direction you needed for which areas of town. The stop names were so German sounding, they were hard to recall without writing them down.
At first we kept buying one-way tickets to our destinations. We quickly realized it was worth the investment of 28.70€ for a 7-day ticket anywhere in the AB zone.
I’d accidentally purchased a 5-day ticket the first time around, but I was now the proud owner of one final ticket that would last me until we left for Romania.
It was a quarter past 3 by the time Emma was ready to go.
“Are you ready?” she asked me, as if I hadn’t been sitting there waiting for the last hour.
We bounced downstairs and started walking briskly down the street. Emma pulled out her phone for a moment. “We have time,” she said.
Good, I was hoping we wouldn’t have to be sprinting to the — —
Or not. Emma took off running down the street. I tried to keep up behind her. We flew down the U-Bahn steps, just in time to see we missed the train.
Although, this turned out to be fortunate, because it was not the train we needed. Our train was headed the opposite direction and would be there in just a minute.
“Is your ticket expired yet?” Emma asked.
“Yeah, and I already renewed it. What about you?”
She kind of gave me a shrug. It was true, we’d never been asked to produce a ticket. No one seemed to be checking. The bus drivers hardly glanced at it as you got on board.
“I was thinking I may not get a new one,” she answered. “Save some money.”
I simply raised my eyebrows. Watch, this will be the one time someone checks our tickets, I laughed to myself. The fee was anywhere from 40-120€ if you got caught, plus you then have to buy a valid ticket.
Now, our train really was arriving.
The timing was all exactly right. We managed to make our connection and get all the way across town with 5 minutes to spare. It was uneventful, no one asked us to produce tickets.
The photographer met us at the station and walked with us to a beautiful place called Krumme Lanke for the shoot.
Everything went smoothly. The shoot was casual and relaxed, Emma went swimming, and the photographer was pleasant to chat with.
“We can do our business at the station?” he asked as we made our way back. He was referring to the model release.
Emma wasn’t answering so I chimed in without thinking. “Yes, that would be fine.” I then realized my presumptuousness, turned to Emma and added, “If that’s okay with Emma, of course.”
We all had a laugh as I was now acting as Emma’s manager.
“You have your tickets?” he asked as we got close to the station.
Emma didn’t really answer.
“Sure,” I said, glancing at Emma. I wondered if he would have purchased her a ticket if she ‘fessed up.
He pulled out the model release as we waited on the bench for the S-Bahn to arrive. He attempted to translate the German for her, and she began filling it out. The train arrived.
We all boarded. Emma finished filling out the form.
The photographer handed her money.
Emma handed the money to me.
We laughed again.
“She really is your manager!” he joked.
The train was quiet.
We all got to chatting and laughing. Emma shared stories of modeling and traveling. The photographer spoke of his work and publications. Everyone exchanged smiles and silliness.
Suddenly, there was a loud raucous. A large crowd of teenagers boarded at the end of the train next to us.
Emma and the photographer noted how usually people on the trains are quiet. “Except for us loud Americans,” she laughed.
We fell quiet by the next stop because it was hard to hear each other over the crowd.
I fell into my own thoughts.
In the midst of the noise, the photographer suddenly let out a quiet exclamation. I felt Emma kick my shins from across the way.
I looked up at her and she was terrified. Her eyes darted over to the end of the bus. A stout woman wearing a flannel overshirt had boarded. A small black machine was in her hands and she was working her way through the crowd of teenagers, asking for tickets.
I glanced back at Emma. She had pulled out her backpack as if to see if she could magically find some ticket at the last second.
My mind raced. Maybe Emma could slide over to the other side of the train and maybe we could make it to the next stop in time.
Then I remembered the controllers usually worked in pairs.
That’s when I looked to the other side and saw a stout man wearing a matching flannel shirt doing the same from the other direction.
We were sitting right about in the middle of the train. There was no place to go, no way to get out. The rides between any two stations were easily long enough that two controllers working together could check all of us.
I began to panic.
My nature is to be quick and efficient, dealing with authorities makes me nervous even when I haven’t done anything wrong. I started to pull out my wallet before they even got to me.
No, wait. Slow down.
I put my wallet back. I needed to somehow get them to talk to me before they got to Emma. I needed to stall as much as I could. I wondered how long I could drag out a conversation with them. Hopefully the other wouldn’t get to her during that time.
The controllers were working quickly. The woman on my right was slower, having to deal with the large crowd. The man on my left was already almost done with his side of the train. Emma and I would be next.
Then, as if by miracle, the train began to slow down.
It was the shortest distance we had experienced between two stops. We might have a chance.
The train was pulling into the station. The man had reached our gap and making his way to us. If he was going to still check our tickets, he needed to check me first. I began to stand up almost as if to greet him and made eye contact with him.
It worked. He approached me, but he positioned himself so that Emma couldn’t get through us and to the door.
He said something in German. I knew what he was asking, but frowned and leaned in, asking, “What?”
He repeated himself, again in German.
I began to slowly circle around him, forcing him to put his back to Emma, leaving a small open space where I’d been standing. I managed to do so in a natural movement.
Keep it cool.
“English?” I asked.
“Your ticket,” he said roughly. He was visibly annoyed with me by now. Emma was slipping by. She made it out.
“Oh! Yeah,” I reached back into my pocket. My heart was beating in my throat. I fumbled with my wallet, not to stall any longer, but because I was trembling out of sheer adrenaline. I produced the ticket.
He checked it for a moment, gave an irritable shake of his head and moved on.
I practically ran out the door.
Emma and I just stared at each other for a moment before we just started laughing hysterically. We were so high from the rush. My hands were still shaking when I handed her cash back.
I am happy to say we are both now riding with valid tickets.
(For more fun reading on schwarzfahren, you really must read this blog post that saved us in this situation, giving us an unspoken game plan for recognizing what was going on and having any idea how to handle it.)