Our train from Wiesbaden to Cologne was in the afternoon, and for a change we reached the station early to buy tickets (we saved our 6-day Eurail pass for the longer journeys). I’ve mentioned earlier how everything in Germany works like clockwork and the level of automation is, at the very least, gratifying. So it was no surprise that we got our tickets done from the kiosk in a jiffy and were all set for a long-ish wait. While I was drooling over an overpriced beret (the hat fascination is getting to fetish levels now), two young people – a guy and a girl – appeared from somewhere and approached S. The girl was harmless looking enough, but something about the guy seemed “sinister” (he was carrying something big and black), and I debated whether to abandon the hat hunt (priorities, people!) and go “protect” my one-and-only husband (who also happened to be carrying our cash and passports, just saying). The “attacked” husband meanwhile was chatting merrily with them, and getting ready for his two minutes of fame. Turned out these kids were doing some project on time taken in buying a ticket from a kiosk, with an aim to eliminate unnecessary time-consuming steps. Reminded me of the BPR classes I had yawned through, and I happily sacrificed my potential stardom to let S take the “lead”. So he ran through the ticket buying process while She measured time and He recorded (the big black thing was a video camera), and later answered their questions. I don’t think it helped them much, since we had just bought the tickets a little while back, the whole thing was much faster than it should have been for a “newcomer”, which was the premise of their project. Oh well. The train journey was uneventful, and we arrived at Cologne tired and hungry.
The main reason Cologne was on the itinerary is because S’s own Aunt (“Mamima”, whom he had last met when he was a kid) and Cousin I lived there. From the moment we stepped off the train and saw Cousin I and her friend, we stopped being “tourists” and settled into the “local” mode with family. There was an emotional reunion back home, even while I was distracted by the heavenly aroma from the dining room. We had a candlelight dinner (not the kind we have to have here when the inverter runs out) cooked by Mamima – hearty potato salad (which was a meal by itself), pork medallions, chicken something (in case we didn’t eat pork she said worriedly, while we assured her we ate EVERYthing), and ending with a dessert of fresh fruit and cream. After almost a week of restaurant food, we were all ready to be pampered. Dinner was a happy affair with Mamima bringing out a box of old pictures of her long-ago visit to India, including never-before-seen baby pics of S and his sister, which provided many laughs (sadly I’m not allowed to represent them here in the face of dire threats). Mamima is a fiercely independent German lady whose apartment had the most cosy den I have ever seen – with an old-world piano, sepia frames of her mother dancing as a young girl, soft carpeting, yellow flowers, and two walls just bookshelves from ceiling to floor. It is my official dream room for now. For the two days we were there I became her pupil, and she beamed proudly every time I managed to pronounce the harsh German words the correct way. After dinner we headed to a typical “Kolsch” restaurant – Kolsch is a specialty beer brewed in Cologne. S aired his knowledge and tried to explain to me what makes it so different (after Cousin I had explained to him), but not being a beer person at all, I contended myself with listening to the quaint traditions related to it rather than the composition. It is served in small conical test-tube like glasses rather than the gigantic beer mugs we had had in Munich, brought in little trays with holes in them. The tradition is that anytime the waiter sees an empty glass he picks it up and replaces it with a full one, no questions asked (a tradition S has been trying to replicate at home ever since, with zero co-operation from me). The sign for “I’m done” is a coaster placed on top of the glass. Our table got into the “spirit” of things happily (even I became a beer-drinker for the night, when in Rome and all that), and it was a long while before any coasters were up. It was a fun-filled night as we heard stories of Germany during her university days from Mamima, and how had she met her husband (S’s late uncle) and he had swept her off her feet – they had actually danced down the street on their first date! That’s one for the family folklore archives.
The next morning we set out bright and chirpy to explore Cologne. Here I must mention that for the last two days I had been affected by a knee pain whenever walking for too long, and suddenly in Cologne it worsened, probably due to the colder weather. But since I wasn’t going to let something so mundane spoil the holiday, I ignored it as best I could (which was not for too long as later events will reveal). Cousin I turned out to be a wonderful guide, and it was different seeing the city with someone who really knows it. So while we visited the famous Cologne Cathedral (or Dom as it’s called, complete with the crypt of the 3 Wise Men of ‘We Three Kings of the Orient Are’ fame) like other tourists, we heard titbits about it which are probably not there on Lonely Planet. A fascinating aspect of the history of Cologne is that it was an important city during the days of the Roman Empire, and evidence of it is strewn all around the city. So walking along a residential street with a park on one side, you come across the remnants of an ancient Roman statue. The popular joke is that if you dig too deep in the backyard of a home there, you will uncover some Roman-era ruins. We walked around the old city, across a bridge on the Rhine, climbed a tall building (whose name I can’t remember now) for a panorama view of the city. We stopped for lunch at a pub with wooden chairs and tables, where I experimented with a “Kartoffelsuppe” (a typical German potato soup). While it was hot and delicious, the quantity was sufficient for three of me, had I but realised it earlier! After lunch Mamima left us to return home and get some rest, while we went off to explore the remains of an old Roman underground bath. While buying tickets for it, something the ticket guy said to Cousin I had her in fits of laughter, and when she translated it for us, S joined her. Apparently the guy had told her she needn’t get a ticket for me since tickets were only for 12 years and above! On being told his mistake, he turned a tomato red was profusely apologetic, as I tried to reassure him it was fine, and at my “ripe old age” it’s nice to be mistaken for being younger (although 12 was a bit much even for me). Anyway, age is a relative concept when you are standing on what is the remains of something constructed centuries ago (my feeble defence). We had plans for a river cruise, but it had turned seriously chilly by then, and we decided to make for the warmth of home instead. Dinner was at a different restaurant this time, where again I opted for a traditional “Bratwurst”, and S a juicy steak. Back home, the “nightcaps” stretched late into the night as conversation ranged from world politics to family politics, in-between covering linguistics, war and the merits of different kinds of alcohol, among other things!
The next morning we had an early train to the Black Forest region. All too soon our Cologne interlude was at an end, and as usual it kept us “wanting more” in Oliver Twist style. Even as I felt the usual pangs of leaving one place, the familiar excitement of looking forward to a new one crept in. It is so difficult to leave, and yet so easy. Makes you wonder if you know yourself at all…travel definitely reiterates the belief that nothing is permanent – and nothing is yours. The same thing that the Bhagwad Gita (and Oasis) tried to tell us –
“Just take what you need
And be on your way
And stop crying your heart out.”