Kaffee tawk

When we travel for extended trips like this with hubby, I like to seek out and make contact with expat/American communities wherever possible. Interacting with these groups makes the culture shock a little less, well, shocking for me. And the groups I’ve met in various cities are usually very kind about letting me attend their events and gatherings as a guest for the week or so while I’m in town.

Last year when we were in Germany, I did some research ahead of time and discovered an organization called the American Women’s Club of Cologne. Several women responded to my email requests for information and were lovely about forwarding their calendar of social events and encouraging me to attend. I was able to reconnect with a couple of the same gals prior to our return trip this year.

The AWCC is awesome and has a full schedule of activities, from weekly coffee meetings to book clubs, moms groups, dinners, recipe exchanges, girls’ nights out — you name it. I can see this would be a great resource and a lifeline for new relocatees. I ended up riding the tram over to a small moms’ group gathering yesterday afternoon. We’d originally planned to hook up at a playroom facility, but when I got there, it was dark and locked. Fortunately, I was able to find the friend I’d intended to meet in a nearby café. When I went in, I was delighted to see a children’s play area set up in the back with tons of age-appropriate toys to occupy my little guy. Obviously a popular stop, as there were a half dozen other moms sitting around enjoying lattes as their kiddos played away to their hearts’ content. I whiled away a happy and relaxed hour chatting with two moms from England and one from Seattle and left with my weary travel-worn spirit feeling renewed.

This morning, I marked my calendar for another kaffee klatsch, this one at a place called Bastian’s – a more upscale café around the corner from our hotel. (For my Indy readers, this place is like a bigger version of Taste but with more bakery options, to give you a frame of reference.) Not really a mom-friendly event, this, but I had to bring the toddler with me as hubby was busy at his trade show and I didn’t have a choice. There were four other women in attendance, one native German, two from Australia, and one in the process of relocating to Cologne from Chicago. No other kids in tow today and no such luck for a play area here, so I ended up catching bits and pieces of conversation and quick sips of milchkaffee between jumping up to chase the toddler all over the shop.

Bastian’s is a gorgeous bakery/café and I really would have liked to stay for lunch, or at the very least, a piece of the absolutely beautiful looking cakes and desserts in the display counter. Hmph. Better luck next time. We hightailed it out of there when the toddler started to squeal like a stuck pig in that high-pitched, scare-every-dog-in-the-neighborhood way that only toddlers can. I sensed the golden window closing and picked up a small salami sandwich from a stand stack for a quick lunch in the hotel room while the toddler inhaled peanut butter crackers and a banana.

Our dinner last night went a long way to restore my faith in dining out with kids in Germany. I’m of the mindset that when in Rome, you should eat as the Romans do. Therefore, wherever we are, I like to seek out the best quintessentially local cuisine we can find. The only catch is, in Germany, people don’t seem to bring their kids out to dinner very often. Or at all. So when we go to German restaurants, we usually get the stink eye from waitresses and often from fellow diners as well. Now, my son is a typical, curious, busy two-year-old, but he does ok for the most part. It’s not like he picks up plates and smashes them onto the floor or flings goblets of sparkling water at fellow diners, for Pete’s sake! Still, we get the cold shoulder.

I asked my expat friends about this situation, and they all agreed that it’s hard to find child-friendly dining-out options here, with one exception. Italian restaurants. The Italians don’t seem to mind a little noise and a little mess. To test this theory last night, we went for dinner at a place by our hotel called Ristorante Sansone. And what do you think happened? We had the most fabulous, relaxed dinner and the staff doted on our son like crazy. Two of the waiters joked with him throughout the entire meal, even going so far as to snatch him up and take him over for a close-up look at the residents of the lobster tank.

Michael meets a lobster

It was so refreshing, and the food was delicious, too. I loved my fresh ravioli pasta stuffed with a ricotta and pear filling, topped with spinach, nuts and gorgonzola sauce. Divine. Hubby’s pizza diavolo was good, but CRAZY spicy – the thick slices of meat were so hot, he had to pick them off. The residual heat still made him sweat.

ravioli

Back in the mood for German food once again, we went for a walk down by the Rhine riverfront this evening for a visit to one of hubby’s go-to Cologne stops — Der Lowenbrau. This is an old-school beer hall joint that looks like it’s been around for ages and ages. And, as we were there early and it wasn’t terribly crowded, they were fairly tolerant of the toddler’s explorations.

Der Lowenbrau

 

The menu’s full of German classics, thankfully with English translations. I went for kasseler rippchen, a delicious smoked boneless pork chop/ham deal with a mound each of sauerkraut and mashed potatoes. The plate was a little cold by the time it got to me, but everything tasted wonderful and I polished it off without further ado.

Kassler rippchen

To wash it all down? One of my favorite drinks in the world – gluhwein. Like gulasche, gluhwein is an ideal way to cure what ails you on a chilly night, and a seasonal Christmas market standard offering. Basically, it’s a big honking mug of red wine spiced with cinnamon, orange and vanilla. It’s served hot with a little sugar on the side, and in my case tonight, a few crispy tiny almond meringue cookies. Just as good as I remembered.

gluhwein

The Christmas decorations and lights are currently going up all around town, and the preparations for the annual Christkindl markets are well underway. These miniature villages are popping up in various sites, each looking like a magical fairyland with its sweet booths and twinkling lights. I can only imagine how fun it would be to while away an afternoon or evening strolling along, sipping gluhwein, nibbling roasted chestnuts and checking out all the wares. Think stuff like nutcrackers, replicas of half-timbered houses, toys, dolls, sweets and all manner of holiday gifts. I’m really sorry we’ll miss this experience, as the markets don’t officially open until the day after we leave. Maybe we can time our trip better next year…

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!