After surrendering our passports through the car window at the first border station, we rolled ever so slowly to the next shack, where we would wait for them to be returned and where a young soldier sat behind an open window, his head only a couple of feet from mine at eye level as we sat in the car. This, we hoped, was the person who would return our passports with a friendly wave and send us on our way. Not quite. We nodded a "Guten tag" and smiled. He did neither. In fact, he fixed me with a stare so unblinking and malevolently aggressive that it was as if he'd called me a capitalist pig. His 19-year-old, third-world eyes bore into my 42-year-old head attached to a body softened and pampered by life in the West.
At first I thought something was wrong. Perhaps I had begun to sprout a second nose, or maybe I was being mistaken for an escaped ax murderer. The stare went on for several minutes, the soldier never moved or blinked. Unnerving is what it was.
A calculated tactic like this creates a dilemma for its target: after the first nervous smiles and nods fail, what does one do? I did what I suspect most poor, flustered non-German-speaking tourists do, I turned my back on the stare-down and said something brilliant like, "So Liz, do you think we'll be able to find soccer shirts for the kids at KaDeWe?" Her calm response was something on the order of, "I haven't the faintest idea but if you'll turn around the nice young man will give us back our passports and we can get the he'll out of here."
(This story first appeared in Gemütlichkeit, The Travel Letter for Germany, Austria, & Switzerland. Click here to find out how to subscribe to the only English language publication devoted entirely to travel in these three countries.)
In retrospect, I have thought of 40 or 50 better ways to have handled what we now know was a form of amusement performed at the expense of fat-cat American tourists. The responses I most favor now all involve being fluent enough in German to break the ice with something like, "Lighten up man, I'm bringing steroids for the swim team." Gemütlichkeit would have then become the first travel newsletter published from a Gulag. (Subscribe today to read some of our more recent accounts of travel throughout Germany.)