In Tallinn, as in most European cities that I’ve visited, public transport fares are paid using an honour system – that is to say, you buy your book of tickets at a kiosk and then it’s up to you to be honest and stamp one of them once you’re on board.
I always do this, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, I’m a good girl. Honest, obedient, law-abiding – a model citizen. Secondly, I like using the machines. I think it’s fun. And thirdly, I could not handle the fear of being caught riding without a ticket. Despite my declaration that I always have a ticket, I’ll never forget the one occasion when I made quite a lengthy bus journey without one. I was in Bratislava, and it was not at all my fault, obviously. Bearing much luggage, and having just arrived from Vienna or somewhere like that, I stumbled around the decidedly frightening and smelly station, engaging in my favourite pastime of asking random strangers if they spoke English.
Absolutely no one did. Not even enough to understand the question, which was a first. All I wanted was a bus to the airport, but not even an intensive gaze at information posters was any help to me, since the Slovak word for airport is nothing even remotely like it is in other European languages. Normally you can at least take a guess, or they’ll have a helpful little plane symbol next to the word, but not here! I stood there, surrounded by rather scary, greasy men in Rab C. Nesbitt vests, and regretted having given up smoking several hours earlier.
Thankfully, as I was purchasing cigarettes (by way of pointing, miming smoking, and nodding frantically), I overheard a backpacker couple leaving the shop and talking in French about the airport bus, which left the station every half hour or so from stop 45. Having completely abandoned all hope of ever figuring out how to purchase a ticket, never mind where, I located the stop and got on to the next bus without the faintest idea if it went to the airport or to a small impoverished ghetto where I would be stabbed and eaten by hungry locals upon my arrival. I sat there, becoming increasingly nervous with every stop the bus made. Never mind the fact that I might have been on the wrong bus; there was also the deep fear that an inspector would appear and throw me into a very scary prison cell with cockroaches and a crack addict called Marge, for not having a ticket. The sight of the locals dutifully stamping their tickets – to the extent where, if it was not possible to get through the crowd to the machine, a ticket was solemnly passed along from hand to hand until it reached the person nearest the machine, who stamped it and passed it back to be returned to its owner – did nothing to reduce my terror. I spent the entire journey playing out all the possible Getting Caught scenarios in my head and trying to come up with a better defence than bursting into tears and playing the clueless foreigner card. I was never so relieved to get off a bus and enter the relative familiarity of an airport.
Anyway, to return to the present day, on my way back from the supermarket I saw the Tallinn tram police for the first time. Since July, they’ve started conducting random spot checks to ensure that people aren’t abusing the system. Sneakily, they park by the tram lines and stop the tram between two stops, so that nobody can sneak off out the back door or anything. Nosily (and almost getting run over in the process), I watched as several luckless stowaways were hauled off and – to my horror – taken into the back of the ominous-looking green van. The door was slammed shut. Filled with morbid curiosity, I lingered for a while, but no one emerged, and I reluctantly left the scene. What do they do to you if you haven’t punched your ticket? As a deterrent to fare-dodging, this sighting has certainly worked on me. Online sources say they fine you, but this definitely looked a lot more worrying than that.
I’m going to be so nervous when I’m on a tram now. There’s the added complication, you see, of the machines being different here. Unlike the electronic ones to which I’ve become accustomed during my travels (which make a reassuring BEEP and spit out your ticket with the date and time clearly printed across it), these ones are nothing more than glorified hole punches. Insert ticket, pull lever with some force, remove punched ticket. I always worry if my ticket doesn’t punch properly. Sometimes I attempt to repunch it, and inevitably find that this makes matters worse, since the holes don’t line up properly and it looks as if I’ve reused an old ticket, and the whole thing just makes me panic horribly and wish I had a car. In addition to this, the pattern of holes on the ticket is different every time (I believe they have a different pattern for each tram, so that you don’t just use the same ticket over and over again), and I have an irritating habit of shoving the ticket back into my pocket, only to realise to my dismay that there are also half a dozen old tickets in there, too, all with different punched-hole patterns, and there is no way of knowing which one is the right one, which would be difficult to explain in Estonian to a ticket inspector torturing you by inserting sharp things underneath your fingernails in the back of a van, when you’re still struggling with the present conditional tense.
It’s not easy being me.