From pretty much the minute we set foot in Germany, we knew we were gonna like it here. We initially got some surprised reactions from our well-traveled friends when we told them Cologne would be our first German city, but it turned out to be a good decision. It’s not overwhelmingly touristy the way Bruges or Amsterdam were, but it was easy to get around and full of classically German things to do right from the get-go. Since we’re in Berlin now - which is very modern and hip and doesn’t match any of the stereotypes you think of as “German” - we’re glad we got a chance to visit a less ‘cool’ but more traditional part of the country.
Our stay in Cologne started off pretty much as ‘traditional’ as it gets. As soon as we arrived in Cologne we knew we needed to eat, and soon, having been on a train for many hours. Once we dropped off our bags, Alex took us to the first restaurant he could find on TripAdvisor. It was a little after 4 at this point, and the place was set to open at 4:30 so we figured we’d be the only ones there. To our surprise, when we got there at least 30 or 40 people waiting out front - and not just senior citizens seeking the early bird special, but rather people of all ages. Alex and I were definitely not expecting this. Still, we were incredibly hungry, so we got in the queue and stood there awkwardly, not sure what to do, and nobody seemed to know English.
Once the doors opened, everything turned to madness. Everyone practically sprinted inside and began claiming tables. We followed suit, again not knowing what the protocol was, but no one was yelling at us so we figured we were doing the right thing. It almost felt like arriving for a dinner show or a meal on a cruise where everyone rushes in, takes a seat, and waits. Except we didn’t know what we were waiting for. But suddenly two tiny glasses of beer were slammed down in front of us, and I looked up and noticed the bartender was going from table giving everyone the same beer. I decided to play along. I drank it - it went down quick - and practically as soon as I had set the empty glass down, I was handed a fresh beer. I downed that one too, and the same thing happened! As we learned later, in Cologne the traditional beer is Kolsch, and it’s served in small 0.2L glasses. Most bars only serve one type, and they’ll automatically refill you as long as you’re in the bar, marking down the number of drinks you’ve had on a coaster. To say ‘stop’ you have to cover your glass with a coaster. We did not know any of this going in, but it was wildly fun to learn as we went - and we honestly got pretty drunk before we learned the coaster trick.
Shortly after we ordered - which required us to wrestle the bartender’s attention away from the Kolsch rounds for a few seconds - a pair of older German men gestured at the seats next to us. Thinking they wanted the extra chairs, we gestured that they were welcome to take them. To our surprise (this, as you can imagine, was a running theme), they sat right down with us! We did not speak a lick of German, and they spoke zero English, but we managed to communicate incredibly well despite the language barrier. Turns out they were huge fans of Obama, and when we told them we were from Chicago one of them busted out a surprisingly decent Al Capone impersonation. We wound up chatting - or trying to - with them for the entire meal, and when we left they waved us off with tips for things to do around the city, and a newfound appreciation for German people.
The whole experience was exactly the kind of feeling we’ve been chasing in our travels - going somewhere where there are no tourists, trying to meet some locals, and experiencing what everyday life might be like in another country. And the best part was that everyone was incredibly warm and welcoming, which is definitely not true of some ‘local’ spots in heavily-touristed areas. People didn’t mind that we spoke terrible broken German, and no one acted like we were out of place or unwanted. I think this is what most people mean when they say they want to ‘live like a local’ while traveling. It’s a phrase that gets poo-poohed online sometimes because, as critics say, living like a local means getting a job and going through the daily grind, but what I think people really mean is just having nights like the one we had in Cologne. It was an incredibly positive experience that made me thrilled to be visiting Germany.
For the rest of our 36 hours in Cologne we managed to squeeze in quite a lot, from jazz bars to Lebanese mezze, but nothing ever really came close to that pub for sheer awesomeness. We visited the Kolner Dom - the city’s most famous building and one of the largest and best examples of Gothic architecture in Europe - and did a walking tour that gave us a little bit of background into the city and why it’s different from the rest of Northern Germany. According to our tour guide since this city has such a long and diverse history, myths and fairy tales make up a huge part of local lore and that’s reflected in many of the fountains and statues all around the city - including one that, inexplicably, is holding a relatively fresh bottle of beer. Also, it turns out that for some reason - we’re still not sure why - there’s a monument commemorating Neil Armstrong’s moon landing in 1969. Yeah - it doesn’t make a ton of sense, but that’s kind of the impression we got of Cologne. It’s sort of hodgepodge and everything feels random and a little bit quirky, but somehow it works, and it gives the city a unique vibe that’s totally different from anywhere we’ve been so far.