The dangers of random photography

So I'm sitting in the lobby of the Airport Sheraton Hotel in Frankfurt, Germany, mostly minding my own business, when I was accosted by a plain-clothes police officer. It seems he was irritated at me about something to do with my camera.

I should back up for a minute.

I was meeting some friends to go to a Frankfurt Galaxy game (that's the NFL Europe -- hey, when in a foreign country, why not do something American?). I had just purchased a new pen from the Faber-Castell store in downtown Frankfurt, and was writing a column about the experience (click the link/arrow at the top of this entry to go to the column). I had spent all week trying to speak conversational German, and the purchase of the pen was the crowning point of the entire week, so I was feeling rather proud of myself. I was taking some pictures to include with the column, and was trying out the digital zoom on my digital camera to see what the range was.

As I was taking the pictures, three guys walk in. One is wearing jeans, a button-down shirt, and a leather jacket -- some sort of Euro-street sophisticate, I guess. The other two guys are videotaping and audio recording him. They sit down about 70 feet away, and I just sit and watch them. The guy calls someone on his cell phone, and the other two guys record the entire conversation.

I started to wonder if the guy was actually a TV actor, and they're filming a scene for some German soap opera or cop show. So I zoom in with my digital camera and snap a picture of the guy. Well, Phone Guy saw me do it, so he hangs up the phone, says something to the Video Guys, and swaggers over to me. I'm thinking, "Dude, I don't know anything about German TV, so I don't want an autograph."

I was trying to remember the German word for autograph (my German is VERY rusty and limited) when he whipped out a wallet with an official looking ID in it. He said something in German, but all I caught was "Blah blah Photograph blah blah Polizei."

Apparently, I had just taken a picture of an undercover cop on assignment. Very dangerous to him and to me.

I looked at him blankly and said, "I'm sorry, I don't speak German."

"Blah blah blah Deutsch?"

"I'm an American, I don't speak German."

It was as if I had just used the Force and told him I wasn't the 'droid he was looking for. He just looked confused and walked away. If he had pressed me on the issue, I would have shown him the picture and then deleted it from the camera in front of him. But he didn't. He just assumed I was harmless (I am), and that I wouldn't do anything with the photo (I won't). But at that moment, I was probably one smart-ass phrase away from my own very special episode of "Law and Order: Smart-Ass Tourist" (Gesetz und Auftrag: Smart-Ass Touristisch).

So who says Americans are dumb for only knowing one language? I can carry on a basic conversation in German, which helped me realize I was in trouble. If I had been fluent in German though, I would have spent the rest of the day trying to convince the Police (Polizei) that I wasn't a lookout for the German Crime Syndicate (Deutsches Verbrechen-Syndikat).

Ausgezeichnet! (Excellent!)