My Brush With the Law

The German forest-- good place to look for wild garlic, bad place to park a stroller!

This is the story of how a walk in the woods ended with two German police officers confiscating my stroller!

I’ve already written about how wonderfully Germany has planned its cities to include plenty of green space; within walking distance of both of the apartments we’ve occupied in Stuttgart we’ve found farm fields, orchards, and forests all equipped with extensive paths to satisfy our nature cravings.

On this particular morning, A. and I headed to one of the aforementioned forests to attend his first nature class. We had met the teacher and other students at a playground in the center of the forest, then ventured out among the trees to collect acorns and moss and build little huts for woodland animals. Because we would be heading off the path at points, the teacher recommended I leave my stroller at the playground rather than lugging it along (nobody else in the class had one because they came by car), so I parked it and took everything important out of my diaper bag, just in case, before setting off for our hike.

When we got back to the playground at the end of the hour and a half course, I was shocked to see a giant police van– with my stroller sitting in it– and two grim-looking police officers, arms crossed, staring us down as we walked the path. I tried to imagine what in the world could have caused police to become so interested in my stroller. Had someone planted a bomb or drugs in my diaper bag? I briefly wondered before dismissing the idea. Stuttgart is one of Germany’s safest cities, second only to Munich, and the only people I’d encountered yet in the woods were runners, senior citizens, and school groups.

Our teacher immediately strode over to the police officers and began arguing with them, saying it was ridiculous for them to have my stroller and that in her years of teaching the nature class people had often parked their strollers at the playground with no problem. The police argued back with her. Voices rose. At the risk of making a sweeping generalization, I will say that I’ve frequently seen this in Germany; people defend themselves pretty confidently and don’t seem to shy away from verbal confrontation. I’ve heard Germans say as much too; once, while walking the dog, I ran into a man I’d often seen on the trails, and as we stopped to chat his dog started barking at Ike. The man laughed it off: “Er ist Deutsch; er muss schimpfen,” he said (“He’s German; he has to complain”). I’m not necessarily criticizing the approach. At least it’s not passive aggressive!

Eventually the police said they refused to talk further with the teacher and wanted to speak to me instead. They explained that a teacher with one of the school groups had seen my stroller at the playground and found it suspicious– why would a mother leave her stroller somewhere? The teacher thought I might be lost or kidnapped or worse, and after an hour had passed, he called the police. Apparently I’d also left my International Teacher’s ID in the diaper bag (I’d removed my wallet and everything I thought was important, but hadn’t seen the ID), so the police had promptly called the school to warn my husband that his wife and child were missing in the woods. Ack!

I simply apologized, explained that the teacher had advised me to park the stroller where I did, and asked what I should do in the future, as taking the stroller on our nature walks was not an option and, lacking a car, I had to bring the stroller to our meeting point. “Make a sign to put on your stroller that says where you are and when you will be back,” one of the policemen suggested. I’m not sure why they were so much nicer to me than they were to the teacher– perhaps because I spoke German with an accent, or had a baby strapped to my chest, or decided to adopt a contrite rather than an indignant tone.

I couldn’t exactly decide how to feel. On the one hand, it seemed ridiculous for me to leave a sign at a public playground informing perfect strangers exactly when I intended to come back for my stroller. On the other hand, what if I had been the victim of some crime? I certainly would have been grateful that someone cared enough to get involved.

This isn’t the first time a stranger has intervened in “my business,” and since I speak German, I always understand when people offer me advice (whether I want it or not). People have approached me at the bus stop to tell me my child isn’t dressed warmly enough. They’ve told me I shouldn’t make my dog wear his harness. Once, after A. had run out of the bakery three times as I was trying to buy bread, I finally perched him on my hip to complete my errand, even though he was crying. A woman who had just walked into the store tapped me on the shoulder and told me I should let my child run around so he would be happier. I carry our new baby in an Ergo everywhere I go, and in the past three weeks at least three people I’ve passed on the street have stopped me to ask if my baby is getting enough air in the carrier. For the most part, though I’m always polite, these unsolicited comments drive me crazy. And though part of me found this recent run-in with the cops equally ridiculous, the more I thought about it the more I appreciated the stranger’s involvement. I even made a tenuous connection between what I’d seen of Germans’ sense of social responsibility and their phenomenal health care; are people here better able to see the value of ensuring everyone’s well-being instead of just their own? And is it precisely this kind of concern, though at some points seemingly excessive, that actually makes Germany so safe? After all,  as of 2005, while the United States saw a murder rate of 17,000 among its just under 300 million people, Germany had 794 murders and 82 million people. Even after adjusting for population size, it’s easy to see where you’re more likely to be murdered!

As I packed up and headed up the path leading out of the woods, a man who had been sitting at a cluster of picnic tables with a bunch of teenagers stopped me and asked if he could briefly speak with me. He told me he was the one who had called the police, and that he just wanted to explain that he was trying to look out for me because he didn’t think it was “normal” for a stroller to sit at a playground for so long. “I’m a teacher too,” he added, as if to explain his interest. Talking with him, I started to feel less and less annoyed and more and more apologetic.

“Only in Germany!” our nature class teacher had muttered after I finished talking to the police. “This would never happen in France.” I don’t know about France, but I can’t really see it happening in the other places I’ve lived. When I first moved overseas, I tended to view every cultural quirk through a black-and-white lens. Either it was superior to what I was used to back home, or it was inferior. Good or bad. Now that I’ve lived in several different countries, I’m more likely to see the shades of gray. Yes, I want to be able to leave my stroller where I darn well please without having to answer to the police. But at the same time, it’s nice to know that if a stranger sees something he disagrees with or finds suspicious, he won’t turn the other way.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a sign to make!

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5 thoughts on “My Brush With the Law

  1. Great account of a bizarre experience! A human comedy, except such experiences are not exactly comical when one is in the middle of them. Maybe Joanie softened the policeman’s hearts.

  2. Shades of gray is a good way to look at the situation. I’d want to park my stroller where I pleased too, but would have felt it comforting to know that people are looking out for each other, even if the teacher thought the worst about an “abandoned” stroller. I bet the precense of Joanie did help dial down everyone’s tone.

    On another note, I love the Ergo, and while I’ve never had anyone criticize me, (Minnesota is opposite of Germany – there have probably been people who’ve muttered out of earshot about how harmful the carrier was to my child, or something like that) I did love the shocked reactions from strangers when they realized I was carrying a baby on my back, not a backpack. It probably doesn’t look like the kid is comfortable, but Oliver loved being able to watch the world go by while snuggled on mom or dad’s back.

  3. Kirsten, I often think to myself that people aren’t less judgmental in the United States…they’re just less likely to say anything to your face. 🙂 As for the Ergo, it is terrific. Joanie is guaranteed to fall asleep as soon as she gets in, which I think at this point in her newborn life signals her comfort in it. As she gets older I think she’ll enjoy observing the world as Oliver did.

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