We came to Cologne for three days as part of a “let’s visit Germany” trip, otherwise known as “where are the cheapest flights this month”. We flew from Manchester to Cologne, then get the train to Berlin tomorrow and fly back four days later. It’s the first time we’ve flown during school holidays (normally the off peak flights we frequent are mid week and while the kids are all in school) so an airport packed with fraught looking parents and dazed, tired, sometimes crying children awaited us. It must take real strength of character to think family flying will help your mental health, certainly from the looks of the dark shadows under the eyes of parents it does nothing to reduce stress.
We arrived to a city engulfed in a low misty fog, light drizzle falling from the sky, briefly illuminated by the shop lights to a background of a darkening and foreboding sky. The cathedral looms across the city, dominating the landscape, it’s dark towers, gothic and intimidating. Rain with icy crystals started to form, merging into bigger and bigger droplets crashing off the rooftops onto coats, hats and umbrellas. It’s initial moments like this that can tarnish a city or even a nation – serious and moody.
We spent that first day dodging showers, finding corners of crowded bar and café’s to hide away from the cold in, and wandering back to the hotel, looking around at a city seemingly engulfed in gloom. Not the ideal first impression.
Luckily the following day rain has been replaced by a weak but welcome sun so we explored the city free from squelching trainers, damp smelling clothes and the odd shiver.
Cologne is an odd city, while there is no doubting the beauty of the cathedral, the majesty of the river and the impressive site of the huge bridges, the real gem of the city lies outside the centre. An area known as the Belgian quarter felt dynamic and fresh without feeling pretentious and hip. Warm coffee shops with curtained entrances inhabited by pensioners, youths and yes, the odd bearded man and dreadlocked woman mixed with friendly restaurants, quiet streets leading to open tree lined squares and the low murmur of freight trains slowly grinding, unseen, up well disguised embankments.
The local cinema was similarly free of self consciousness – there was a part of me that wondered if they’d ever run a cinema before, or thought about customer experience while another part marvelled at how relaxed the whole experience was. The carpet was, well if I’m honest I’ve no idea as it was buried deep beneath a layer of lost popcorn. None knew where they were meant to be, simply that it’d all probably be okay in the end. Tiny bags of popcorn paled and blushed alongside a size of beer guaranteed to induce a hangover held by every other person. Before the film started the projectionist made a speech in both English and German.
“Hey guys, look I am your projectionist today, I am projectionist in this room and the other two rooms. I also tidy up all three rooms, so, yes. There will only be one trailer because I am busy”
With that the audience clapped, he walked to the projection room carrying himself like a king and we settled in to watch the film.
One of the things I love about northern European cities are those odd similarities contrasting with huge differences all the nations have. Take for example crossing the road. In the UK, Belgium and Holland road crossing is a skill, demonstrated daily through increasingly difficult movements. Noone waits for the lights to change, or the green man to flash, instead we cross in the smallest of breaks between traffic, often on corners, dual carriageways or major roundabouts with no discernible route or path. In the UK I’ve seen grown men argue about who is the best at it, then later, pints later try to vault a wall simply to prove a point and avoid the dreaded crossing. Meanwhile in German, Denmark and Sweden people wait, boy do they wait. Today we stood at a crossing in silence, not a car to be seen, staring over the road at other people waiting to cross. “Fuck it” we said, jogging over, carefully looking around for the danger that was nowhere to be seen. We were greeted by the type of look a pub in Yorkshire might stare at an outsider with a “I’m a sex offender” t shirt and Lancashire country cricket cap on.
We popped into a local neighbourhood bar, shunning the usual tourist traps of the centre. In Copenhagen we were welcomed as friends, Sweden was relaxed with a precise smile, Belgium felt like a free for all, while in the UK providing you’re not wearing the wrong counties cricket cap or a Manchester United shirt everything will be fine.
In this bar, busy but not packed, we sat down and got two beers. We sat at a table chatting and recharging after an epic walk – then we got told off. I can only assume the only attribute the bar owner was looking for when hitting staff was abrupt. “Are you eating?” the waiter shouted at us with a tone that suggested we had intruded a military toughening up session. “You cannot sit here if you are not, you must stand” he said, ensuring everyone in the surrounding streets could hear. So I mumbled apologies and we stood 12 foot from the table where we had sat, as customers returned to their conversations in the aftermath of our eviction. It all felt a little unfair, as if the tourists were being picked on, until, half an hour later a German couple in their 60s sat down for a drink, were informed of the rules in the same uncompromising tone and asked to move. They in contact fought it, shouted and complained before storming out, yet again leaving the table bare, a momentary pause in the room and then the resumption of life in the sleepy street in cologne.
P.S apologies this isn’t well written, an writing on a tablet that keeps jumping which is proving harder than you might think.