Lost without translation on his German journey Mathew Dearnaley finds that sometimes every traveller needs a local hero.

Here I was, in the middle of Europe, alone overseas for the first time in decades and watching a tram disappearing with my wallet and - even worse - my phrasebook.

My first big mistake - ignoring the instinct that my long-haul travel skills were rusty - was to have scheduled work meetings with local officials straight off a chain of flights from Auckland to Leipzig in eastern Germany.

That, followed by an afternoon walking tour of historical and cultural hot-spots, left me a danger to myself as I boarded a suburban tram for some pre-dinner field research. I was truly spaced out from jet-lag which, I regret to report, does not seem to ease with age.

Finally realising I was overdoing things after trying unsuccessfully to blend in with homebound commuters, I decided to leave the tram and catch another back to the city.


It took just a moment to comprehend why I felt so light and carefree bounding off the tram. My shoulder-bag, wallet and all, was no longer where it should have been - on my shoulder.

About all I had left was the passport that even I had the foresight to keep snug in a trouser front pocket at all times.

Sick with dismay, my first impulse was to sprint after the tram but as it receded, I just had to face the reality I was schikkered - in a stone-cold sober way - with no option except to hope for the mercy of strangers.

Bereft of my phrase-book and with the schoolboy German lessons of my youth not going beyond "bitte" and "danke", I resorted to the universal language of panic and pathetic hand gestures before a helpful non-English speaking stranger gathered I was in deep manure and shepherded me to an information kiosk back in town.

Even there, little English was spoken. The pre-trip advice from more seasoned travellers that I wouldn't need know much of the lingo was proving to be way off track. I should have known; eastern Germany was, until 1989, isolated from the West.

So it was more hand waving before kiosk staff could establish which tram I had been on, and radio the driver on a chance my bag had been handed in. Although I had a strange inkling it would come back, I didn't want to tempt fate, and was extravagant in my outpouring of relief when told the driver would meet me with it upon his return.

When the tram arrived an hour later, he waited until his passengers alighted before climbing out of his cab, producing my bag and showing me all its contents intact while waving an admonishing finger and refusing my offer of €10.

I couldn't understand a word he was saying, and whether he was using synonyms for "dummkopf", which one of my hosts said was probably just as well. But I don't think I could have picked a better place to let down my guard, as the following days of my brief visit revealed a strong sense of social responsibility among the good burghers of Leipzig.


At least that was what I gathered from what seemed their favourite word if I should stray into traffic or drop my glasses on the footpath - one that even I could recognise from childhood comics: "Achtung!"