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24.09.2009

28 Hours in Cologne 

I’m back in Ichenheim again, sitting at that same spot on the couch in the living room.  Krissi is still asleep in the room next to the room where I sleep downstairs, and I’m using this chance to write about the short and unremarkable yet completely enjoyable trip we took to Cologne (Köln in German) on the way here. 

We arrived at the Köln Hauptbahnhof at 12:45 on Tuesday, and spent the first half hour storing our luggage and having a quick bite to eat.  After that we did the only thing I’d had in mind for the whole trip, which was to visit the Dom (the cathedral) which is one of the biggest and most beautiful in all of Europe.  It’s certainly the most amazing cathedral I’ve ever seen, and going back inside only reaffirmed that opinion.  The pamphlet we picked up told us it’s the most visited location in all of Germany, and it’s not difficult to understand why.  Everything is so elaborately decorated and detailed—it’s really beyond description in words.  For anyone reading this who might be interested in seeing what I’m talking about, I’ll post a link to the pictures Krissi took once she gets them online. 

After taking that in for awhile I wanted to climb the stairs to the top of the tower and check out the view, just as I’d done with David, Rachel, and Justin five years ago when we went there for a weekend during our exchange-student days.  Climbing the 533 steps to the top was a lot easier this time, as although I’m still a bit sick I’m in much better shape than I was back then, and I don’t smoke cigarettes much anymore.  But the view from the top was well worth whatever effort you put into it, and those pictures will eventually go online as well.  But for me there was an added element of nostalgia to the whole thing, as it’s always kind of incredible to be back in one little corner of the world that you haven’t been to since a very different portion of your life.  I’ve been to so many places since then and had so many additional life experiences, and yet there I was back again at the cathedral tower in Cologne.  It was a place I never expected to be again.  I guess it just makes you feel that much more well traveled when you not only go to an incredible place, but you actually find yourself going back. 

Once we’d gone around the panorama twice and absorbed the scenery enough, we descended the stairs and tried to figure out the next thing to do.  We went to the tourist office and got a map, then got pointed in the direction of another place I remembered going five years ago, an archaeological excavation of a portion of the city built by Romans when they controlled the city.  We had a hard time finding it but we did eventually, and afterwards walked around trying to think of something else to do until we could check into the hostel (we had to wait until after 5 p.m. as it was run by just one guy and you could only check in during office hours).  We poked our heads into a museum lobby but weren’t interested enough to pay the entrance fee and check it out, then we left and sat down by a fountain in the square reading the pamphlet we got from the tourist office and trying to figure out which museums we might actually like to see. 

But I realized time was already going by, and if we just took a walk across the Rhine and up to a park along the river, sat down and had a beer, by the time that was finished it would be almost 5 o’clock.  So that’s what we did, and it was a very pleasant walk and a lovely little park.  The beer was delicious and when we finished, it was a quarter to five.  We walked to the nearest train station and rode the public transport up to where the hostel was located, which wasn’t difficult to find. 

There we experienced the only real snafu of the trip, as when we rung the bell nobody answered.  We kept ringing and ringing and I even called the office and left a message, but after 20 minutes of waiting I gave up and suggested we go to an internet café and try to book a room at another place.  But just as we got into a café and began the booking process, the owner of the hostel called me back and said he’d been there the whole time but just hadn’t heard the ringing.  So we went back there and checked in, and got the run-down from the guy on all the places we might like to see, and the places we might like to go have a drink that night, all of which he marked on our map. 

After getting settled at the hostel we went back into the city in search of a place to eat, had a nice kebab dinner and then took a walk back across the river just as the sun was setting for a spectacular view of the cathedral as it lit up for the night.  Once it was dark enough we walked back along the bridge and rode the tram back to the area of town that the hostel owner had recommended we go drinking.  We spent the night hitting up almost every place he mentioned, 4 out of the 6 dots he placed on our map.  We started at a cocktail bar called the Old School, then went to a Russian bar where I found myself falling in love with the incredibly hot bartender, whose hotness was only mitigated by the fact that she was wearing a My Chemical Romance T-Shirt, but I gave her the benefit of the doubt and assumed she just didn’t know any better.  Krissi then bought a little shooter of Jäger from a Kiosk just to balance out the level of dunkenness with me (although ‘drunk’ was hardly the word—we never got beyond ‘buzzed’ that night as neither of us had the desire to go through that again).  We walked to a corner with two of the other places he mentioned, but one had live music that sounded like really crappy emo-punk so we went to the other one for a beer.  Finally we went to the most “dodgy” place on the list called the Stiefel for once last beer.  We were on our way back even before midnight and we arrived at the hostel before 1 a.m. for what is probably the earliest night we’ve had so far while traveling. 

The next morning we woke up at 9, had a breakfast of toast and jam that the owner laid out in the kitchen, then got our stuff together and were out by 11.  Our only plan for the day was to check out the Museum Ludwig, which sounded like a really cool art museum.  After storing our luggage again at the Hauptbahnhof we went to the museum and spent the next three hours there moving from floor to floor and appreciating all the art we possibly could.  I spent a lot more time on each piece than Krissi, I guess because she won’t give something a second look if it doesn’t grab her immediately and because I know so little about art I spend time on each piece just to give it a chance to say something to me.  There were indeed some really awesome exhibits, but as is the case with art it’s nearly impossible to explain or capture the piece in words.  My words couldn’t do justice to the best pieces anyway, so the best I can do is post a link to Krissi’s pictures once she gets them online, though halfway through our tour she got stopped by museum guards telling her she wasn’t allowed to take pictures.  She tried to do so anyway when no one was looking, but the security cameras caught her and the guards came to her again to insist she stop taking pictures. 

The best artist in the museum was by a guy named Sigmar Polke, who we plan on looking up online at the next opportunity.  One of his trademarks was to do the same exact painting two or more times, but include one or several additional elements in each one so that you had a completely different reaction depending on which painting or photograph your eye was focusing on.  That shit was so awesome that when we got to the Picasso exhibit right after it, we were hardly impressed at all.  Although neither of us ever thought too much of Picasso anyway. 

That was about two and a half hours into our tour and our attention spans were waning thin, but we then came to one of the most interesting exhibits I’ve ever seen, which was a large room with 30 different style chairs placed a few feet away from 30 different TV sets, all playing an endless loop of a person speaking directly to the camera and talking about themselves.  You started from a balcony looking down at this mess and hearing this mass of incoherent babble, then you walked down the stairs and made your way around the room, stopping at any TV set with a person telling a story that caught your ear.  They were all middle eastern people I believe, all different ages from different walks of life but the idea was that there was a common cultural thread running through each of them.  I walked around and read the subtitles on about 10 to 15 of them, thinking that if I ever came back to Cologne I’d want to visit this museum again just to start in that room and sit on every chair and watch every person’s story in its entirety, but at that point we were already getting tired and ready to leave.  The last thing I did was walk back upstairs and down the hall to a counter-part to that exhibit in which there were about 20 modern televisions in two concentric circles, each with a person talking about themselves or their life just like the first room only these people were all from southern California.  Rather than subtitles each TV had a headphone set connected so you had to just go up to whoever looked interesting then put on the headphones to see if you were right.  Again the idea was to find a common cultural thread between all these different people from different walks of life, and taken together with the other exhibit you could compare and contrast the one culture to the other.  Radically different cultures of course, so whatever common threads you could find between them would be commonalities of humanity rather than cultural.  Truly an incredibly idea and an enlightening experience for anyone receptive to it. 

When we left the museum we were both a little hungry so we walked around in search of a restaurant.  When we couldn’t find one with decent prices in the central area, we hopped a tram back to the area we’d drank at the previous night in search of a restaurant we’d passed that looked like it had really good pizza.  We found it without much difficulty and sat down for a nice lunch of delicious pizza, yet in the European style they give each of you a whole pie and it was a hell of a lot of food, way more than either of us are used to eating.  Yet somehow we managed to stuff most of it down (save for some crust) and when we were finished we had one more hour to kill before our train was to depart at 16:54. 

We spent that time just taking a walk through the city streets, up to the “Media Markt” and a little park behind it, then we swung back around and headed to the train station with about 15 minutes to spare. 

The train ride was pleasant and uneventful, except for an annoying 30 minute delay which caused us to arrive late to Ichenheim, but Dieter was there waiting for us on the platform when we arrived, all smiles as usual.  I served as a translator on the ride home and for most of the evening, as Myriam and Ralf were at an event in town in with the political representative for this region was giving a campaign speech in Ichenheim.  We had some delicious dinner, drank some beer and Schnapps, and had some pleasant conversation until Myriam and Ralf got home and I no longer needed to wrack my brain translating (although the beer and Schnapps had already made that task much easier).  Everyone went to bed shortly thereafter and Krissi and I went downstairs where we both slept quite well.  I was glad to be back in a quiet little village, waking up to the beautiful sound of absolutely nothing. 

We have no definite plans until Saturday, when we’ll celebrate Krissi’s birthday in Straßburg.  Until then we’ll just relax and take it easy.  She’ll get a taste of small-village life.  I’ll just enjoy the atmosphere.  I’m glad to be back.