I saw something weird on Wednesday as I was traveling home to Regensburg from a business trip to Nuremberg and Frankfurt — at least, it was weird to me. It was the first time I ever saw plain-clothes law enforcement officials in Germany.
I was listening to my podcasts or reading emails on my phone or something, sitting across from a colleague when I saw three guys in their mid-to-late forties in what looked like winter camping gear (jeans or cargo pants, poofy coats, long-sleeve tees or turtlenecks, 3 or 4 days of stubble, hiking boots) making conversation with the passenger in the next group of four seats behind us. I didn’t catch the beginning of the conversation, but my ears perked up when I heard the talker ask the passenger (whom I never saw)
Sprechen Sie dann andere Sprachen? Englisch? Französisch? Oh, Deutsch geht doch? OK, das ist mir viel lieber, vielen Dank. ((So do you speak any other languages? English? French? Oh, German’s OK after all? Great, I much prefer it. Thanks a lot.))
They positioned themselves so that the speaker was facing him directly, and the other two campers were blocking the aisle in both directions. They started off with several mundane questions, like
Wo kommen Sie her? Finnland! Mensch, das ist ganz weit oben. ((Where are you from? Finland! Dude, that’s way up there!))
Wohnen Sie in Deutschland? Seit wann? Und wo? ((Do you live in Germany? Since when? And where?))
Was ist Ihr Reiseziel? Darf ich mal in Ihren Rucksack blicken bitte? Ja, das ist mir aufgefallen. Ich dachte da war was drin. Was machen dann mit diesen Kennzeichen? Ach, sie kaufen ein Auto in Österreich. Welche Marke denn? Volvo! Kaum zu glauben! Der nordische Herr reist quer durch Deutschland um ein schwedisches Auto in Österreich zu kaufen! Jungs, ist das nicht der Hammer!? ((What is your destination? May I take a look inside your backpack please? Yeah, I noticed it. I thought there must be something inside. What are you doing with these license plates? Oh, you’re buying a car in Austria. So which brand? Volvo! Who’da thunk it? The nordic gentlemen traveling all the way across Germany to buy a Swedish car in Austria! Guys, ain’t that something!?))
They pulled on some rubber gloves, took some photographs the stuff in his backpack, continuing the banter, and then moved along to the next clump of seats. This time a Polish woman caught their attention. I heard the beginning part of this interview. The speaker showed all four people sitting around the table his Ausweis ((ID)) and asked to see hers. Many of the same pleasantries ensued.
Mensch, gut dass Sie Deutsch können — mein Polnisch ist nämlich so klein! ((Hoo, good thing you speak German. My Polish is just about this much.))
Und welcher Koffer gehört Ihnen? Der rote? Ist er schwer? Keine Sorge, dass schaffen wir doch locker. Vielen Dank. Nun, kommen Sie bitte mit uns, damit wir ein Paar Fragen stellen können, ohne die anderen Passagiere zu stören… ((And which of these suitcases is yours? The red one? Is it heavy? No problem, we got it, no sweat. Thanks a lot. Now, please come with us, so we can ask a few questions without disturbing your fellow passengers…))
Then the three officers and the Polish woman stepped away from her seat and out to towards the door where the carriage connects to the Bordbistro ((Dining car)) and they had a little more room to inspect her belongings. A few minutes later, she came back, with her stuff and ID and apparently alles paletti ((everything A-OK)). I had my hand on my passport, ready to show it and my Aufenthaltstitel ((residence permit)) upon request, because I was pretty sure they must have had some kind of foreigner detection mechanism at work, and I would surely be the next interviewee. Aber nein. ((Mais non.)) They exited our carriage completely and shortly thereafter I alighted in Regensburg.
I had never seen anything like that, and when I asked my native German colleague (who has traveled via train on business trips back and forth across Germany many more times than I have), neither had she. I made extra sure to murmur geheime Polizei ((secret police)) in the long form, and under no circumstances let a Gestapo slip out. I was pretty nervous, though I had absolutely no rational reason to be. Monday night at the hotel in Nuremberg I’d watched Transsiberian — a kind of creepy movie about an American couple who gets mixed up with drug smugglers and a crooked plain-clothes narcotics detective on a train in the middle of nowhere.
Have you ever seen something like that before? Or come into contact with plain-clothes officials?