Changing Hands

Columns | Vera Mair | May 2009

Dear Diary,

I don’t mind waiting for my tram at Schottentor station on my way home from the university. From the rather ugly station with its concrete columns and two small stands selling bread and sweets you have a pleasant view on the partially renovated Votivkirche and its small park, the sun glaring off the neo-Gothic sandstone blocks.

Since the beginning of April, a man has been sitting in the left corner of the station and plays sentimental French waltzes on his accordion, competing with the engine noises of the cars passing by on the Ringstrasse. Tourists with cameras and maps pass by on their way to the Rathaus or the Burgtheater, while people of all ages and walks of life check the overhead digital signs that announce the waiting time remaining for the next tram, as if their intent gaze could transform the six minutes into one.

But yesterday afternoon it was I who was being stared at. Unfortunately it wasn’t because of my flashy T-shirt with its orange, pink and yellow flowers, but because of a nine year old boy, who asked me to change coins into a €5 bill and an elderly lady who was surveying the scene.

When the olive-skinned boy approached me and asked with a slight accent if I had any change, I didn’t hesitate, and started looking for my wallet in the depths of my backpack. I was still looking through its five pockets when an elderly lady tapped me on the shoulder: "Don’t give him the money!" she barked. "You go money changing store!" she then said to him in elementary German, though she was a native speaker. My immediate reaction after a short moment of shock was to protect the innocent child from the obviously racist lady!

For me this properly dressed woman in her late sixties was just another prime example of how backward some Austrians are. I mean, come on, just because the boy looked a bit outlandish doesn’t mean you need to leave out articles in German, nor assume that he is a criminal. So I sullenly answered back that it could do whatever I wanted, as it was my money.

But the lady wouldn’t let go and repeated her warning, this time in a much lower but still shaky voice. Her insistence made me wonder what drove her to yell at a stranger and draw the attention of the entire station. So I asked if she thought he would steal my purse. No, she answered, she thought that he would only steal the €5.

Meanwhile the boy just stood by like an uninvolved spectator. What startled me most was the stark contrast between him and the lady – he was completely relaxed. He showed no signs of fear or embarrassment, but just grinned at the lady triumphantly. This behavior and the fact that he wore torn trainers under his otherwise neat clothing made me wonder if this ‘innocent child’ was a pickpocket. For my own sake and to appease the elderly women I demanded he prove the 50 cent coins he held in his clutched hand really amounted to €5. Reluctantly he started counting them coin by coin, enhancing  my suspicions.

My tram then arrived at the station, which provided me with a good excuse to leave. On my ride home I remembered that something similar had happened to a friend of mine in Paris. She had been asked by a pregnant gypsy to change two €10 bills into a 20, and when she had handed her money it had been snatched by another gypsy, who ran off with it. This was when I realized with regret and anger with myself for being so gullible that the ‘racist’ lady had actually saved me €5.

Other articles from this issue