Monday, December 03, 2001

Rainy Days and Mondays Always Get Me Down

Rainy Days and Mondays Always Get Me Down

We piled in the breakfast since this is yet another moving day. With rolls and cheese at hand, we also make a sandwich for the train ride. We thought we deserved it, as they did not leave a box of chocolates on our pillows with a lovely note. The taxi van arrived ten minutes after the front desk called. He ordered

one extra large taxi after seeing our suitcases.

At the train station five and six different people independently hit us up for money. One wanted me to change his British pound coins in for guiders. They won’t take coins at the money exchange booths, but what would we do with British pound coins? Yesterday, in our meandering around, we came to the station to find out where the elevators were and what platform we would need to be on for our train. If there were no elevators, we were willing to sell the two large suitcases to the guy with the two British pounds. We are not doing steps any longer with these things.

Twenty minutes early, there is a train at our platform. I look at the sign above and see it is an inter-city train, but not international. Ron doesn’t believe me and he goes to ask the conductor. Two more trains arrive and depart from our platform before our train is due. They are like Swiss watches with their precision. They arrive the exact minute that is posted and they depart the exact minute that is posted. You are either on the train or you are off the train or you are getting a bloody joy ride, being stuck in a door that was meant to close the very second the train was to leave. You don’t make that mistake twice in a lifetime.

Our train arrives and we position ourselves to hoist the suitcases on and find seats in first class since our Europass only comes in first class. There is no place for our large pieces. We look and we search for what the reservations woman assured us would be a luggage bin. Having seen them on past trains, we knew what we were looking for, but in its usual place were four bins to sort trash. One of them was not marked with “Luggage that you really don’t need” so we were at wits end on what to do. We set them up against a wall, when the conductor came through and asked if there was a problem? “Yeh, there is a problem, don’t you people design trains for people who travel? Where the hell is the luggage bin? Why wouldn’t you allow us to check this stuff? Just because there was a risk of having employees claim disability for hurting their backs is not excuse for this kind of service.” My mind is always working, but my mouth just opens and spits out, “Can these stay here?” With a conspiratorial smile, he said that was fine with him, but the German conductor may charge us a fee for having them here. Those Germans still have not learned how to stay on people’s good side have they?

Being paranoid and fearful of a German conductor, I hunt for a space that is more suitable. There are two compartments on the train with the glass doors that close you in like animals on exhibit for the others that are bored and traipsing up and down the hallway. Alerting Ron we are on the move, I take one of the large suitcases and squeeze it in between the seat and the wall. It barely makes it and I am holding my stomach in while I am doing this like I am setting an example for the suitcase. Then the next large one goes on top, sideways, barely. It is jutting out into the doorway about four inches. The two smaller ones go on the overhead rack, which is glass. On major bump in the track and we will be splintered to death in glass fragments. Paranoia sets in again about the four-inch overhang and the German conductor. Meanwhile, Ron is reading, relaxing, and planning his first walk around the train when he gets bored in ten minutes.

A half-hour underway, the Dutch conductor comes looks over our Europass, stamps them and tells us to have a nice journey. Not a word was spoken about the suitcases. One station after another goes by and I am able to relax for an hour. Then the announcement comes over the loud speaker in Dutch, German, and then English. We are reaching the border town with Germany and please have your tickets ready for inspection by the German conductor. Paranoia levels are peaking once again. The conductor is a female. What have I been so worried about? Women are much more sensible about large pieces of luggage than men are. Nary a word was said, but mind balloon over her head said, “Pity, they must only be traveling for a week with such a little amount of luggage.” Time to kick back, relax and be a Ron.

Another announcement that at first I believed could be ignored when it started in on the loudspeaker, “There is a mechanical problem with the train and it cannot be ‘driven’ any farther than the next station. All of you who are continuing on to Cologne and beyond have to get off and get the next train.” Maybe I should have snuck in and snuck out to a Dutch mass yesterday to make an appearance, be seen by the right people and we would have had better luck today. It is too late to cry over spilled Heineken. We get to the station and get our monstrous pieces off of the train again. We are on platform fourteen; our next train leaves from platform four. Unless there is an elevator, I am not leaving this platform. We will wait here until they redirect the Cologne trains to this platform or we will go wherever this train takes us, but I am not leaving without an elevator. Since Ron ducked in and out of mass, there was an elevator. We were number nine and ten in line to use it and it was questionable whether we could both fit in it without luggage, let alone with it. We made it to the correct platform and waited twenty minutes for our train.

The whole routine of storing the luggage happened again like a bad déjà vu experience. After one stop, this very attractive man looked outside the door of our compartment, looked at us, then the door once again. He had a reservation and Ron was sitting in his seat. When Ron made no attempt at moving, the young man was gracious enough to say that he would take his proper seat at the next stop when we were out of his seat and his sight.

Walking to the hotel was only supposed to take ten minutes, so God forbid we left the large suitcases in storage at the station, there may be something we needed in them, like contact solution. We dragged them outside to find that he escalators were out of order and there were three levels of stares. Call a taxi, call the Air Force, I don’t care who you call, but I am not bringing these suitcases up those stairs. By walking an extra block, we were able to avoid a German National High Alert situation and get to our hotel in less than ten minutes time.

In Cologne, right next to the very modern and fairly attractive train station is an old, old cathedral that is the showplace of the city. In Germany, at Christmas time, next to many churches and other parts of the towns and cities, they have a Christmas fair. There was a large fair already in progress upon our arrival. Ron had gluhwein on his mind from the moment he convinced me this was a trace your roots trip, but I knew the hot mulled wine he loved so much in Berlin on our first trip together was the basis of his desire to return to Germany.

Callas Dom Hotel, our home for the next few nights is named after the opera star, Maria Callas, who supposedly stayed here. She must be the only celebrity they have ever had or the name of the hotel would be as long as a Spanish countess. Before we leave, I am sure Ron will have all of the history down. He went downstairs to ask the receptionist one question and now has enough information on her life to be her official biographer.

Leaving the hotel lobby, I am having fond flashbacks of past German Christmas fairs myself, but not for the wine. As I head in that direction, three minutes from our front door, I am redirected. The first stop in any town has to be the…you guessed it, the tourist office. Three women are sitting behind the tourist office desk to answer the lame questions of stupid tourists. Like McCarthy in his book wrote that he over heard an American woman ask in a restaurant if mayonnaise originated in County Mayo in Ireland. You could tell these women had their share of these types of questions and as they were responding they were really thinking about night courses at the local college for a career change. They reminded me of the three witches in Shakespeare’s play MacBeth, who are stirring the cauldron while chanting “Bubble, bubble, toil, and trouble…” and there is trouble standing in line waiting his turn. By the time Ron finishes in line, the woman is ready to take the next train to Amsterdam for a reefer, but he cheerily ends the exchange with “If we have any other questions, we will be back.” From the look in the woman’s eyes, I realized that my best Christmas present to Ron would be to keep him clear of ever returning to that office during our stay or until she retires which ever comes first.

We checked a couple of photography places to see if any of them could develop my pictures onto CD-Rom, but not one of them could, surprisingly. Then we went into the Internet café that is directly across from the train station to check out prices. A whopping $6.00 an hour for Internet access, which with the amount of time we research hotels, read e-mail, send e-mail, and banking, this could cost a small fortune in no time at all. Checking their drive, they do not have Word either. Since I cannot read the German, I am not sure where they may be hiding WordPad. So far it is amazing to us that so few people speak English.

I sneak into the Tourist office to see if they can lead me in the right direction for a cheaper café. The woman at the tourist office laughed and said that $6.00 to $8.00 an hour is standard in Cologne. How I am wishing that EasyEverything will come in and give them their comeuppance, but the café is on hold until tomorrow. It is now dark and time to cruise through the Christmas market.

This is the country that gave the world the Christmas tree. The practice of decorating a tree at Christmas has its roots in paganism, but started in Germany. There are wooden booths of assorted sizes in within a large circle, but interspersed within the large circle, there are further rows of more wooden booths making about seventy-five in all. Each booth is either merchandise for sale, some type of food, or liquor. The traditional drink is the gluhwien, which is the mulled wine served at Christmastime. The beer served is called Klosh and is served all of the time. For either drink, you pay a deposit for the mug (wine) or the glass (beer) along with the drink. The mugs and the glasses are decorated for the Market season. This year’s colors are mocha and a dark red. They have different Christmas themes on them, but it includes the church and the market itself. If you want to keep the mug or glass, you can for the four marks deposit. We decide early on that we will get a set of four for entertaining in Budapest. The only matched set of anything that we will have for sure at this point. We may have to buy a coffee pot to show off our matched set of mugs.

After getting our mugs of wine, we did our tour of the market. Not all of the goods for sale are a Christmas theme. There are lots of jewelry booths, some with incense, incense holders, Buddhist statues, minerals, and rocks, and there are lots with candy. There are more types of candy than I have ever seen in one place before. Chocolate of every type fills glass cases to the brim and people are buying it like a high tax is going to be instituted on cacao beans come January 1st. There are chocolate covered bananas, kiwi, melon, strawberries, raspberries, nuts of all kinds, then there are the traditional chocolates of various sizes and shapes with different fillings, but they also come in milk chocolate, dark chocolate, bitter chocolate, and white chocolate. The one candy that we have not figured out the purpose for is the large lollipops. They are the size of a platter and are on a stick. They are made of candy, but chocolate and are decorated with cake type frosting that hardens and they have writing on them. We have no clue what they say and why embarrass some German that was an English class drop out to try and translate it for us.

The food booths are too good to pass up and they provide an inexpensive meal. Ron was hungry for a bratwurst, but I held out for a slice of fresh pork roast on a roll with sauerkraut. That and a mug of wine was our dinner and it was plenty. Hearing music, we followed the melody to find an orchestra playing on the square just outside the cathedral and the Christmas Market. It was a forty-piece, male and female wind instrument orchestra with trumpets, tuba, trombone, clarinets, and a conductor. Music was pouring out, presumably of German Christmas variety.

Feeling good with the wine to warm our innards and the music to make out soul toasty, we found a book store close to the market, so we went on our search for the perfect children’s Christmas book in German for Ron’s sister-in-law, Mary Ellen. They had about a dozen books with Christmas themes, but many did not have attractive pictures. The saleswoman did not speak English, so getting information about their Christmas customs was a bit difficult. They did have books with St. Nicholas rather than Santa Claus, and the black man appeared once again. In Germany, his same is Sarotti, not Pete like in Holland. Sarotti wears a turban in Germany, so perhaps he was a Sikh or it was added for the mystique. Children in Germany, at least in Cologne celebrate St. Nicholas Day on December 5th, like in Holland, but does not arrive on a boat as he does in Holland. Since Germany has less water to transverse than Holland, St. Nicholas is able to ride a horse. Sarotti has a dual role of delivering the presents to the good children, but also beating the bad ones. This brings a conflict to mind in that we do not want cultures to change, but yet there are some things that are blatantly against our social consciousness.

But, as I said, custom is celebrated differently all over Germany. My German friends had told me about a custom called “Hide the pickle” years ago and I have read the story in books too. Parents would hide a pickle somewhere in the Christmas tree and the first child in the family to find it gets a special prize. My former co-worker, Ruth, is from Germany close to the same area as my friends are and she had never heard of the custom. Having read about this in books and having seen glass ornament pickles sold at Christmas, I know that they are not pulling a fast one on a naïve foreigner.

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