Monday, June 02, 2014

Everybody should read Dr Piëch's biography

"Herr Dr Piëch, a great man. Have you read his biography?"


The policeman shook his head, went back to his writing. "A great man. Everybody should read his biography." He paused again. He had put down maybe two more words. "He brought Audi to where they are. He is Ferdinand Porsche's grandson, you know?"

I nodded. Hoping not to prolong things with words. He concentrated again at the job in hand. Stopped again. "Yes, Herr Dr Piëch. What he managed to do, bringing all those brands together. All the same pieces, so many different cars."

A nod wouldn't be enough this time. "Sure. And so many different prices for cars much the same underneath." I was trying to keep it simple. The policeman's English was excellent — he had even gotten the pronunciation of my name, Byrne, correct — but I didn't want to get into any interpretational difficulties. We were, after all, in an understanding ...

Half an hour before in the Frankfurt suburb, I had driven down a hill and around a bend. Into a complex of cones, police cars, and policemen. It took a minute or two for my van to get to the head of the line. The policeman in charge looked to a colleague, who nodded. I was waved to the curb. Beside an Mercedes-Benz S-Class, nobody in or near it.

I wound down the window. Figured this as a random breath test operation, which wouldn't be any problem as I hadn't even had a beer for several days. A policeman came up and spoke, rather sharply, as I switched off the engine. "I'm sorry, I don't speak German," I apologised.

He grunted, turned, beckoned. In moments a colleague was at the window. Much less brusque, but still a policeman. "English?"

"Irish," I said. You never know just how much that single word currency is appreciated, but it's always worth spending. "I speak English."

"Driving licence?"

That's when he got my name right. Impressive — most Continentals have trouble with it. He examined it, looked at me. "Mr Byrne, the reason we have detained you is that you were speeding." He paused, conferred with his colleague, then, "You were driving at 72km/h in a 60km/h zone."

"Just here?" I asked. I'm generally good at keeping to speed limits. He pointed back the way we had come. Must have been on the hill, I thought. Maybe a remote camera linked to this 'pop-up' enforcement location. I'd been chatting with my colleague and friend Austin, going with the local traffic flow. Always a risk. "Umm ... OK, I suppose I must have been. I'm sorry." I don't argue with policemen, especially when not in my own country. Or even when I am.

"Do you live here, Mr Byrne?" The van was a brand new Ford Transit Courier, German registration. So new, in fact, that it hadn't even gone on sale yet. I shook my head. "No. Just here for the day. I'm flying back to Ireland tonight."

That kind of stopped him. He pursed his lips, then asked for the keys. "We'll leave them here," he said, dropping them on the scuttle in front of the windscreen. "Please wait."

"Missed that one," I said to Austin during the following hiatus in proceedings. "And I'm the one who's so careful about speed."

"Yep. You pulled me up a couple of times when I was driving. Should have been watching out for you."

The policeman came back, with an air of decision. Memories flashed of speeding fine levels in other countries where I've been. In Australia, hundreds of dollars at time. Always enough of a worry to keep me in the limits. "Mr Byrne, I can make you an offer."

Unexpected. "Yes?" I said after a couple of seconds.

"Yes, Mr Byrne — and this is only an offer, you understand?"

I nodded.

"You pay a fine of thirty-five euro and then this—" he gestured across the situation "—this goes away. Nothing more. Do you understand?"

"Yes. Yes, I understand."

He wasn't finished. "The alternative is that we go to the Public Prosecutor's office." He waved again, this time somewhere beyond the S-Class. "That could take two hours. And the fine would be a hundred fifty euro."

There was only one sensible answer. "Yes, OK. Sure," I said. Then, because I had the princely sum of five euro in my wallet, "Do you take credit cards?" But this was Germany. He shook his head. "No, we need cash."

Austin interjected. "I have cash." He took money from his wallet. "I'll pay you back at the airport," I promised.

"Right, Mr Byrne. We are agreed. Come."

The policemen and I walked up the footpath towards a combi van, through the door of which I could see it outfitted as a mobile office. "You work for Ford?" he asked. The registration had shown the van as belonging to the carmaker.

"No. I write about cars. I'm here to drive this new van."

"Ah, a journalist. What are good cars, here in Germany, do you think?" Everyone asks that. Even policemen in Germany, it seems. We reached the combi, and he climbed in. I stood outside, my head in through the doorway. "Well, the Fords are very good." I was there with Ford, after all. Anyway, it's true.

He nodded, pulling a book on the combi's table towards him. "Yes, they're good. And Mercedes-Benz, they weren't excellent some years ago, but now ..." He stopped in mid flow, flicked open a page, began transcribing details from the registration document and my licence. The conversation might have been over already, but then I said, "And you have Volkswagen here, who make very good cars."

He paused, looked up, halfway through an entry. Shook his head. "No. Volkswagen are not very good," he said, almost sternly. Another pause, then, "Volkswagen are ... brilliant." Pen poised, his eyes held me directly. "Herr Dr Piëch, a great man. Have you read his biography?"

It took another fifteen minutes to complete the transaction. By then we had discussed more cars, then, at his instigation, Ireland's previous colonial problems — of which he was surprisingly aware. He even brought in Germany and its wartime difficulties. "I wonder what we each would have been in those times," he mused, then grinned, "here, today, I'm just doing my job." He finally handed me the receipt and my documents. We shook hands.

"I enjoyed talking with you," I said. And I had. Despite the circumstances. Our conversation would have been entirely appropriate if we had struck up acquaintance as two strangers beside each other at a bar. Punctuated by sips of beer instead of writing words on a receipt. The bar tab would likely have been more than the speeding fine.

Austin was standing in the sun beside the van. "I thought they'd taken you to court," he said. I looked at the S-Class, still parked, guessed that the owner hadn't had an 'offer'. He was probably somewhere in a queue at the Public Prosecutor's office. Court for the speeders.

It's the first time I've ever been fined for speeding in my many decades of driving, which have taken me from downtown Kilcullen to the high Andes in Bolivia and Argentina and many, many places and continents in between. In retrospect, the encounter was well worth the money involved.

The world is still fascinated by cars. Even policemen in Frankfurt are.