It was 1 AM in Vienna, and I needed 20 Euro. I left the club and walked to the nearby Bank Austria. Inside, I deposited my card into the slot. The machine displayed a bright red warning sign with warning written in German that I could not understand because I do not speak German. The machine re-booted. The original welcome screen lit up, but my Visa debit card was not spit out. The machine ate my card.
It gets worse.
I did not freak out. I was mad, but calm. Luckily, there was a phone in the bank. I picked up the phone. A German voice said something in German. I responded, “Hi, I don’t speak German. Can I speak to someone in English?”
I let the man know my predicament. He said that the protocol was to send the card back to America.
Even though I had been drinking, I knew that made zero sense. You are probably not drinking right now, but this should not make sense to you too. What does “send back to America” mean? Will they put my card in an envelope marked “America,” hand it to a postman, and return it to me upon my August return? I was certain the German on the phone was wrong, so I hung up, and went back into the club.
In the club, I talked to an Asian-Austrian named either Melly or Nelly. She was concerned that my card would be lost forever. She was surprised that I did not have this concern. I knew exactly where the card would be, but you can tell that I did not get my card back immediately based on how many more words you have to read.
At 4 AM, I went back into Bank Austria. I picked up the phone, and repeated, “Hi, I don’t speak German. Can I speak to someone in English?”
The new German-accented man alerted me that the bank opened at 8 AM, and I could attempt to get my card back then. That would be perfect. I could get my card, return to the hostel, and nap for a few hours before my plane ride to Prague.
“What did the machine say?” the man asked.
“I don’t know!” I replied. “I don’t speak German!”
I returned to the hostel at 5 AM, and woke up 2 hours later. I stayed in the clothes I wore last night, figuring that I could simply pick up my card and go home. So, I threw my long-sleeve cotton shirt and jeans back on, and headed on the subway.
Already, I was hot. On the subway ride I realized how Vienna is a hot city. I was sweating from the heat, and my body reeked of alcohol. Here’s a science lesson: the body sweats out alcohol the next day if you do not shower. I was in no condition to argue for the return of my Visa debit card.
I arrived at Bank Austria at 7:50 AM. Already, a line has formed. I can see the machine that ate my card, and wondered if it was still in there.
At 8:00 AM exactly, the bank opened. I wait on the line for ten minutes as Germans say German things to get European Union money. As I get to the front of the line, I say, “Hi, my card was eaten by your machine last night, and I was told to show up here to get it back.” The frail German woman alerts me to talk to customer service, which is 10 feet to her left.
There were two, smiling German customer service representatives waiting for me. A man and a woman, they looked in their twenties and sympathetic to my cause. I’m sure they knew my predicament, and were on my side.
“Hi,” I began, “my card was eaten by your machine. I’m wondering if I could get it back.” The woman, looked into her binder and smiled. I smiled, too. There was my card! The red Visa debit card was within grasp.
I let out a big grin.
“Thank you so much!”
Then, The Banker came.
He was bald, with a gray goatee. He was about 6’1”, and wore glasses. He was not smiling.
“Just one second,” the customer service woman said.
As the two of them spoke in German, I felt like I wasn’t getting my card back anytime soon.
They stopped talking. The Banker looked at me and said in a German accent, “We are sending your card back to America.”
While sober, I still could not tell what that could mean.
“But I’m right here,” I contended. “I’m flying to Prague later this afternoon and I need my card so I can pay for things.”
“No,” The Banker replied. “The rules are we have to leave it here.”
“But that’s my card. I’m here now.”
I was pissed. Right here, what should have happened was the man said “I’m sorry our machine ate your card here you go.” Instead, I had to deal with all of these rules that are in place just so they can have rules. Right here, and for the entirety of this ordeal, I understood why Germany was leading Europe’s financial collapse.
I asked The Banker if I could use his computer to call Bank of America, my provider, to prove who I am so I could get my card back. Perhaps they would know the protocol to return my card. The Banker agreed, and I walked back to his desk. His desk and the whole office looked like every single bank you have seen in your life.
While at his desk, I call Bank of America’s international helpline on his work phone, and am placed on hold.
I reiterate how I just want my card back, and don’t really want to go through this whole ordeal.
He shrugs. “I cannot give you your card back.”
We argue about the logistics of this for the entirety of the half-hour of waiting I did on the line with Bank of America. I ask what “sent back to America” means. I ask if he could just hand me my card back and forget that this thing ever happened. I ask if he personally would send the card back. He answers all of these, but the answers are not helpful are conform to normal human decency. Instead of being apologetic, he persistently refuses to depart from “the rules.” He does not understand that my extreme problem could be avoided if he just helped me out.
He had repeatedly asserted the only way to get my card back today and keep it from being sent back to America was to contact the card machine company. I decided that I would contact them once I hung up with Bank of America. He insisted this was the way to get my card back many times.
I was finally transferred to the most amazing customer service lady I have ever talked to. I gave her all of my information: my name, my card number, the 3-digit code on the back, my social security number. She knows that it’s me.
“He just won’t give me my card back,” I alert her.
“I don’t know why. You should get it back,” she replied.
She was very sympathetic. I also want to add that it was the Fourth of July. This should be the only day that Americans don’t have to deal with stubborn Europeans.
I ask her if she can talk to The Banker to prove that it’s me, and she agrees.
The Banker and the Bank of America lady speak. The Banker now speaks in a frustrated tone. I can’t tell if he’s frustrated with dealing with me, that he wants his work phone back, or that he knows he’s wrong. But he gets agitated very easily. I think that the Bank of America lady has essentially told him that I am me, and to give me my card back, but he refuses. He hands me the phone.
I am extremely thankful to the customer service representative. She seems extremely sorry, and we wish each other a good Independence Day.
I am not agitated, but I hide my emotions well, and calmly ask, “Is there any way I can see this rule in writing? I just want to make sure that this rule actually exists because it seems like you are making it up.”
This really pisses him off. The Banker turns to one of his coworkers, and starts speaking to her in German. I have no idea what they are saying.
He gets up without saying anything, and goes into a back room. I stare at my debit card while I sit unguarded at his desk. I think, “Should I grab it and make a run for it?” I seriously contemplate it. He hasn’t written my card information down. He does not know who I am. I doubt they have entered it into any system. And he’s not going to chase down the street after me. And so what if they call the cops, what are they going to do, arrest me for stealing my own card? I look back up, and he has returned with a binder. I decided then that my last effort will be to sneak the card into my pocket, leave while saying “Forget it! I’m just leaving!” and then walk back to the train station before they ever realize anything. It’s the perfect plan.
I guess the binder instructed him to read the Internet, because he starts re-reading the Bank of America page I opened earlier. He reads through some other things.
“So does it say anything?” I ask.
“You have to show me your passport and written confirmation from Bank of America.”
I’ll give him one thing. It makes sense for me to show him my passport. My experience showed me that Europeans don’t really trust state driver’s licenses. I knew I had to go back to the hostel to get that.
But written confirmation from Bank of America?! You had just talked to them on the phone! That was some oral confirmation! And I had just asked you for written confirmation about your policy, and you contend with oral confirmation?! Why is written confirmation so special now? I thought oral confirmation was fine! Also, the whole policy is changed! What happened to contacting the card machine company?
We are approaching two hours in the bank. Frustrated, I say, “Can I just try to take out money from the bank so if it doesn’t work I can just have money to get me back to London?” I had another 3 days before I returned to the city I was studying abroad in.
“Sure,” he said.
We walk over to the card machines. We avoid the machine that ate my card, although I do watch a man use that machine and dispense cash and get his card back. So I ruled out that the machine was a card-eater. I guess it just liked mine.
I put my card in, type in my pin number, and try to dispense 100 Euro. It works. It wasn’t my card’s fault, it was your stupid machine. I go to take the money out of the machine.
The Banker grabs my money first.
“That’s my money!” I say.
I forgot what his response was, but it made it clear that he wasn’t giving me my money. He is stealing from me now.
“I just proved that it was me for the last hour, I don’t have any money, just give me it.”
“I am not trying to steal it.” This was the first instance of some sympathy, although it was a very uncaring sympathy.
“Fine,” I grunt. I’ll be back in an hour.
I return to the hostel, and angrily recount the ridiculousness of the story to my two travel buddies. I have no idea if I’m getting my card back. I wonder if he is going to send my card and 100 Euro to America, whatever that means.
Luckily, when I return with my passport, he is smiling. He tells me that Bank of America has sent him written confirmation that acknowledges it was me. Thank god for written confirmation.
I ask him for my card back.
“Hold on,” he replies. “Can I see your passport?”
I show him, and he takes my passport. He leaves for a few seconds, and returns with a scanned copy of my passport.
“Great,” I say. “Can I have my card back now?”
He then writes in pen “I hereby confirm that this card was returned to the undersigned” on the scan of my passport. There is nothing official about this “official document.” I am certain that we can go through every legislature about German banking and never find a phrase that says, “Write something in pen on a scanned photocopy.”
I just wanted to leave, so I say “Sure” and go to sign my name.
“Hold on,” he says. He points to the middle of the page, four inches higher than where I began singing my name. “Sign it here.”
I guess that’s what made it official.
I found a café by the train station that sold an “American sausage,” and decide to eat that to celebrate the Fourth of July. I’m still in my hot clothing, and still reek of alcohol.
I pay for the hot dog with my 100 Euro.
I would soon find out that Prague does not take Euros, they use Czech Crowns.
I’m so glad I got that card back.