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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…