Conquering and Conquered


This is the face of someone who had a fantastic day.  It is also the face of a potential criminal mastermind.

Today was full of little victories.  I conquered the awkward shower.  I ordered lunch by myself.  I even figured out how to use the S-Bahn, which apparently is an intricate train line that manages to confuse some of the most adept Viennese users of public transit.

I, of course, got lost after I departed the train station.  I eventually made it to my destination, but on the way, I was stopped by a police officer.  Now, my students know that ending up in an Austrian jail was one of my fears before embarking on this trip, and during my encounter with the polizei, I thought for a moment that that fear would become manifest.

As I walked down the street, I saw the police officer, but I didn’t think anything of it.  He appeared to be ticketing cars, and while I felt sorry for the people who were ticketed, I didn’t think much more of the situation.  I did notice, however, the officer’s firearm.  I don’t know a thing about guns, but I knew enough to notice that his seemed unusually large.

He was on the sidewalk immediately in front of me, which I didn’t find troubling, until he looked directly at me.  The look on his face was less than pleasant.  I smiled at him, which in hindsight was a rookie move.  I’ve noticed here that people do not often look at or interact with each other on the street, which is very contrary to my nature.  I typically say hello to or smile at just about everyone I walk past.  Perhaps my dazzling smile caused him alarm.

Instead of allowing me to walk past, he asked me a question.  I have no idea what he said, but his tone was not conversational. I stared at him blankly for a moment, and he repeated his question.  This time he was pointing to something and saying, “Card.”  I told him that I don’t understand German.  He switched to English, without pause, and told me that it doesn’t matter that I don’t know German, but what mattered was whether or not I had a card.  I told him I had no idea what he was talking about and that no, I didn’t have any particular card.  He spoke angrily to me for another minute, in a mix of German and English, and then he just stopped.  As soon as he stopped, I walked past him and kept it moving.  I didn’t know why he stopped me or why he eventually let me pass.

As I told a colleague about my encounter, she explained to me that I had been racially profiled.  Vienna apparently has a lot of illegal immigrants, and the home I was visiting was in a ritzy neighborhood.  Without knowing anything about Vienna, it was clear to me that this neighborhood was more posh than the ones I had been frequenting, and apparently, I didn’t look like I belonged there.  So the policeman was asking me for my immigration card.  I asked my colleague why he let me go, since clearly I didn’t have one.  She said that he must have figured out I was American and decided I was a tourist.

I was intrigued on two accounts.  The first was that I got racially profiled in Austria.  That was a concern of mine before coming, but everyone told me that racism isn’t a problem in Austria.  Everyone who told me that was white, and to be honest, I didn’t believe them.  My colleague, who is also not white, explained that Austria is very racist.  I don’t know if “very racist” by Austrian standards is the same as “very racist” by US standards.  I do know, however, that up until the police officer stopped me, no one has paid me much mind, unless of course I was walking around outside during a downpour.  The second account that tickled me was that my obvious American-tourist-ness paid off.

Today was full of little victories.


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