Monday, June 13, 2011
Now all this year Germany and my friend Daniel have been just a few hours away, but last week I finally did something about it. Jade and I grabbed our backpacks and caught a TGV (ICE in English---Inter City Express. I prefer rocket train) to Cologne, just 3 hours away total. It was great to see Daniel again, who had been an exchange student in my school in Alaska two years ago. He actually gave me the idea to do a year abroad. Anyways, his English is almost better than mine, so we all got along and chatted it up in English over the weekend.
He picked us up from the station in a car thanks to his valuable driver's license (it costs up to 2000 euros to earn your license here---driving ain't no joke) and took us by his old high school to have a look-see. In Germany they have 13 grades, and there were windows in every single classroom, but otherwise it looked like a pretty normal high school. On the way to his home we went along a stretch of THE autobahn---how very thrilling! It was through the city, though, so there was a speed limit. But it was still legit.
We stopped briefly at the house to meet his sister and his mother's fish and then left to catch a train into town. Their metro system is expensive, but comes every 10 or 15 minutes and runs all night. Unlike Belgium, literally ALL kinds ride the train. You can see people with purple hair sitting next to stately elderly gentlemen sitting next to a tipsy dude wearing a knit cap. People watching was quite entertaining. We stepped off the train near the town center and then walked across the Rhine on a bridge with a really long German name that I can't spell. The barrier of the bridge was chock full of locks of all shapes and sizes, covered with all kinds of inscriptions. Apparently the romantic thing to do in Cologne is to put a lock on the bridge and toss the key in the river. Some authorities complain that it's destroying the bridge, but removing all the locks would be a tedious and expensive job for the city, so for now they stay. Photographers n tourists love it, and the locals make use of it for romantic dates as well.
From the bridge we had a great view of the cathedral---the tallest in Europe. It was absolutely breathtaking---I've seen quite a few beautiful churches here, but this was really something. Definitely on the same level or even more beautiful than Notre Dame in Paris. The surface was incredibly intricate, and the relatively new stained glass windows were brilliant (they were all lost in the wars. Amazingly, the cathedral itself was spared intact. The rest of the town was pretty well demolished.) It was also marvelously cool inside---it was around 100 degrees out in the sun. I had never experienced heat that like before, and I was quite impressed. The cold stone floors and breezy chapels were very welcome.
We then took a stroll through the town, Daniel pointing out notable restaurants, apartments, and office buildings all the while. We went to a little-known pub with Cologne-brewed beer for dinner. The servers there don't ask if you want another beer---if your glass is empty, you get another one until you say stop. The bill is kept on the backside of a coaster with tally marks. Really hardcore people make it around the entire coaster in one night. I'm generally not a beer beer fan, but this was a nice mild variety. I then discovered that real sauerkraut is nothing like the stuff I've been eating all my life. Wow, it was wonderful. The ham and mashed potatoes weren't bad either, and the portions certainly weren't skimpy. And they say Americans like their meat. Without thinking, Jade ordered a salad---there's been an outbreak of some kind of bacteria in raw vegetables in Germany recently and there are lot of sick people and 20 or so dead. She hasn't died yet, but in hindsight, a salad probably wasn't the best choice for supper. At any rate, we had a nice meal and then headed off to visit the source of the local beer.
At the brewery we got a taste of more of the typical beer and the typical Cologne bartenders---grumpy as can be and the customer is never right. I got all kinds of dirty looks for asking for water instead of beer after a while, and Jade was teased quite a bit for being a French speaker. We had a good time talking and watching the tenders haul kegs of beer in over their shoulder and wash a prodigious number of beer glasses at incredible speeds. We also practiced saying cheers, please, and thanks in German. Around 3 or so we took a taxi home, chatted with Daniel's sister and her buddies on the porch, and then crashed.
We woke up relatively late the next morning and enjoyed a breakfast of good German bread with jam and nutella before heading off for more adventuring. We were going to climb the Cathedral towers, but the line of tourists was so incredibly long that we decided to go do something else and maybe come back later. Here in Europe the Tourist season is in full swing---even in Tournai the Cathedral is full of little English gentlemen and French ladies taking tours. Anyways, we chose to spend the afternoon wandering around Cologne, checking out the other notable points of the city. We stopped back at the same pub for lunch. We had 'half a rooster' which is a Cologne tradition that is actually bread with a slab of Gouda and butter. Nom. We also had mustard and a serious dill pickle---that thing was enormous. And very very good. The mustard tasted 'normal' to me---much like American mustard vs the make-you-cry-with-smoke-coming-out-of-your-ears French stuff. And of course we had more beer. By that time of the afternoon it was well over 100, so we were rather sluggish. We walked around some more afterwards, and then headed back across the river to the local hang-out spot, the park. We laid in the grass and talked for a couple hours, watching some people play a crazy game that resembled something of a medieval battle. They charged each other with foam staffs and swung balls on ropes over their heads trying to hit each other, so I'm not sure how else to describe it. Looked fun. When we had recovered, we headed home.
We went out later to the grocery store to pick up some dinner ingredients. We learned that Jade needs to move to Germany, since wine is about half the price it is in Belgium. Also, that they have really long conveyor belts at checkout and that feeding the bottle recycling machine is fun the first time. Daniel whipped up noodles with mushrooms, and we chilled watching the Hangover and debating whether its French title is better (Very Bad Trip) before we headed to bed.
We caught a train early the next morning because the silly American got her PMs and AMs mixed up and booked a train early in the morning instead of Saturday night. Hem. At any rate, it worked out just fine. I bought a pretzel for breakfast, since I hadn't seen one of those for ages, and some coffee was also welcome. I was apparently still pretty sleepy thought, as I tried to take the escalator going the wrong way. Comic relief, I guess. 3 and a half hours later we were back in Tournai in time for lunch and the traditional parade, the Carlage. Which is yet another story.