Our trip has taken on an unexpected (but nevertheless totally predictable) dimension in the past two weeks: we have committed a number of crimes, for which we are being held terrifyingly accountable. I am speaking, of course, of our violations of the labyrinthine parking and driving regulations of the various European countries, many of which appear aimed at the unwitting tourist who may have less than total command of the local language. People just like us, you might say.
Our first scrape with the law occurred in Prague, and, sad to say, was totally avoidable. We were packing our things into the car to prepare to leave the Czech Republic to head toward Hungary. Our “apartment” was about a half-mile down a steep road from the square where we parked the car. (The Czech word for “square” is about 14 syllables and contains no vowels. It is just like the rest of the tongue-twisting Czech language.) I was charged with reorganizing the few things that were already in the car, while the rest of Team Culhane went down the hill to get our luggage. The sun was shining, it was 8:15 in the morning, and we had the square to ourselves; our car was the only one parked in the square, right next to the automatic parking machine (insert Czech Crowns, receive ticket, place on dashboard). Businesses around the square were beginning to open, but it was quiet. Too quiet. (Cue the ominous music.)
I became a criminal not through ignorance of the law, but because of impatience, coupled with a streak of recklessness. I finished reorganizing the stuff in the car, and thought that maybe the rest of the family needed help pulling the luggage up the hill. I left the car unattended in the square—without paying for parking—just long enough to walk briskly down the hill, then turn around and walk even more briskly right back up. There was no sign of the rest of the family (as it happens, they were using the bathroom and filling our water bottles for our long drive before heading back up the hill). But as I emerged back into the square, I beheld the retreating form of the only other person we had seen in the square that morning—a police officer. And sure enough, on the windshield was the bane of non-Czech-speaking tourists the world-over: a parking ticket.
With the help of a friendly English-speaking shop-keeper, I assessed the damage to the family’s plans. The ticket required an appearance in the “Center,” a place in Prague where the heavenly hosts themselves fear to drive (although it is lovely to walk there), and the payment of an unspecified fine in the discretion of the officer on duty at the time. My helpful shopkeeper thought the fine might be 500 Czech Crowns (a Czech Crown is worth about a nickel, so about 500 nickels), and helpfully pointed out that it was high tourist season, meaning that they kept an eagle-eye on parked cars in the hopes of generating a little extra revenue from tourists who might not know how to work the parking machines.
So we put our plans for Hungary on hold and began the journey into the great unknown: into heart of the dreaded Czech bureaucracy. I was picturing 45 minutes of waiting in a grubby room with paint peeling from the walls behind lines of Czechs, waiting my turn to face a harried and utterly unsympathetic bureaucrat whose mission was to maximize the revenue flowing into the coffers from Czechless tourists.
Our ordeal got off to an inauspicious start. It took at least 45 minutes to drive to the Center, because (a) there is no direct way to drive from the Mala Strana (where our apartment was) to the Center (although, as noted, it is an easy 25 minute walk down the hill straight to the police station), and (b) there was major construction on the main road that you must use in the circuitous path from our starting point to our destination. I found myself asking just how much punishment was really warranted for my seemingly minor sin.
But then, things took an unexpected turn for the better. We were able to park in a familiar shopping mall and split up, so that only two of us had to face the bureaucracy (Theo and I), while Lisa and Molly could walk around the mall.
And then, a series of miracles occurred. First, the police station proved to be easy to find and quite close to the mall. Second, there was no line at all—we just walked in and went straight to the desk of the only employee in the office. Third, he spoke English. And then, the real miracle: when I explained my cover story (that I was in a nearby shop trying to get change for the parking machine—hey, you have to tell them something), he was entirely sympathetic. He said, “OK, no problem.” I said, “What’s the fine?” He said, “No fine.” I said, “Thank you very much!” He said, “Not at all.” Wow.
So our first scrape with the law cost us dearly in time and terror, but nothing at all in treasure. As far as I was concerned, this was a story with a happy ending.
On the road to Hungary, as we drove across the border and straight past the lines of cars waiting in a line to do something that you must read Hungarian to even know what it is, we laughed about our success.
The Hungarian travel deities—and law enforcement agencies—smiled upon us, or at least left us alone for our five days in Hungary (which is just as good, trust me). But Austria was not so kind.
Our next brush with the gallows occurred in Durnstein, Austria, a picturesque medieval town on the Danube. Upon our arrival, we pulled into a parking place right next to the Schlosshotel. We did not see any parking machines or other way to pay for parking; the only clue about the heinous crime we were about to commit was a small sign that said something like “If you could read German, you would know that you are about to pay good money for parking in this thing that looks like a parking lot, but is not.” (The truth is, I’m not sure what the sign said, because it was in German. But I think it said something along those lines.)
We then walked around for about a half hour looking at the quaint town, spending our tourist dollars on stuff like ice cream cones, and lining up a place to spend a couple of days. We then went and picked up the car and drove it to our new accommodation—a lovely wine garden with an adjoining Penzion. Parking was provided on an open lot near the main highway out of town, which our cheerful proprietor explained to us was free and public. We then went about our business, which included watching the kids swim in the Danube. So far, so good.
But then things took an unexpected turn for the worse. When we walked the 100 yards from the Danube back to our little pension, lo and behold: a parking ticket had appeared on our windshield. To our astonishment, our proprietor advised us that this ticket was issued for our dalliance near the Schlosshotel. We were completely mystified about how the parking enforcement dude managed to bust us for parking by the Schlosshotel, only to let us escape by driving away before he could stick the ticket on our car, only to redeem himself by tracking down our car a mile away on the other side of town. It remains a mystery to this day, and is only partially explained by the fact that our car has unusual red license plates, which helpfully alert the world that we are tourists and fat targets for any revenue-generation scheme they might wish to concoct. We then began the journey through the bureaucracy.
Our first stop was in Krems, the nearby large town with an actual police station, which was identified front and center on our ticket. But our bureaucrat in Krems told us that we were in the wrong place, and that his job was only to track down tourists like us who do not pay our tickets, and issue serious fines to the unfortunate car owner that are eventually charged to our credit card. He suggested we talk to the Durnstein authorities instead, since we really didn’t want to deal with him.
The Durnstein “authorities” consisted of a single woman in a large, unmarked building in Durnstein. We had to ask three different locals where the office was. This woman told us, in German (with only a few English words thrown in), that we need to call the number on the ticket and talk to the individual who wrote the ticket. She helpfully dialed the phone for us, but the ticketer was not there. Our Durnstein authority then made the universal gesture with her shoulder that means “there’s nothing at all I can do about this,” and told us we have to try later. But we had nowhere else to go, so we tried again, and asked her if we could just pay the ticket (€20). She looked at us as if we had sprouted horns. She was happy to take our money, but she just couldn’t believe anyone would pay a parking ticket in Durnstein. From this, we deduced that there are exactly two ways to deal with a Durnstein ticket properly: (1) call the ticket agent and whine about it, in which case they void your ticket. This is obviously what the locals do. Or (2) leave town without paying your ticket, in which case it is sent to the guy in Krems to track you down and fine you within an inch of your life. This is what the tourists are supposed to do. Simply paying the ticket is not one of the options—at least not one that they had seen before that day in August, 2009, invented on-the-spot by Lisa Culhane. Whoa.
So far, our criminal career was still going pretty well, all things considered. We had committed two heinous crimes, but had escaped with only perhaps four wasted hours and a single €20 fine.
But then things took a serious turn for the worse.
When trouble came, it was from the least likely source we could imagine—on the last stretch of highway in Austria, maybe 30 meters before the Slovenian border. We were just drawing a deep breath to heave a sigh of relief that we had escaped the merciless Austrians. How wrong we were.
As it was explained to us by our uniformed assailant, Austria has a requirement that every car entering Austria must bear a small sticker called a “vignette” (but which I call a “vendetta”) indicating that the driver has paid a small fee for the privilege of driving in Austria. And he gave us a small laminated card helpfully explaining to us (in English) that now that we have violated Austrian law, we must pay a fine of at least €120 Euro, and if we fail to pay this fine, we will have to pay €4,000 (that’s some serious money, by the way, at $1.45 per Euro).
And our helpful Austrian law enforcement official was utterly unsympathetic to our plight. He told us that there are signs on every highway advising the (German-speaking) public of this law, and that it was our own fault if we failed to learn the basic requirements of a country we visited. He then issued us an “Asfinag” for €120—“Asfinag” being the German word for “Yo ass is fined.” But he gave us the option of paying the €120 fine by credit card, if we preferred. Thanks, pal.
So all in all, crime does not pay, especially in Austria. We have rationalized our involuntary contributions to the Austrian Highway Superfund as a cost of doing business. That’s just the way it goes.
But we did enjoy a little revenge, of sorts, when our Austrian Kamerad let it slip that Slovenia also requires a “vignette,” as does, gulp, Hungary. (Uh, oh. I remember those lines of cars–they must have been buying vendettas while we were flouting the law.) I’m sure the Slovenians will not thank the Austrians for spoiling the little €120 surprise they were preparing for us, as we were able to thwart them by buying our vignette for only €15 just 30 meters up the road.
But I have the feeling the Hungarians might be hot on our heels. Gotta go.