February 26 2016
In the bar of the night train, two men at the table next to mine, a brash extrovert and his walrus-moustached straight man, are speaking a language that is, for me, indefinable. Perhaps they notice me observing them?
“Come. Join us!” shouts the extrovert in heavily-accented German. He pats the chair beside him. Turns to others in the wagon, those sitting alone — a young priest, a tense young Austrian woman, a German woman — and extends the invitation to them too. “Why are all of you sitting on your own? Come! Life is to be shared!”
I, ever nosy, accept the offer. As does the priest. The Austrian woman nervously refuses, the German, apparently offended, leaves the car.
Drinks and a huge cheese platter are ordered. “Everything is on us, of course,” bellows the extrovert. “Everything. Help yourselves.” Both men grin at each other, contented grins from exuberant men. Men who look as if they share a good secret indeed.
“Where are you both from?” I ask them.
“Germany,” walrus moustache answers, with a heavy foreign accent; he is a man unabashed at telling obvious lies.
“But you aren’t speaking to each other in German.”
Both guffaw. “We have a language of our own. We’ve been friends for more than twenty years! And business partners.”
The young priest (who works with delinquent boys) eventually departs. I, curious about the two characters and their strange accents, decide to tarry. Eventually, with more beer, with the lateness of the hour, both extrovert and walrus-moustache begin to boast. Extrovert admits to being Ukrainian, walrus moustache, Polish. They have been travelling on business, says the Ukrainian. “We sell cars. Mercedes.”
“In Germany?” I ask.
This (apparently ridiculously naive) question brings on more guffaws. “We bring them from Germany to Romania, to Ukraine, to Poland. Second-hand cars. Several at a time. With five business partners.”
“Everything totally legitimate,” the Pole is quick to assure me.
“Perfectly legitimate,” seconds the Ukrainian. As if it is important to convince me, he pulls out a stack of papers, waves them in the air without really letting me see them.
I think I know the trick; these papers once belonged to a car legitimately purchased in Germany. Another car of the same make and model is then “removed” from the streets and its engine number changed to fit those on the papers. This altered car is then transported east, to Romania, Poland or Russia, where it receives “new” papers. The old, original papers return home with the seller for re-use.
“We have $100,000 American dollars in our bag. Cash,” boasts the extrovert.
“And where is your bag?” I ask, amazed by this openness. I could, after all, be anyone.
“Back at our seat. In the compartment.”
“You’re sitting here in the bar and the bag is back there?” Even I’m getting worried. However, if there is a “control” — even though within Western Europe there are no longer customs checks — these two men have no wish to be associated with all that cash.
“Such a shabby bag.” The extrovert mocks. “No one would steal it. No one would ever imagine what’s in it.”
“Everything legitimate,” the Pole is quick to assure me. “Everything is declared. We pay taxes just like anyone else.”
“Of course in Germany. We are German citizens. With German passports,” says the Pole.
The Ukrainian can’t resist doing a little more bragging. “And a few others. I have five.”
“Five passports? I’m impressed.”
“And he has four,” says the Ukrainian, gesturing to the Pole.
“However did you get so many?”
Now both men are really looking at me with pity. “In Moscow such things are easy. It is not like in your country, you know. We go to an embassy, we know someone. We say we want a passport. We pay. That’s all there is to it.”
From: Finding Home in the Footsteps of the Jewish Fusgeyers by Jill Culiner