Travel Vignettes:
Episode II: Crossing the Austrian Border


In November of 1996, I made my first international voyage within Europe, to visit some friends of mine who live in the idyllic Alpine village of Fieberbrunn in the Austrian state of Tirol. These are my notes from that trip.

6 November 1996

Thursday morning, I left for Nürnberg at about 11:00 am, and spent the day there, since my train left for München at 5:30 pm. That part of the trip was pretty uneventful — I went on the Regionalbahn, the short-distance commuter trains, which are pretty comfortable except for the fact that their constant shaking evokes an image of Godzilla periodically rattling the train about, deciding whether or not to flip it over.

I arrived a bit early in München, checked the track number of the Eurocity train I was to take to Wörgl, Austria, where my friend Hannes was to pick me up. I then took a very quick look at my reservation, since, as it turned out, my train was on the exact opposite side of the station.

Three minutes of intense jogging went by before I finally reached my train, which happened to be one of those interminably long trains that blocks the road for half an hour when one is late for a meeting. As I knew from checking my reservation card, I had to get to Car No. 260. I checked the number of the first card, and saw, to my joy and relief that I would have no trouble whatsoever in boarding on time, as the first car was numbered 295. After walking long enough to be certain that they didn't skip any numbers, I broke out in a dead run with a calm, collected expression on my face that, to any onlooker said:"

"No problem, just 25 more cars to go, how much time is left?.......oh, SHIT!"

I arrived at the last passenger car, and saw that — to my relief — I needed run no further, since there was no Car No. 260. The last car was numbered 264. I got in anyway, since it was non-smoking and had compartments, as I requested. I found my seat number (as if it mattered — I was, as it turned out, the only person in the car), put my luggage on the rack, and collapsed into my seat. I checked my reservation card once again, and noticed that I had reserved car number 269.

Five minutes out of München, a conductor came by to check my ticket. Feeling relieved that that was the last thing I'd have to worry about that day, I sat back down to The Client. We went by Rosenheim, and, a few minutes later, we crossed the border.

I can be pretty sure exactly when we crossed the border, since at that point, several burly guys in matching brown uniforms lined up outside my compartment. Hoping that perhaps this was just the police department's annual ski 'n' booze outing, or that perhaps there was a suspected violent serial killer (as opposed to the pacifistic, warm-fuzzy sort of serial killer) in the next compartment, I continued reading.

Then, Burly Guy Number 1 entered my compartment, and said in a thick Alabama drawl:

"Face the wall and assume the position."

No, seriously, although it wasn't all that much more pleasant, he said, with a scowl of cordial suspicion:

"Zeign'S ma bitte Eera Popiare."
"Show me your papers, please."

I handed him my passport.

"Hmph," he observed.

He proceeded, repeating this observation after every page of my passport. He then took an odd-looking electronic device with an LCD screen on it, and moved his eyes repeatedly between my passport and his terminal. Looking even more suspicious than before — perhaps because my pasport didn't in the least resemble a portable computer terminal — he left.

Two minutes later — they were all right outside my compartment, but they liked to catch people off-guard — another big burly guy in a brown uniform entered my compartment, followed by a short, scrawny, anaemic-looking guy in a blue uniform, who seemed a little miffed (perhaps because he clashed with everyone else). Burly Guy, the Sequel asked me for my passport, and proceeded to see if it had perhaps changed appearance and now clearly resembled a portable computer terminal. It didn't. Then came the interrogation, or, as it is more popularly called: "Stump 'em and Deport 'em - Freestyle!".

Wohn'S in Deitschlond?
Do you reside in Germany?

Jo, in d'Neehe vo Earlonge.
Yes, near Erlangen
Se wohn' oiso in Deitschlond.
So, you live in Germany, then?


Burly turns to Scrawny with my passport and leafs through the back pages, both grunting wordlessly, probably wondering why I have no residence permit.

I hob erst neilich mei Aafnthoidsgnehmigung in Earlonge beondrogt.
I just recently applied for my residence permit in Erlangen.

Silence. They both eyed me for a second.

Ond Se san as uu-ess-oa?
And you're from the US?

(Let's see now — I have a US passport with "Nationality: US" written on it. Nah, I'm from Pakistan!)

Wozua foahrn Se noch Eesterreich?
What business do you have in Austria?

asks Scrawny with his thick Austrian dialect. It is hard to capture the true essence of his speech patterns in writing, but the feeling is similar to finding out that one's fierce-looking IRS auditor talks a lot like Ross Perot.

I bsuch an Freind, Joann's Schwiatza, iawas Wochenend. Ea hoit mi in Weagl ob.
I'm visiting a friend, Johannes Schwitzer, over the week-end. He's picking me up in Wörgl.

Und dea is Eestarreicha?
And he's an Austrian?
(No, he's Mongolian)

A woant in Weagl?
He lives in Wörgl?

Na. A woant in Fibabrun, des liagt a in Dirol.
No, he lives in Fieberbrunn, also in Tirol.

I see.
Burly starts up again.
Ond saat wia long wohn'S scho in Deitschlond?
And how long have you lived in Germany?

So ungfea zwoa Monatte.
About two months.

I frog wei Se so guat Deitsch sprechn.
I'm asking because you speak German so well,

remarked Burly. It wasn't a compliment. I considered breaking the ice with an ironic musing such as: "Whaddaya think I am, a spy?" but decided that there might perhaps be better ideas than that.

This stimulating conversation continued for about five minutes. Then, Burly II moved closer to me, and said:

Mochn'S de Daschn lea.
Empty your pockets,

as I noticed what a nice, rotten bouquet his breath has.

I emptied both pockets that had anything in them, and turned them inside out.

Wia suchn na Drogn.
We're looking for drugs.

says Burly, as if he thought I'd reply: "Oh! Drugs?! Why didn't you say so in the first place? Sure I got drugs! What's your price range?"

Then, he started tearing up my wallet, and, pretty soon, the seat across from me was covered with business cards, ID's, pay check stubs, and eight-month-old KFC receipts. Burly then inspected each of these, as if he thought I might have bought crack at Colonel Sanders'. Satisfied that it would take at least half an hour to rearrange my belongings, Burly started checking the pockets I hadn't emptied. After wiggling his fingers in both of my back pockets, he motioned toward my jacket, apparently aware that he could make a bigger mess with that.

He pulled out old brochures, ticket stubs, used Kleenex (which seemed to interest him in particular). Both Burly and Scrawny (a team reminiscent of Itchy and Scratchy, without the mutual head banging), took a long, close look at a piece of half-heaten Lebkuchen that I'd put in my jacket pocket the day I discovered that I hate Lebkuchen (gingerbread that has been aged five years to perfection, or rock-hard flavourlessness).

Des is Nirnberga Lebkuchn. Wern'S bstimb net oizua intressont finda.
That's Nürnberg Lebkuchen. I don't think you'll find it terribly interesting.

Do bin i ma no net sicha.
I don't know about that,

replied Burly, and I began wondering if he was hungry.

"Feadig," said Burly — we're through —, and they left me to pick up the new two-foot high pile of crap across from me. For some reason or other, it didn't occur to them that I might possibly, instead of the spacious, secure hiding places of my pockets, have stashed something of interest in, say, my large, locked suitcase or my heavy, bulging backpack.


After going through the same conversation about five more times with five more similarly burly types, I sat down to enjoy the last seven minutes of the ride.

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