Germany: Any reason to celebrate in Monheim am Rhein, Cologne, and Düsseldorf

I arrived in Paris six days ago and spent a couple nights there. I didn’t do much in Paris that I haven’t done before. Mostly, I just enjoyed being there, sitting in cafes, walking through parks, and so forth. The only new thing I really saw was the museum of the police prefecture, which actually I didn’t find very interesting, aside from an exhibit of some of the firearms used during the Liberation.

I left Friday morning by train for Cologne, Germany, where I planned to visit a friend of mine, Christian, who lives near there. I had planned to spend the morning in Paris, but after speaking to Christian by phone, it seemed like it would work out better with his schedule if I arrived in the mid-afternoon. The rail line between in Paris and Cologne is a mostly high-speed line called Thalys, so the trip took less than four hours, with only a few intermediate stops.

Note: This post is an excerpt from a letter I sent to family and friends on September 23, 2004, while I was traveling around Europe for a couple months.

The trip was uneventful, except for the moment we reached Aachen. German police boarded the train and checked the passports of two dark-skinned men sitting in front of me, and two dark-skinned men sitting directly behind me. The two in front of me looked like business men — older, well dressed, and so forth. The two behind me looked like boys. The two behind me didn’t have passports, and were escorted off the train. It gave everyone in our car something to talk about for the rest of the trip!

The Cologne Cathedral (Kölner Dom)
The only decent picture I have of the Cologne Cathedral, taken from a cruise on the Rhine. It's also one of the first things you see when you leave the train station.

Christian met me at the station in Cologne and then drove me to his home in Monheim am Rhein, which is between Cologne and Düsseldorf. He actually works in Bonn, so I guess Cologne is on his way home from work, which is why he wanted me to come earlier. His hometown is very much a bedroom community of people who work in Cologne, Düsseldorf, or Leverkusen. He grew up there, and now is living there in his parents house while his parents are working in Argentina.

Any of you who have heard me talk about Christian know that my stay there was going to involve a lot of beer, so I got in practice Thursday evening by visiting an Irish pub in Paris for a few hours. He let me know that I had to order the right beer for the city I was in. In Düsseldorf, they brew Alt, so that’s what they drink. In Cologne, they brew and drink Kölsch. I would be frowned upon if I ordered a beer in the wrong city. Those fortunate enough to live in Monheim could order either, when in Monheim, of course.

Christian, his wife Nadire, and I went to Düsseldorf Friday evening, and after walking around the old city, we enjoyed several different Alts, first in a cafe along the Rhine, which was very pleasant as the sun was setting, but then also in one of the breweries.

Later that evening, several of Christian’s friends arrived from out of town. They were coming to run the Cologne Marathon on Sunday. Christian decided not to run, citing his weight and laziness as contributing factors. Mostly, the laziness. However, the arrival of additional friends heralded the opening of additional beers, even though his friends were going easy because of the race. They also switched on the TV and went directly to soccer, to watch Second League highlights, which, of course, I didn’t really care about.

Saturday, after we all slept until about noon, we went into Cologne for the afternoon. We saw the Dom, the cathedral in the center of the city, and did some walking through the old center of that city. Then we took a one-hour mini-cruise on the Rhine, to get a better view of the city. Then, of course, we had a few Kölsches, to add to the few we had during the cruise. It was a good thing we took the train into the city, and Nadire had switched to coffee early so she could drive back from the train station. By dinner time, even Christian had had enough drinking for a few hours, and so we stayed in and watched some TV for a few hours, including a movie called Ballerman 6.

Around 11 pm, Christian and I decided to go out ourselves for a couple beers, somewhere we could walk to, since the marathoners were already in bed. Nadire had read that there was some sort of festival at the fire department, so when Christian and I went outside, we followed the music.

Well, what we found was one hell of a party. Apparently, it was a celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the Monheim fire department. There was live music, and people were singing and dancing on the tables when we walked in. Christian called Nadire on the mobile phone, and we went back and got her, because this looked like too much fun for her to miss.

To drink beer there, they were selling tickets. A beer cost two tickets, and a ticket cost sixty cents. I guess this was some sort of legal loophole where they could sell beer only until 1 am, but they could drink it until it ran out. I took twelve euro out of my pocket, plunked it down on the table and said zwanzig — twenty. I think Nadire might have preferred that I hadn’t bought so many tickets, but I pointed out that it was only five beers a piece, since she didn’t want any — I did offer. And the beers were small, so it was really only about three beers, if they had been normal beers.

So we drank and sang along and danced a bit, if swaying counts as dancing. Nadire was surprised I knew the lyrics to 99 Luftballons, but as much as it was played on the radio all over the planet, I can’t imagine why! The band was quite good, and I remember I thought that even before seven rounds of beers — we somehow managed to get a couple free rounds. We stumbled home around 3 am.

We all rolled out of bed pretty late on Sunday morning, and for a while, we were wondering if we were going to make it to Cologne to see Christian’s friends before they crossed the finish line. It didn’t much matter, since we only ended up seeing one of them, the one they thought might not make it, the one who crossed the finish line and immediately bummed a half-smoked cigarette from a woman standing next to him, then started looking for a beer. There was a sea of people, and so it wasn’t a lot of fun to be in the crowd, so we didn’t stay long after the race ended.

When we got back to the house, Nadire, who is Turkish, made us all some Turkish coffee, which was awesome. I regret having done whatever mundane task I was doing while she was making it so I could have observed how she did it.

That night was a quiet evening at home. Christian’s friends left, I did some laundry and re-packed my bags, we watched a little TV, and we all went to bed quite early.

The next morning, Christian dropped me off at the local train station since he was running late to work and wouldn’t have time to drive me to Cologne. No problem, since it was only about a four-euro ticket to get from Monheim to Cologne. However, when I got to the platform, I found out that all five ticket vending machines were out of order. The trains to Cologne ran about every fifteen minutes, so I decided to ride without a ticket to the next station, buy a ticket there, and then ride the rest of the way. Of course, that meant I had to skip a train while I was buying a ticket.

My next destination was Brussels, Belgium, and I arrived about 40 minutes before a train left. But as it turned out, there were no seats in second class, and I wasn’t willing to pay the extra money to ride in first class. So I waited another two hours for the following train. That gave me over two hours of wandering around the train station in Cologne, so that when I left I felt I knew it very well.

The ride to Brussels was only about two-and-a-half hours, on the same sort of high-speed train I rode from Paris to Cologne. No one was removed from the train this time.

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