Wednesday, February 21, 2007

My Crazy Day at the Consulate

Last Friday I had to take care of some paperwork at the consulate, and fortunately I could do this in Leipzig, which is just an hour away, as opposed to Berlin, which is 3 hours away. But even though I got to go to the little consulate and not the embassy, I got full star treatment!

First of all, the consulate is on some little tiny street in the middle of the city that the Leipzigers don't even know. I attempted getting help from various people on the street and at tram stops, to no avail. Most looked at me strangely, as if this street is not in Leipzig at all, but somewhere far, far away, like Bonn or Flensburg. But fortunately, one lady looked at my map, and said, "Well, it looks like it should be in that direction, near the city hall."

So I climbed into a tram and was on my merry way. Upon getting out of the tram, I felt dangerous, like I was jumping into waters unknown, which I really was, since I'd only visited Leipzig once before, and that time was with a group of students and our teacher. But, by following my trusty map which I printed from the internet I found the consulate. It was hard to miss, with all the fencing and police tape around it. I knew I had found the right place not by the street name or the address, but by the little American flag flying among a sea of fence, chain, and police. Stuff like this makes me feel much more like I am in danger, not like I'm safe, and so I approached the Portakabin housing a couple of police officers slowly. There was also one standing outside, and I asked if this was the consulate.

"Yes. Do you have an appointment?" the officer wanted to know.

"Well, I called, and was told to come between 2 and 4 pm today. "

"And what's your name?"

I told him, and he told an officer in the Portakabin, who in turn telephoned with the guards in the guard-house (who were strangely enough only about 5 meters away, he could've shouted). As soon as everything was cleared up, I was given further instructions.

"Okay, you have to go back out and around and into the middle, and I'll open the chain for you."

This was not some heavy protective chain, it was a red and white plastic chain, much more symbolic in its purpose than anything else. So, I got through the chain, and walked the few meters over to the guard-house, where I had to turn over my passport for inspection. One guard inspected, while the other androgynous guard held open the door for entrance, before the passport inspector guard had decided that I was not a threat. Basically, I could've run in and wreaked havoc had I wanted to. But no, I followed the rules, walking through the metal detector, first with stroller, then without, and letting my bag be scanned and searched, and finally turning over my cell phone, camera and MP3 player for safekeeping while I went inside. You'd think they were going to fly me to the US after all that. During my wait, I noticed that I got special treatment, as other visitors to the consulate also had to turn over bottles of water and all liquids, because I was with a baby (or what appeared to be a baby, haha) I got to keep all of my liquids! Not that they really came in handy, though I guess I could've doused the giant photos of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Condoleeza Rice which were hanging in the main building with scalding water from my thermos instead of using it to mix up a bottle of baby formula later. But that would've been too much trouble to waste on them, because then I would've had to get more boiled water somewhere else later, because acts of protest alone don't nourish a baby!

Saturday, February 17, 2007

"Kriminalpolizei Peine, Schneider* ist mein Name..."

Yes, it's true, yesterday we were stopped by the German version of the FBI on our way from Leipzig to L√ľneburg. As if the background of the journey itself isn't interesting enough, our drive increased in comedy tenfold as a black Mercedes passed us and flashed a hand-held, lit "Stop" sign out the window, and motioned for us to follow them off the Autobahn. Schneider's partner swiftly reached out the window and slapped a blue light on the roof of the car, and they continued to a gas station parking lot, with us obediently following. After all, we knew what this was all about.

"Good evening, FBI Peine, my name is Schneider," the incredibly television- detective-show-looking officer said. I'm talking Columbo quality here, this guy was incredible. Black leather bomber jacket, some sort of mid-eighties half-mullet and a shaggy walrus-style mustache. I nearly cracked up. Then he flashed his keychain (as pictured above) as ID. This time I really had to bite my lip to keep from laughing.

"I'll tell you what this is all about," Schneider said. "You have no tail lights. The back of your car is completely dark. Please turn on the car and I'll show you."

Of course we acted surprised, but unfortunately this is a routine problem with the old Ford Scorpio. The light switch is on the fritz and the dashboard lighting and tail lights go out sometimes. This was one of those times. The switch has been changed a few times, and a new one has been ordered yet again. So, Schneider showed us the problem and recommended we call roadside assistance for some help if we couldn't get help in the gas station. After all, as an FBI officer, he can't write any warnings or tickets, he's really out to get the bad guys. Since we knew what the problem was and that we couldn't get it fixed before a new switch came, we gave them a good head start and continued on our way. Amazingly, on the return trip from L√ľneburg, my driver had the idea to hit the switch with his fist to see if it helps, and the lights suddenly went back on. After turning the car off, the lights didn't come back on, but by punching the switch again, they did! That's a much more cost-effective solution than ordering a new switch every 2-4 weeks.

But back to this keychain as ID thing. I guess in Germany this is enough, flashing your keychain as some sort of secret code saying "I am legitimate", but somehow in the USA that just wouldn't cut it. Either people would speed off laughing at you, or you'd be shot by someone who can't stand the police or anyone who dares to act like the police. Really, no one would believe it. This officer was a true work of art, and in that, he was convincing, but that, in addition to a keychain, would still not be enough in the United States.

Another part of me, despite the fact that I am so sceptical of the keychain, really wants one of these. On one hand, it seems so mysterious like I'm a double agent leading a secret life, and on the other hand, it would be a great conversation piece. Every time I got out my keys I could tell this story, and that would be incredibly pleasing.

*names have been changed to protect the Kriminalpolizei Peine and their fine work protecting us