Cologne: So they call it Köln nowadays, but I studied French for so many years that Köln never seemed right to me. Decades ago, I stayed at a place by the Rhine and near the Cathedral, a huge gothic cathedral that was amazingly left standing after WWII. (Köln is a big city and was badly damaged by the bombing then.) While I thoroughly enjoyed the art museums and still don’t understand why I repeatedly would get lost on the subway system, the people formed my memories of the place.
- There was the restaurant owner. He was full of smiles, a welcome change. He waved me over to his busy restaurant from afar and invited me to dine there. That was all I needed. He looked Asian and sat with me after my meal. When he learned I was from New England, he told me he was from Hawaii. We discussed U.S. politics for a while. As he owned the restaurant and it was seemingly staffed by others from Hawaii, I asked how he found what the press reported as German hostility to foreigners taking jobs there. He told me it was amazing but that his experience was that most locals didn’t want to work in a restaurant and he had no troubles there. Showing once again, there are jobs and then there are JOBS.
- There was the businessman I leaned into to ask about what kind of sausage he was having for lunch because that was what I wanted to order. This man was standing at one of many outdoor tables having his lunch; he looked very distinguished in his suit and goatee and I just assumed he was the type who could handle any situation, but he seemed so horrified at my interruption. (I honestly had no idea that a male would find that inappropriate, but I was very young then.) He straightened up and escorted me to the lunch counter and said something in a stiff tone that I didn’t understand. He did keep a pleasant look on his face, and there was what could be interpreted as a slight smile as he bowed to take his leave.
- There were the two sales clerks in the gift shop. I didn’t understand them much either. (I had taken a 10-week conversational German class, but the people of Köln didn’t speak anything like my teacher did.) The clerks were very thin and stood very straight; they were middle aged with coiffed hairdos; they had a worn look about them. I told them in the German I could muster that I was looking for a scarf for my mother. I carefully looked over their selections while they pretty much looked like they wanted me to leave. But when I chose a scarf for purchase, they seemed astounded and then started fussing over me to no end. They took forever to pick out the right box and the color of tissue paper…I left with the impression they were agreeing with each other that I was a good daughter.
- There were the older women in the bar. I had entered this bar because it had a big poster advertising ice cream on its window. I hopped up on a stool and tried to make myself understood. The woman at the bar poured me a beer which I declined. While there were hardly any other customers, she gave the impression that she had better things to do and ignored me. Eventually, a younger woman came from out back who spoke English and got me a bowl of ice cream. Then two elderly women came from different corners of the room to find out what I was about. I say elderly because of the lined faces, not a grey hair was to be seen on either one. In fitted dresses around ample forms and with teased hair, they sat on either side of me and wasted away their cigarettes between their fingers as they worked on pumping me for information. They were so curious that we actually did manage to swap some information. They asked if I was looking for a husband! They had so many questions but finally gave up on my speaking skills. I’m still curious.
Given the passing years, they are likely gone now. But their memory lives on.
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