Oops, I did it again.

Forgive me, Father, for I have committed a cardinal travel sin.

I usually make it my goal on trips such as this to avoid any food or restaurant that is exactly the same as what I could get back home. No McDonald’s, no chicken tenders, etc. etc. Well, friends, I must admit that I have faltered. Not once, but twice. And I may do it again. I went to, gulp, Starbucks.

Starbucks is just starting to make its presence known here. They’re not quite on every other street corner (yet), but you can find them here and there without looking very hard.

To its credit, Starbucks does serve up a consistently good cup of coffee, wherever you might be. It’s disheartening to visit a local German bakery that sells the most mouthwatering pastry and then be handed a cup of coffee straight out of an automatic machine the likes of which you’d find in a 1950s office breakroom. Yuck.

I made plans to meet up yesterday morning with one of the American Women’s Group women I’ve been emailing with (who is actually English, as it turns out) for a coffee and Cologne chat. She’s actually the one who suggested Starbucks, I wonder if it was in an effort to make me feel more “at home,” and I went along with it. We convened at 10 a.m. and passed a very pleasant hour and a half alternately talking about the complexities of ex-pat life and corralling our corresponding toddlers.

There is another Starbucks less than a block away from the hotel where we’re staying, and its windows open out onto one of the busy tram stops. Having had another rough stretch of non-sleep last night, I really needed a big cup of good java this morning, and I knew watching the trams go by would be more than enough entertainment to keep the toddler enthralled in his stroller while I sipped it down.

The Starbucks coffee menu in Cologne seems much the same as back home in Indiana, and I didn’t detect any taste difference at all in the lattes I ordered, but there are a few localized special touches. Such as the seasonal lattes. Back home this time of year, you’re looking at things like peppermint mochas and gingerbread spice. Here, the flavors advertised are lebkuchen (honey cake), toffee nut, and dark cherry chocolate. Or maybe it was dark chocolate cherry… Whatever. In any case, it was enough to make me go “damn! That sounds good!”

The baked goods are different as well. You’ve still got a case of coffee cakes, muffins and what have you, but with slight flavor variations. I was particularly intrigued by something called a “gluhwein” muffin. I think I’ve mentioned before, gluhwein is actually a cold-weather quaff – spicy mulled red wine served piping hot with some extra sugar on the side. The ingredients listed on the muffins included red wine, cinnamon and orange. Hm. I can’t imagine how red wine works into a muffin mix exactly, but I am more than willing to take one for the team and find out.

Other meals worth mentioning… I was on my own with the toddler last night while hubby attended a gala dinner in conjunction with the trade show he’s here for. Based on past performances, I was a tad nervous about managing the little man on my own and being able to eat at the same time, but I was willing to give it a shot. I asked one of the hotel staff in the lobby for a recommendation, and he sent me to a restaurant/bar across the street called “Putz Beer Hall.” I swear. Putz.

The place looked pretty dead when we wheeled in, and the first waiter we encountered was a surly sort of older guy who didn’t speak English. He acted put out at having to find someone who could understand my request to bring in the stroller, and at the fact that I was bringing a stroller into the pub in the first place. But he did and quickly enough, we were settled. Of course, this guy ended up being our server.

This was another old-school beer hall, much like the one we visited two nights ago, but smaller, cozier and darker. Other patrons included a young couple who looked like they were on a date and a young professional guy who was soon met by a buddy. Who could also have been a date. I wasn’t sure. Another woman came in while we were there, sat a table next to us, and then moved as soon as my son let out a lone squeal.

Dining out here with a kid is something that is borderline frowned upon, according to what we’ve seen personally and what my local coffee friend was saying. Apparently, it’s just not done. I only recall seeing one other stroller out during dinner this week, which is odd because you see people walking around outside with strollers everywhere. German custom, perhaps? It was the same in Paris, too. I guess they’ll just have to deal with us; as travelers living out of suitcases, it’s not like we have any choice in the matter, after all.

The Putz menu offered up more traditional German fare, and I selected “kassler rippchen,” smoked pork loin. The plate featured two generous smoked chops with a flavor cross between ham and bacon, one atop a huge mound of mashed potatoes and the other on a pile of sauerkraut. Sauerkraut is one of the those things I would never think to eat back home, but here, I can’t get enough of the stuff. I found combining the mash and the kraut made the whole concoction even more delicious. Another superlative German meal. The waiter even lightened up a little bit when I ordered and conversed in German, my son cooperated and I left feeling I’d won a minor victory.

I think I’m falling in love a little bit with German food. The meals I’ve had here have been hits for the most part; the only misses came when we ventured outside German restaurants! The Italian dinner we had a few nights ago was ok, but way overpriced for the amount of food we received. And tonight, I was on my own again and grabbed some quick Chinese food from a place I’ve been walking past all week. I was in a hurry to get my son back to the hotel before a meltdown, the place looked promising and fairly busy, and I’d seen people getting food there to eat on the go. But… the chicken vegetable curry stir-fry thing I got was less than mediocre. Bland, watery and just plain meh. I was disappointed and spent the rest of the night wishing I’d followed my first instinct and stopped at the sausage stand for a bratwurst and fries instead.

Tomorrow is already our last day in Cologne. Our week here is absolutely flying by. That means only three more German meals to go. I’d better figure out a way to really make them count.

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