Auf weidersehn, dear Cologne

Currently catching up aboard a train, somewhere between Mannheim and the Swiss border, en route to Zurich, Lugano and ultimately, Milan. The train ride coming out of Cologne down to Mainz is like something out of a fairy tale. It’s no wonder, as I think I remember hearing that the Brothers Grimm actually hail from somewhere around these parts, and Heidelburg Castle just south of Mainz is the real-life original model for the Disney version.

The train hugs the beautiful Rhine River for the first two hours down from Cologne, gorgeous mountains rising up on the far side of the water, adorned with scatterings of ancient picture-postcard villages and the frequent sight of castle ruins perched on top of the hills. Throw in the occasional vineyard climbing its way up the rocky face and you start to get the picture.

Myriad images and impressions of Cologne are still fresh in mind after a lovely, lovely week. Hubby and I often end up coming home from business trips like this saying, “What were we thinking? Never again.” This is not one of those times. Our visit to Cologne seemed to work out very well for the most part.

A few random interesting Cologne anecdotes: two days ago, I hauled four small bags of dirty clothes into the laundromat across the street from the hotel to do some much-needed washing. As I stood in front of the pay station with a clueless look on my face, a friendly older gentleman approached and asked if I needed help. Turns out he was American, had lived in Cologne for more than 40 years and seen the likes of naïve tourists like me many times in just such a circumstance, I’m sure. After he gave me a brief tutorial in the ways of German laundry systems, we made small talk. I asked where he was from originally, and it turned out he was born and raised in Elkhart, Indiana, just a few short hours away from Indianapolis. We marveled over the fact that the world truly is quickly becoming a much smaller place.

Yesterday morning was the kaffee klatsch (coffee meeting) with the American Women’s Group of Cologne back at Bastian’s Cafe. It was a small turnout due to the fact that there was a bigger event last night that many of the women would be attending instead. Still, three ladies showed up and I found their impressions of living in Germany very enlightening. One has lived here for four years; another just six months. I found their advice and stories comforting; it’s nice to know that should we end up living in Europe at some point, there are support networks, opportunities for camaraderie and potential new friends just waiting to be discovered.

Hubby wrapped up his last day at the trade show early, due in no small part to an oncoming cold, and we were able to pack at a fairly leisurely pace. It’s funny how luggage contents seem to expand from one stop to the next, even though we actually have less material to work with now than we did coming over.

For our last dinner in Cologne, we returned to Bier Esel, banking on once again getting a truly stellar traditional German meal. I hoped the food would live up to the sauerbraten I enjoyed there the other night, and I’m thrilled to say it did and then some.

Hubby ordered the jagerschnitzel, a slightly odd choice for him because he doesn’t like mushrooms and the cutlet came absolutely smothered with them. He said he liked the sauce, just not the fungi itself. I was on the verge of ordering the gulaschesuppe I’d been craving all week when I noticed an actual gulasche entree listing. Bingo. Decision made.

Each of us got a mixed vegetable salad to start — a bed of lettuce filled with shredded carrot, cabbage, cucumber and some thin slices of a crunchy whitish vegetable we couldn’t place (the waitress would later tell us it was pickled radish). Hubby notes that salads in Germany are usually brought to the table swimming in dressing. No problem for me, being the condiment queen that I am, but hubby would prefer a little more restraint. Ranch dressing, of course, doesn’t exist anywhere outside the U.S., but the yogurt dressing versions in Germany are pretty close in flavor and appearance.

The jagerschnitzel was delicious (I did my best to make a small dent in the pile of mushrooms hubby ended up scraping off), but again, I got the better end of the bargain with my choice. My gulasche filled half of a huge pasta bowl alongside a pile of buttered penne. The noodles were a nice base, but really, they needn’t have bothered. All I really wanted to focus on was that fantastic stew of tender beef and spicy, peppery, paprika-spiked tomato sauce. The serving was enormous and hubby had to help me out with finishing the meat, which he did very gladly, onions and all. It was that good. We stuffed ourselves silly. One last kolsche beer and we were outta there. A post-dinner stroll through the shopping district was definitely in order on the way back to the hotel.

schnitzel

jagerschnitzel, the sequel

gulasche

gulasche with penne pasta

All packed up and ready to go this morning, we bid a fond farewell to an older Asian gentleman on the hotel staff who’d all but adopted our son. He sought him out and chased him around the lobby trying to pick him up any chance he got, and even snuck me a clandestine candy bar as we left. I don’t know if I’m getting more familiar with German customs and language efforts or what, but it seemed to me that the residents were much friendlier this time than they have been in my two previous visits to the country. Hubby and I were both genuinely a little sad to leave Cologne.

A quick taxi ride later, we were at the “hauptbanhof,” or train station. I remember this word with a little mnemonic device – to me, it sounds like “hop on and off,” appropriate for a train, don’t you think? Another German word I get a secret kick out of is “ausfahrt,” which, somehow appropriately, means “exit.”

I was in shock/awe at the number of people bellying up to the bar at 8 a.m. with glasses of kolsche beer. We grabbed machine coffee and insanely good “schoko-croissants” (chocolate croissants) at a station cafe before boarding the train for the start of our ten-hour, two-transfer journey to Italy.

To the wonderful city of Cologne, danke schoen. And cheers!

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