“It’s the principle,” I say to my colleagues after spending my entire lunch hour in a tense conversation with a woman at the Berlin verkehrsbetriebe (BVG), the monstrous public transport company that runs the city’s buses, trams and the U-bahn.
I cannot believe I uttered that cliched phrase in an attempt to justify my obsession over a €7 fine. In fact, I knew my time and the frustration alone would be worth more to me than the €7. Without speaking a word, their faces told me what I already knew to be true: “You are just wasting your time.”
“I will buy you a beer with the €7 I save,” I say, faking confidence. They laugh politely, before turning back to their work.
To be fair: I am not normally this obstinate or stingy, but I feel like the BVG has done me a personal disservice.
Rewind a day
I was riding into work on the U8 when control officers asked for proof of tickets. Earlier that morning, I had used my ABO card, a subscription-based transit card that renews every month, so I was surprised to find it missing when I reached into my pocket.
I check every pocket three times over but eventually resign myself to a ticket. It is only fair: They have to go on, and I cannot find the card. Cheers to kicking off Tuesday morning with a €60 fine.
I buy myself a day pass (another €7) and get back in the U8, where I am enveloped in a tube of mustard yellow. A few moments later I reach into the front pocket of my bag and find the card!
After expelling a heavy sigh of annoyance and relief, I rest my head against the doors and look up: Is it destiny, divine intervention or good karma? The same officer who issued my ticket is about to cross my path.
Rushing up to him, I wave the card: “Ich habe sie gefunden,” I say. “I found it, I found it!”
We exit the U-bahn. He looks at my card and says, “It’s been 20 minutes,” and turns away from me to focus on a man he just escorted out of the U-bahn.
I check the time on the ticket and my phone: It has been 14 minutes.
With exasperation in his voice he tells me to go a BVG office, either at Alexanderplatz or Jannowitzbrücke, where they will take care of it for me.
Lesson 1: Do not expect anyone to help you more than their job requires.
And here I thought the BVG loved me
Fast forward to the next day when I meet with employee number 613, who refuses to tell me her name.
We seem to get off on the wrong foot because I did not present her with my call number when first approaching her booth, but I soldier on and show her my card and the ticket.
Despite my grave breach of protocol there is good news: They will take my €60 ticket and make it €7!
Next comes the decisive moment where I either pay the fine and put this all behind me, or I stand on principle and contest the €7 fine.
After all, I had my card, and there was no way I could have fibbed, borrowed a card or run home to get it.
She says I still have to pay the fee.
I contest again: But I should not have to pay the fee! I have proven twice now that I followed the rules. I have a card, and I have never been ticketed before. It was an unfortunate accident. Charging me is unnecessary.
She says I still have to pay the fee.
We are at an impasse. Employee Number 613 does not seem to understand that Ticket Number 3100312835974 finds this unrelenting bureaucracy, and Employee Number 613’s role in it, dehumanizing.
For a company that built an impressive marketing campaign – complete with sassy tweets – around the phrase, “weil wir dich lieben,” or “because we love you,” they sure have a funny way of showing it.
I ask to speak with her boss. He is not in, she says. I ask when I should come again so I might speak with him. She tells me she cannot disclose such information. Another impasse.
I change tact: “With whom should I speak to about this ticket?
Cue the typical, scripted response that follows the appropriate hierarchical structure needed to maintain order: Write an email.
Lesson 2: Methodicalness is next to godliness (for the BVG, anyway).
500 words later
My colleagues were not wrong.
In the time I spent writing a 500-word email requesting an inquiry into my case, having it corrected for bad German grammar and then turning the experience into a reflection piece on my complete disdain for the BVG’s unrelentingly rigid, stiff-necked obsession with adhering to the rules regardless of the circumstances, I should have just paid the fine.
I start to wonder: How many people pay fines simply because they have disposable income and do not want to deal with the hassle of standing up for themselves?
Especially when the fines come from a company like the BVG, which is too inflexible, operates using rule-based processes that fail to treat individuals as valued customers, and shows little interest in establishing loyalty, building relationships or showing compassion (to say nothing of “liebe”).
Lesson 3: The BVG does not love you, or me. They just want your money.
(A week later the email has not yielded any results, unless you count two automatically generated responses. There is only one day left before the deadline for paying the fine, but there is no going back now. Lesson 4: Persistence pays?)