A Ticket To Ride

Sarah Muse

April 23, 2014

Looking out the window, the streets and shops disappear behind the long tail of the
tram. It has been almost eight months since I left home for a year as an exchange student here in Austria. Throughout those eight months, I have spent a lot of time sitting on this tram, my tram, contemplating life and the experiences I have had while being here.
This tram is my means of travel to anywhere in my city, the city of Graz, Austria.

I remember arriving here. I was pleasantly surprised at the efficiency and effectiveness of the public transportation system; much better than any means of travel in the vast flatness of Northwest Ohio. I learned and memorized the schedules, the routes, the stops, and the rules. (As surprising as it may seem, there are many unspoken rules to riding public transportation). However, there is just one basic law that is required for every passenger… you must have a ticket to ride.

I had been warned repeatedly from my first day in Austria that it was required to pay for a ticket, and that a hefty fine was charged to those who failed to comply. Yet as I quickly learned, those tickets began to add up in Euros; precious Euros that as an exchange student I saw could be spent on something much more useful. Natives and other exchange students had told me that as an American I most certainly could get away with not paying. I could simply resort to my foreign stupidity about the correct process if I was caught. Yet, my conscience got the best of me. A majority of time I would pay for a ticket, either by the week or for a month. For the longest time I believed those who checked tickets and collected fines from the felons who rode illegally, known as “controllers,” did not exist. But one day, three women came aboard my tram, dressed in ordinary clothes, and started asking to see passenger’s tickets. Being the good exchange student that I was, I searched through my wallet and took out my validated ticket. As they passed me by, a person two seats behind me was apprehended and forced to give up their address and bank account number. While this seemed a little drastic to me, I was definitely scared into following the law.

As the months went by, another American and I became slightly lax with our ticket purchasing. I started to understand the process and the loopholes. We started sitting by the validation machines, not stamping our tickets to see if we could save them for the next day, yet always on the lookout if we needed to make a quick move. We would make up funny but believable stories and fake names to use if we were caught in an attempt to dissuade the controllers. While this was funny to think about, I was worried what would happen if a situation ever did occur. However, it never did…

Buying tickets off and on, I tried my best to be responsible. Then it happened. My parents were visiting me, and I had stressed the importance of the tickets to them. Yet as I jumped on the tram with them, I did not have one myself. I had a plan. I would ride with them until we got to a stop where they could buy me a onemonth ticket and I would not have to spend my own money. We were sitting in the back of the tram when I heard the voices. Over the noise of the controllers screaming for tickets, my face must have shown terror. I looked at my parents, asked them quickly about their tickets and my dad showed me two. I stopped. The tram stopped. I thought quickly about getting off, but too many thoughts were running in my head; I had missed my chance, the ladies were too near. They first asked my parents for tickets and since my parents looked very confused, they switched their German speed talk to plain English. My parents showed them their tickets, which I quickly learned, were not stamped. The women very angrily but acceptingly said they would let this time go because they were tourists. One of them then turned her attention to me, obviously understanding that I was with them, but without a ticket. I at first tried to ignore her, but it was too late – she knew right away I was guilty, and that unlike my parents, I probably knew better. I tried to enact one of my clever plans but my father’s insistence to produce my visa for identification did not help my case; they knew that I lived in the city, and was fully aware of the laws of riding the tram. I had been caught. A common criminal.

During the long walk to the ATM, with the controller at my heels, lecturing me in front of my parents, I was trying to pinpoint exactly what I thought I could get away with and why I would not get caught. I was aware no one is above the law. Why should I be any different? Before going to Austria, I had studied their language, culture, as well as their laws. From a distance, as a visitor, I knew buying a ticket was the law, no exceptions. However, as I immersed myself in the country and the city I still carried with me the idea that since I was a foreigner, I could be less accountable for my actions. This could not be just me: there was something specifically about human nature that made other passengers and I test the laws of the government. Clearly even some natives tried to stretch the law, to attempt a “free ride” from the system. I felt I had an excuse though, a crutch to lean on, if I were to get caught I would be able to get out of the consequences because I was not a citizen. Needless to say, once I was caught, I was treated just the same as a native; with perhaps a little more spite from the controllers, because they knew I thought I could get away with it. The law is the law, the end.

The fine was 50 Euros, not too steep, but that 50 Euros could have been spent on shoes, food, concert tickets, or even two months worth of tram tickets. Yet, I did gain new perspective on how differently a foreigner, a native, and someone stuck in between each viewed the law. I will always remember that.

My stop is still a few blocks away. I’m still sitting here on the tram, thinking about that one embarrassing, aggravating, expensive, and frustrating lesson I learned. Yet, I still cannot truly determine why as humans we are tempted to break the law if we think we can without repercussions. I am still riding my tram. From my seat up against the window towards the back, I recognize three women that hop on the train; I open my wallet, pull out the ticket, and wait.