For both Bob and me, the trip to Berlin two weeks ago was a first time. It started well. Upon our arrival on Tuesday evening, we took a walk in the cool breeze, along the cobblestone streets outside the hotel, passing by leisurely locals here and there in groups of two or three. I sent a WeChat message to Chinese friends in Boston (in translation): "Unlike the deserted evenings in American suburbs, Europe's dusk is enchanting." In that message I had likened Berlin to some other Western European cities I visited a few years earlier.
My event the next day, a panel discussion titled "Engaging with China," also went well. My fellow panelists and our German host are very knowledgeable about China, and I was glad to get to know them. The audience was enthusiastic and thoughtful about the topic of the Cultural Revolution, and this, including the participation of some younger people from mainland China, gave me hope.
Things made an unexpected turn on Thursday. Originally Bob and I had planned to join a 6-hour walking tour recommended by a fellow panelist, but, being jetlagged, I slept in and missed the meeting time. So we changed plan and decided to take the train to visit Potsdam.
Shortly before noon, we walked to the Alexanderplatz train station. It was an overcast day and the temperature had dropped to below 20ºC. I felt cold in short sleeves, and so went into a souvenir shop to buy a sweatshirt. At the cashier's counter I saw that they were also selling the Berlin WelcomeCard, "the official Berlin tourist ticket." I had heard of this card before and the convenience of using one ticket for all public transportation in town made it seemingly a great idea. We asked the cashier if the WelcomeCard included the train to Potsdam, and she said yes, so we gladly bought me a three-day card for 29.50 Euro and Bob, who was going to leave Berlin one day earlier, a two-day card for 21.50 Euro.
A few minutes later Bob and I boarded an S-train to Potsdam, looking forward to a day of interesting tourist experience. Before the train reached its second or third stop, a man with a scanner in hand came to check tickets. Bob gave him our WelcomeCards. The man looked at the cards, paused, and told us he needed to ask someone something. He then took our cards and walked toward the other end of the train.
I said to Bob, "Something wrong?" and Bob, being a forever optimist, replied, "I don't think so."
The man with our cards returned just when the train came to a stop. He told us that our WelcomeCards were invalid. We'd have to go with him.
Surprised and suspicious, we followed him off the train. On the platform were three men in dark-colored jackets dealing with a young couple who looked like tourists. Seeing us, one of the men walked over. His sturdy figure posed intimidatingly before the 5'2" me; for a moment I wondered if we were running into some kind of mafia. He took the cards from our escort and, with a cat-caught-mouse like triumphant smile, demanded ferociously, "Sixty euro each. One hundred twenty total." His English had an accent that did not sound like from a German.
"Why should we pay you? Who are you?" Bob said.
"Give me your ID," another rude voice said. The other two men had joined the show.
"Let us see yours first," Bob replied.
One by one, the men took their IDs out of their pockets and flashed to us. I tried to take one for a closer look, and the man said "No!" A quick glance told us that the language on the IDs was German, unrecognizable to us anyway. Yet one thing was clear: the men were not police. In their dark jackets and humiliating expressions, all three looked like thugs to me. But this was in a public space of a democratic country, under broad daylight, even though the train had left us alone with those men, even though the sky was overcast.
"What happens if we don't pay you?" I said, evaluating possible options as a writer would. It might not have been the smartest thing to say in the circumstance, because the triumphant smile was disappearing from the first man's face.
"Then we have to call the police," he threatened.
"Yes, call the police!" Without coordination, Bob and I said in unison. We had the same thoughts: only police could check those men's identity. That is, unless the police were their co-conspirators, a highly unlikely circumstance.
"You are not going to have our passports until we hear from the police," Bob added.
The three men looked at each other. Their humiliating manner gave way to a look of surprises. After a moment, one man walked aside to make a cellphone call.
We waited. For about ten minutes nothing happened, during which one man tried to play the nice guy. "You are not the only ones," he said. "Did you see the other couple? Many tourists are caught like you, you'll just have to pay."
He said that, after one purchases a WelcomeCard, an extra step has to be taken to validate it on a specialized meter. It is to prevent people from trying to use the card forever.
"Then why did no one tell us this?" I said.
"It is your own responsibility as a tourist to inform yourself," he said, sounding like a recorder. He must have recited the same line numerous times by now. I began to suspect that they were not thugs but hired guns.
"Where is the meter?" I asked.
He pointed to some device on the platform.
"Then give us back the cards. We'll go validate them now," I said.
"No," he said. "You must pay the fine first!"
The man who had been making calls came back to say the police wouldn't come.
"We can go to the police with you," Bob offered.
It must have been the first time those men ran into such tough prey. They hesitated. Their hesitation made us more suspicious.
"We can't force you to go to the police," one advised.
"We are going voluntarily," Bob said.
We took a train in the opposite direction back to the main station, and followed the guys to a police office. One guy spoke German to a police officer for a long time. The officer went to find a different officer who could speak English. The English-speaking officer verified the train line's policy that anyone who didn't validate the WelcomeCard would be fined for 60 Euro.
That was how a Berlin WelcomeCard became a Berlin UnwelcomeCard. At this point, the card felt like a trap for unsuspicious tourists.
I tried to point out to the police officer that we had just bought the cards minutes before running into those men, that we had no idea about the validation requirement, and the fine was an insult.
"I am sorry. This is the way things are here. A person can cheat and use the card for a long time."
The officer was fairly polite and did not quite point a finger at us, but both Bob and I felt deeply insulted for being treated as thieves. Yet there was no point in arguing any further. Bob simply handed 120 euros to the sturdy guy, who seemed a bit surprised by it. He gave us receipts and, for the first time, tried to make a friendly gesture. "You can return the unused WelcomeCards," he suggested. We ignored him and walked out.
We boarded the S-train again and headed to Potsdam, but the good mood was broken. The ride was less than an hour. In Boston, the commuter rail for that length cost US$6.50. We never asked what an actual train ticket would cost to Potsdam had we not bought the Berlin UnwelcomeCards in the first place. What was the point to find out, after we had spent 171 Euro for that trip?
As we toured the Sanssouci and other palaces in the afternoon, I was often mind absent. From time to time the humiliating scenes on the train platform and the police station replayed in my mind. Those men in dark jackets never explicitly told us which organization they were working for; it was our guess that they were hired by the railway company. According to them, they had gotten many foreign tourists the same way they got us. But why would Berlin's railway company use this way to humiliate tourists, to make people's visits a bitter experience?
I recalled that, nearly three decades ago, when I just immigrated to the United States, the honor system of the US public transportation surprised me in a big way. It was a sharp contrast to the China I came from, which treated every citizen as some sort of suspect. In the US, everyone was trusted to pay their own fare honestly. I was a poor student then; if I wanted to I could have easily cheated on bus fare in Boston. But I didn't. The honor system made such behavior a great shame. During the years, more than once Chinese friends have told me that living in the United States made them more honest and honorable persons.
In Potsdam, we bought tickets to see both the old and new palaces. When we walked across the grounds to the New Palace's entrance and presented our tickets, the female guard told us—quite impatiently—that we needed a stamp. We walked a few hundred meters to another ticket office, got a stamp, returned and were admitted.
It was a stamp-thirsty ticketing scheme. The requirement for getting extra stamps on our tickets at different locations again reminded me the China I came from, when any little thing would require a lengthy stamp-tour to get approved. It made me suspect that Potsdam belonged to East Germany in the not-so-remote past. For the same token, I also suspected that Berlin's railway company had belonged to East Germany.
Upon returning to our hotel that evening, an online research verified both.
On Friday we took a 6-hour walking tour provided by http://www.brewersberlintours.com/. Compared to Thursday's unpleasant experience ( thanks to the railway company), the walking tour was more than a great success. The ticket cost only 15 Euro each – Berlin's low-cost of living was unexpected to me. Some people bought tickets online in advance, but most didn't. Our tour guide, a knowledgeable and passionate Israeli, told us to pay at the end of the tour. Apparently he didn't worry about anyone escaping half-way. (As a matter of fact, no one did, and all fifteen of us in the group gave him generous tips.)
Toward the end of the walking tour, we stopped across the street from an enormous grey building, said to have a thousand windows (see photo below). It had been both East Berlin's and the Nazi's government building, and now hosts the country's Finance Ministry. Its numerous windows, our tour guide said, were meant to intimidate citizens and remind them that they were small and being watched all the time.
There are many wonderful things in Berlin, with great historical significance. The holocaust memorial is very moving, and the architecture and museums are noteworthy. Still, for Bob and me, it felt like something was missing or out of place.
Perhaps it's worth noting that, after the train trip to Potsdam, we never used our Berlin WelcomeCards again.