The People in Between The kindness of authority

In the first of a series of blogs-on-the-road, insatiable traveller Jason Smith describes his encounters with police in Europe, from the scary to the downright cheeky.

New in Ceasefire, Photo Essays, The People in Between - Posted on Thursday, September 8, 2011 0:00 - 0 Comments

Driving through Austria

By Jason Smith

More than anything, it’s the people you meet along the way who make a trip memorable. If it weren’t for the people, everyone’s experiences would be just the same as each other’s, save for the occasional stubbed toe, burst tyre or ruptured spleen.

The drive across Europe in my old, beaten-up Peugeot was supposed to be the build-up to my trip “proper”, but it nevertheless allowed me to meet people I wouldn’t have otherwise. However, these additional encounters were with policemen.

It’s funny how our preconceptions of people change as soon as they put on a uniform, and how those perceptions are different in different countries.

In Germany, for instance, I’d never had any reason to trust the police any more or less than I did the rest of the population. They’d always seemed very professional and helpful, though admittedly my interactions with them extended only as far as asking where the nearest bakery was.

All that changed, however, when I and two female backpackers were stopped whilst driving south along the autobahn on a crisp January morning.

We pulled into a generic service station off the autobahn to stock up on pretzels, Milka and Gummibears (I do like to sample the local delicacies whilst travelling). One of the girls, overflowing from too much Apfelschorler, jumped out to use the toilet in the German equivalent of Little Chef.

As I tried to drive into the carpark a black, unmarked car cut me off. Fearing some sort of motorway ambush I put the car into reverse but found that direction blocked by a similarly menacing vehicle. Three stern, leather boot-clad men emerged from the cars, strode over and bade me to get out.

The ringleader flashed an ID card of the federal police and barked some German at me. Having lived for six months in Germany I understood full well what he was saying but I thought it better to play the innocent-tourist card, replying instead with the ubiquitous, “Sorry, I’m English,” (a globally useful phrase if ever there was one.)

“We are looking for drugs,” he said in much friendlier-sounding English. “Do you have any?” It was all I could do not to retort with something along the lines of, “It depends how much money you’ve got,” or , “Sorry, I’ve smoked it all,” but I resisted.

“No,” I replied, honestly. It was clear they didn’t want to start picking through a car filled to the brim with backpacks and food, so he tried to reason with me.

“When was the last time you had some?” He enquired.

“Never,“ I answered, looking as shocked as I could. He fingered my driving licence and passport contemplatively and made one last attempt.

“If you have some, just tell us now and it will be ok” I stood my ground.

The boss stared at me as if expecting me to crumble under such ruthless interrogation, then relented. He handed back my papers and they climbed back into their scary-mobiles.

Our friend who had been relieving herself took the opportunity to get back into the car, having hidden herself from view during the proceedings in case it had been a robbery or something. The police manoeuvred to allow me to pass. As I did so they gesticulated for me to wind down my window.

“Werdet ihr einen Dreier haben?” he shouted. For those who don’t speak German, this translates as “Are you going to have a threesome?”

“What?!” I said, in what I meant to be a how-dare-you tone but was taken as an I-don’t-understand tone. They sniggered amongst themselves and repeated the question.

“Werdet ihr einen Dreier haben?

I restrained my desire to shout back at him in German. They laughed amongst themselves and sped off. The cheeky gits!

Travelling brings out the honesty in people. People tell me things they never normally would, probably because they think they’ll never see me again (and that I won’t write about it online).

An American couple I met in a castle in the Rhine asked me if I needed any adult diapers. Why did they have them? I naturally enquired. “Because we had diarrhoea before the flight and we really didn’t want to miss it.”

My subsequent encounter with European police was in Romania after what was the worst, most frustrating drive of my life along filthy, unlit motorways.

From the Hungarian border to Transylvania, the dim lights of the painfully slow lorries in front shining through the dirty air were the only way of knowing where the road was. Somehow we arrived into Sibiu at 1am, tired and eagerly awaiting a bed in a hostel.

We came around a corner and were confronted with a surprise roadblock. A policeman came over, looked through the passenger side window, then, in some confusion at the lack of a steering wheel, came round to my side.

“Where have you come from?” he asked.

“From England,” I replied.

“All the way from England in this thing?” I was rather incensed at his surprise given my deep attachment to the rusting heap of metal that had got me this far. But he was smiling.

“We are testing people for alcohol,” he explained. “Have you had anything to drink?”

Of course I hadn’t.

“Why not?” he asked. A very fine point indeed.

Not long after that my beloved car broke down, never to breathe again. My sadness was mitigated, however, by the kindness shown by everyone who passed us on the lonely road from the Romanian/Bulgarian border to Sofia.

A little boy, a taxi driver and finally the police stopped to give us all the water they had, in the vain hope that my radiator didn’t really have a hole in it, which, of course, it did. No words were exchanged; only the solemn offering of the water of life for my mechanical friend.

I realise now that in both police-related cases it was only my preconceptions that induced such astonishment at their behaviour. Really, they acted just as I would expect any ordinary person to behave.

The same cannot be said, however, for the authorities I had to deal with in central Asia and beyond, but that’s a whole other tale.

Jason Smith is an itinerant presently driving, bussing, training, hitching and walking (a bit) his way around the world, just to see what’s there. Follow his progress at www.traveleyesopen.com

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