In the beginning, I told myself that it was financially irresponsible not to dodge the fare. It was just too easy. Berlin’s public transport system, a citywide labyrinth of trains, trams, buses and subways, is a thing of beautiful simplicity and structuring: A single ticket is valid for all modes, the network covers almost every conceivable destination, and the service is, of course, überpünktlich (very punctual). It is also barrierless, and spot checks by inspectors are relatively rare. As justification, I used the fact that I had, somewhat rashly, packed up a life of relative luxury in income-disparate South East Asia and landed in Berlin’s thoroughly competitive (read: desperate) job market with only a year’s teaching experience, little in the way of German and even less in the way of money. After mistakenly buying around four tickets too many on my first day, I vowed to make a better fist of getting around my new home city on the cheap. Several days later, having dutifully been stumping up the €6 each morning for a Tageskarte (day pass) and, having never even seen an inspector, let alone been checked, I took my first step into petty criminal territory: neglecting to validate my ticket.
At first, traveling illegally is electrifying; even the dullest journeys become thrilling, suspenseful, dangerous. My silliest boyhood spy fantasies come to life as I furtively glance up and down the train, scanning the myriad faces for any sign of an undercover agent (inspectors are usually plainclothes, adding texture to the fabric of my fantasy). The fact that I am doing my sneaking in the former Stasi stronghold of East Berlin only heightens my indulgence. After being told by a fellow broke hostelmate that BVG, Berlin’s transport authority, often uses retirees as inspectors, reportedly because they arouse so little suspicion, I spend a week irrationally frightened by the movements of Berlin’s aged population (whose numbers are plentiful). Following an incident where I become increasingly convinced that an elderly man, complete with backpack, which obviously is to carry and conceal his fining apparatus, is staring me down, waiting for me attempt to flee, only to find that in reality I am just partially obscuring his view of a map, I realize that I am probably taking it a bit too far. But I do not stop.
Eventually any remaining shred of excitement is stripped away, leaving behind only fear and paranoia. Large parts of my daily travel (and adrenaline) are now spent in a state of hypervigilance; other freeloaders tell me that I am exceptionally lucky not to have been caught yet. Despite this, I continue, beginning to reason that if/when I am caught, the €40 fine will pale in comparison to the savings I have already made. I am vaguely aware (but deliberately ignoring) that this kind of reasoning sounds a lot like that used by a gambling addict. And I have become addicted: to the thrill, then the feeling of defiance, and finally (and perhaps most importantly) the substantial savings it delivers to my back pocket. For traveling without a ticket is that perverse addictive habit that it actually pays to keep doing—the drug that keeps on giving. More and more, however, I feel like a thief; revelations that locals also engage in the practice do little to quell my unease. I begin to wonder: what else would I do if I knew that I could get away with it?
In expensive cities like Tokyo, London and New York, where you are more likely to really need the extra cash, there are no such opportunities for tests of moral fiber. A friend, whom in the privacy of my head I embarrassingly sneer at, says that she pays because her father’s friend is the CEO of a public transit system back home, and that to dodge the fare would seem like some kind of personal betrayal. Hooded in my arrogance of thinking that I am really taking part in a noble act of “defying the system”, of “wealth redistribution”, this immediately strikes me as absurd, as if a personal connection with public transport profits in general is enough to obey the concept in another hemisphere. Despite this, her reasoning, where actions play out as representations of personal connections to ideas, sounds dangerously like basic ethical reasoning, and only deepens my guilt. Still, my dwindling funds remain wedded to thoughts of cramped hostel beds, cheap but delicious beer, and JFK’s favorite jelly donuts.
Inevitably, it happens, and as my brain juggles guilt, fear and relief my body acts on its own, ambling down the carriage in a way I hope looks nonchalant. Thankfully, this is the Ring-bahn, the wondrous circular frame around which Berlin’s effortless transport system is based, meaning regular stops and fullish compartments. I calculate that the unlikely-looking inspector—skinheaded, wearing a stained silver tracksuit, looking more like evader than enforcer—only has time to check the first two sections of the carriage, and risk sitting down, mostly to mask my now uncontrollable hand-shaking. I carefully sit half-cocked, angled towards the nearest door, and look up. Across from me are two women, professional, one of whom meets my eyes and smirks, not unkindly. She knows what is up. Briefly I sense a fellow comrade, for the appearances of Berliners are nothing if not deceptive, but that feeling is dashed as her purse clasps part and a ticket emerges. I try to meet her gaze again but her eyes are past me now and I wonder: Is she willing him to catch me, or for me to be granted clemency?
Later that afternoon, having earlier made the stop, looking a little like a human version of the Spaghetti Monster as I simultaneously leapt out the carriage doors, fumbled for my ticket, lunged for the validation machine and dove back into the carriage, all while attempting to avoid suspicion, I take the U-bahn into town, to vote early at my embassy. Filling out my papers, knowing that postal votes are counted well after the result is usually determined, but still believing in the importance of my small action, I am struck by the hypocrisy of my actions. Feeling ashamed, rather than buoyed by notions of civic duty fulfilled, I descend underground ticketless and head back to the hostel, to search for invisible jobs.
Soon after, en route to an apartment viewing, my girlfriend stoops down suddenly at the tram stop, resurfacing with a white square of well-trampled cardboard. Frowning, she examines her find, and as her eyebrows rise back towards and then above their natural position, so do our fortunes. In her hand is a monthly pass, still valid for three more weeks. Suddenly the chilly November morning is a lot less harsh, and happy as I am, the thought of our crucial piece of luck is tempered by the misfortune it signifies for someone else. For the first time in weeks I step onto public transport guilt-free, towards what an evening phone call will make our home for the winter.
The next few days, I see a little more of the city, feeling a little like a corporate-sponsored VIP being given a free tour by a faceless benefactor. Evidently even in less desperate times my capacity for self-delusion is undiminished. But mostly I experience relief, as weeks of pent-up sighs wash over me and feelings of comfort fill up hollow pockets left behind by anxiety and guilt. It feels good to be legit, and yet I also feel a little squarer, less like a “real Berliner”, less in keeping with the city’s unspoken acceptance, even gentle encouragement of rule-breaking as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else. I realize that part of the underlying logic of my actions was rooted in the absurd idea that in stealing from the city I had quickly come to love, I could somehow avail myself of its often-intimidating edginess that both allures and terrifies expats in equal measure. Somehow it had never crossed my mind that attempting to authenticate coolness via petty theft is precisely the kind of mindset that would prevent it from ever being attained.
Unfortunately, my wallet continues to fail to carry out its intended money-carrying function, but not for long. Soon after the ticket find, I am offered a job, albeit only part-time. Knowing that even when our godsent ticket of salvation runs out I will be able to afford a replacement (not that I will always utilize this ability, wanting again on occasion to “thrill myself”), I feel ashamed of how I have felt since. In a weak moment of hubris, I think back on my “brief dalliance with near-poverty” and immediately feel sick, as if those words should ever be so glibly and self-servingly combined in phrase. Shaking myself out of my conceit, I think of how fortunate I am if the last month of pasta-based gastronomy and skipping on train fares in a foreign country is as close as I get to doing it tough. In a city full of visible reminders of what it really means to struggle for food and warmth, this should have been far more obvious.
Following my narrow escape from my first inspector interaction, I begin to run into them much more often, fortunately always when in possession of a ticket. After five months, and hundreds of euros worth of free trips, I am still yet to pay for my crimes. However, that all changes on a brief trip to Prague, where, after entering the underground and finding that the ticket machine only accepts small change, we venture further into the station in search of somewhere to change my freshly acquired krona into smaller denominations. After inadvertently wandering into the ‘fare zone’, we are met by two somber-looking inspectors, and, despite being at least 500m away from an actual train and (for a change) possessing pure intentions of honest travel, we are each forced to pay an on-the-spot fine of the equivalent of 35 euros. We then see no further inspectors for the rest of our four-day trip. Is this what Karma feels like?
See also: Reviews of public transportation