OK, it did look a little shady. But to a Midwesterner, taxis always do. Waiting at the curb, the minivan's driver seemed lost in thought. I was just off a train, disheveled and sleepy; when I waved to him he roused himself and beckoned me in.
I tossed my suitcase onto the back seat, and he spun around, patted it, and said in German: "That's good, right there." When I gave him my Berlin destination, he smiled oddly and said, "Yes, that'll be just fine."
Looking back, I should have known something was off. But after six months in Germany, where I spoke like a kindergartner too well-versed in historical atrocities, every encounter was a little strange. Some days, I blamed this on a language in which a single umlaut made the difference between "It's so hot and humid!" and "That's so gay!"
But really I was the problem. Without knowing it, I had assumed the shambling air of a perpetual foreigner. Sometimes this provoked rage, especially in bus drivers, a job which seemed, puzzlingly, to be favored by sociopaths. Mostly, though, people took pity on me. As they slowed their direction-giving to a pace comprehensible to an addled chimp, I could see them wondering: "Was I ever that lost?"
Even familiar cues failed me: Smiling, I had been warned, was a sign of stupidity. I looked heavily impaired. Frowning deliberately, I bent over the seatbelt as the taxi driver turned toward the dashboard.
Suddenly lights began to flash and sirens to wail, as though all of Berlin's ambulances were descending on us. I looked up. The driver was watching me intently. He shut off the noise.
I saw two possibilities.
One: I was under arrest. (For what, was unclear.)
Two: This was a German chick-magnet, the continental cousin of those alien hovercraft with neon under lights that cruise America's inner cities.
(Everybody had told me dating in Germany was impossible. But it was hard to imagine anyone so desperate to impress that he'd soup up his taxi minivan.)
I gave the driver a once-over. (Not impossible.)
"Wow," I said, hoping this would get us under way.
The driver regarded me with distaste. "Do you know where you are?" he asked, in a strangely booming voice.
For the first time, I noticed that nearly all the van's windows were tinted black.
Possibility three: I was being kidnapped by an alumnus of the East German secret police.
"You're in Kvitazki!" he thundered, the indecipherable word sounding a lot like a Stasi prison to me.
My eyes were like saucers.
After a long moment, it hit him. "You don't know Quiz Taxi?" he asked in disbelief. "Where are you from?"
"Quiz Taxi," it turned out, was a recently debuted German reality TV show in which unsuspecting participants rode around major cities trying to answer trivia questions for money. Americans with a clue and cable TV knew it as a spin-off of the Discovery Channel game show, "Cash Cab," which itself was a spin-off of the British original.
I had neither clue nor cable – in fact, I feared TV.
The host sized up none of this. Proudly he directed my attention to this: Aimed at my forehead, ears, and up both nostrils, cameras were already rolling. And there was Geld. "Money!" he said in English, waving a large bill in my face. (And really, does flapping cash ever bode well?)
Still, I thought, what could it hurt? I humiliated myself every time I opened my mouth. Why not do it on national TV in a country full of strangers? For an instant I could see myself when it was all over, acting out the scene for laughing friends. Friends who would get the joke. Friends with televisions.
Then again, in my experience, Americans were a popular punch-line in Germany. I could picture a "Quiz Taxi" producer somewhere rubbing her hands at the chance to expose a bumbling fool like me on prime time.
Besides, who was I kidding? I could barely order brunch. I thanked the host, climbed from the van, and moved down the taxi queue.
An elderly couple had claimed the second cab, so I approached the third. Its driver blinked at me through coke-bottle glasses.
"Are you sure?" the old man asked breathlessly. "I mean, I can take you, but ... you were in the Quiz Taxi."
I was sure. But no one else seemed to be. When we reached the end of the driveway, we found the second taxi waiting for us. Its driver was disgusted.
Gallantly, mine took up for me: "Maybe she doesn't understand Quiz Taxi."
"What's wrong with her?"
But when the light changed, he couldn't help himself. Craning around in his seat, he gave it one last try.
"If you change your mind I'll take you back," he said, "just say the word."
When we had put a safe distance between ourselves and the world of broadcast, my curiosity got the better of me.
"Was that man famous?" I asked.
Oh yes, the driver assured me.
"Really?" I mused in German, "Who had knowed?"
"Who knew," he corrected, gently.
"I thought he was ... how do you say ... " I rummaged for the German word.
"Funny?" he offered. "Friendly? Handsome?"
It came back to me from a Hitler biography. "Deranged!" I said proudly.
The driver thought this was a riot. He couldn't get over it.
Neither could I. For the first time in half a year, I felt I understood somebody, and my clumsy story was enough to make him smile. Not just at me: with me.
All the way downtown, the driver and I traded one-liners. As we did, I heard him start to tell the story, working out the details for the next person who happened into his cab.
"I bet you thought you were just going for a ride. Nothing unusual, just wanted to get to Ku'damm," he prompted.
"Yeah," I said, grinning like an idiot, "Yeah, who knew?"
"I bet you'll think twice about getting in a taxi again," he persisted. "From now on, I bet you'll take the bus!"
"The bus?" I said with a shudder. "I don't know about the bus. Maybe a bike."
He howled with laughter. Somehow – who knew? – I'd made my first German joke. He braked abruptly in the middle of the intersection. Traffic swerved around us. He took off his glasses, gasping for air. People were honking.
"You're right," he said, mopping his eyes. "Who knows what could happen on the bus."
[Editor's note: The original version misspelled the author's name.]