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My European Crime Spree

Posted by on Tuesday, November 2, 2010 in Editor's Column, November 2010.

Since I believe that promoting international peace and goodwill is one of the most valuable things an American citizen can do, I should probably stay home for a while.

On a recent trip to Europe, in only 10 days I had two brushes with the law, which is about two brushes more than I’ve had in about the last 20 years or so in the U.S.

My wife Sharon and I, along with our friends Susan and Susan, had been planning this trip for a while, and we had a lot of things figured out. We were going to land in Munich, Germany. We were going to stay at a family inn in the Carinthia region of southern Austria for a couple of days, and then go on to Vienna and Prague, before returning to Munich.

Since some of the places we planned to go were away from big cities, we decided we would go in together and rent a car, rather than travel by train.

“More freedom!” we thought.

“More opportunity for police interaction!” we discovered.

The most serious incident, as measured in dollars (or, more accurately, Czech crowns), occurred as we were merrily driving down the autobahn connecting Prague (where we had been) with Munich (where we were going).

I was driving, and, as those of you who have driven on vacation trips know, it is always the driver’s responsibility to conduct periodic Bathroom Need Surveys of those in the car. Based on an extensive BNS, there was a consensus that it would be a good idea to stop soon, and I pulled off an exit and into a gas station.

This foolish and reckless action drew the attention of a couple of police officers in a nearby van who were lying in wait for tourists to fleece diligently keeping this gas station stop free of criminal elements.

Before I could even get out, the officers, a tall skinny guy and a shorter, chunkier one, were walking around the front of the car, each with a major case of Serious Policeman Face.

They motioned for me to roll down the window. They asked to see my passport, which the chunky guy took back to their van—I’m sure for safekeeping.

Although their English was certainly better than my Czech, it was a little difficult to understand what they were asking about, so they produced a brochure with helpful multilingual translations.

Bottom line: there was a sticker I was supposed to have on the windshield to allow me to drive in the Czech Republic. This sticker had not been mentioned by the car rental agency, nor by the hotel, nor by anybody where we had previously bought gas in the Czech Republic, nor by anybody we had talked to about our plans to drive in the Czech Republic.

We had one for Austria. But we did not have one for the Czech Republic.

“Es problem,” explained the skinny cop.

Amazingly, the gas station at which we were parked sold the sticker in question. Why, I could just walk right in and buy one! Which I did.

More amazing still, I could pay my fine directly to the policemen! Which I did.

They seemed very eager for me to use a credit card to pay the fine, but I said I preferred to pay in cash and keep my credit card numbers to myself.

The fine came to 500 Czech crowns, he said, and the sticker cost 500 crowns, too, which came to about $60 U.S.

While this was going on, Sharon and the Susans were keeping an eye on the car, taking the license number of the police van, and, as best they could, keeping tabs on my passport, which, after the fine was paid, and the fresh new sticker was affixed, the officers returned with a smile.

“Es minimal fine,” the skinny cop assured me. “Could be much high.”

I’m sure it could have been. I was guilty. I needed a road tax sticker, and I didn’t have one. It still felt like a shakedown. We were all wishing we had just waited another 40 miles to take a break; we would have been in Germany.

This incident is in distinct contrast to my other brush with European law enforcement, which occurred in a small village in Austria.

We had flown all night, landed in Munich, picked up our car, driven for hours (including a long delay due to tunnel repairs in the Alps), and now it was dark and we were searching for the two-lane country road that led to our inn, a family-run inn, restaurant, tavern, farm, orchard, and schnapps distillery (!) where we had reservations.

And I was driving slowly, while all four of us in the car were swiveling our heads around looking around for one of the landmarks leading to the inn, a bus stop. Somebody spotted a likely road, and I made a quick turn into it. We were driving up this narrow road plotting our next move when I saw the blue lights in the mirror.

The Austrian policeman asked for my license, which he frowned at, and the car rental papers, which he frowned at some more.

But having apparently assured himself that the car was not stolen, and I was not drunk, only lost, he decided to let me off with a lecture.

“My English not very good,” he said. “But you were driving like a silly boy!” That’s right: I was detained in a foreign country on suspicion of DLSB. I was probably guilty of that, too.

He then gave us directions to our inn and wished us a good night.

I’m looking forward to getting back to Austria some day. The country was beautiful, the people friendly, the food and drink were delicious. And that positive impression, improbably, started with blue lights in my rear view mirror.

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