The adult kind of guilt

I think my last run-in with “the law” probably happened sometime in elementary school when I had forgotten my lunch money and was given a truly evil look by the silver-haired woman sitting at the cash register. Fortunately, though, the humiliation wasn’t nearly as long-lasting as it seemed and, in the end, I still got my lunch.

There was also that time when I was driving on the highway for the first time and got pulled over by the cops. My mom was sitting in the passenger seat watching my every move. And the offense? I was driving too slow. The officer kindly nodded and said he completely understood that my mom wanted me to take it slow (really slow) since I was a new driver, but “ma’m, you have to go just a little bit faster.” Once again, I emerged no worse for the wear, but maybe we can still call that two run-ins with “the law.”


But yesterday morning, there was no mom, no nice police officer, and no free pass for my mistake. If you’ve ever ridden the Swiss public transport system, you’ll know how well-run it is–a thousand trams, trains, buses, and boats traverse the city every minute of every day, stopping and going to the rhythm of one collective, well-oiled machine. And if you’re in Geneva, you’ll also know that the public transport system runs on an honor system, so there’s no ticket-checking every time you use it. But when the infamous “green-jackets” (i.e. public transport authority officials) do their spot-checks, you better have proof of a ticket purchase otherwise you’re slapped with a near $100 USD fine right there and then–and it’s at least a $50 USD additional cost if you choose to pay later.

At this point, you can probably see where this is going. Monday morning was just another typical experience of taking my morning commute, and I was happily at ease as I headed back to the WHO feeling like a “total adult” (the clever aphorism of a dear friend), blending in as I was with the mass of suits-and-ties that were also part of this adult world that was on its way to work. Or so I thought.

Looking up suddenly, I saw three burly looking men standing stock-still in front of me, looking both bored and menacing at the same time. Yep, green jackets they were. No problem, I was happy to show them my public transport card (most hotels, hostels and other forms of housing will provide their guests with one free of charge)….except, it wasn’t in my purse. IT WASN’T IN MY PURSE. At moments like these, I’ve learned that I’m supposed to be calm and use whatever broken (insert relevant language here–in this case, French) I know to explain my situation, but oh no, my emotions weren’t having it. Only one thing left to do: PANIC.

Soon the men realized that my French was rather lackluster (to put it mildly) and started conversing amongst themselves about how to handle this situation. The youngest one stepped forward (apparently his English was better than the others’) and began asking me for one document after another–proof of residence, ID card, and last but not least, the payment of 80 francs that my forgetfulness was going to cost me. “Pay with card?” the older one said gruffly, as I fumbled around looking for cash. Oh of course, I thought, the last card you want from me is my credit card. I have to say, I was flashing back to that lunch line in elementary school as deep humiliation and a general moodiness came over me. Why me? Whyyy did I forget my card on the one day the green jackets happen to get on this particular bus? The odds seemed slim and yet, here I was, feeling like a child even though this was definitely an adult kind of guilt.

I quickly realized that culpability feels terrible at all ages. It wasn’t as though I was on the bus without a ticket, just that I had forgotten the transport card that is provided for free for students who are here for the summer. But there was no parent sitting next to me nor a phone-a-friend-line, and it was clear that no amount of explaining that I was foreign, a student, and completely lacking of any French-speaking ability was going to make this situation go away. And so, just like that, I added ‘paying fines’ to my growing list of “adult experiences.”

Now, on a much, much brighter note (and giving a happy end to this story), I am happy to say that I was finally able to sort this whole mess out. The transport authority website says that people in my situation can present their card at the local transport office and receive a refund for their fine. I was skeptical (and worried that I still had a cloud of bad luck hovering over my head) but I tried anyway, and after a few exchanges in half-English, half-French, the man at the counter handed me the money back in cash and kindly told me to make sure I didn’t forget my card next time. “They are very strict here, you know!”


He didn’t have to tell me twice :) I guess this adult-kind-of-guilt also comes with an adult-kind-of-ability to take responsibility and make the situation right again.

Now I’m back at work, feeling grateful, humbled, and oh so lucky. Definitely a lesson learned–have a great week!


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