Monday 18 October 2004

Cologne, Germany

Well, we officially made our first trip to the continant this weekend- Cologne, Germany!! The occasion: Stephen's Godmother's 85th birthday. We had an incredible time, and it was fabulous to finally get to meet most of the European crew that I've been hearing about from Stephen and his family.
We left Saturday morning early and arrived in Cologne mid-morning to be picked up by Manfred (family friend of the Siards) and his son Jakob (pronounced Yakob) and taken back to their home in a suburb of Cologne where we would spend most of our time. Manfred and his wife Marianne are long time friends of Stephen's parents when Gib was stationed in Germany. Manfred is now retired from Exxon and Marianne is a teacher of History and Germany Language in the local public school system. They have four children, all of whom are in University: one son 23 (Kristian), twin girls (Alexandra and Theresa) age 21, and another son (Jakob) 20. The way the German educational system is constructed, it is a fabulous achievement to have children studying at University. All four of them were home for the weekend, so we had the pleasure of meeting them and talking with them. Bonus: the entire family speaks English really well. The eldest son Kristian could easily be mistaken for a native speaker.

They have a beautiful home in the suburbs. It's extremely comfortable with an "American" style living room added and a huge backyard complete with Walnut trees and a type of crab apple tree that is used to make a type of jelly well known in their region. A very pleasant comfortable home that is unique to happy families. Watching them all interact and joke with eachother was a wonderful experience.
Anyway, once we got there we found out that the get together for Stephen's godmother was that evening, so we did a quick reorganization of plans and talked Kristian into coming with us to act as a translator since virtually no one at the party would speak much more than basic English. Let's just say we owe Kristian BIG TIME.
Now, I really do love my dearest husband, *but* he is hell on translators. When we were in Petersburg he would try to get into philosophical discussions with Russians who didn't speak any English and then get upset, because my translations were too "simplistic". *rolling of eyes* I'm sorry, epistomological isn't in my working vocabulary. Anyway, I tried very gently before going to the party to remind him that when working through a translator it's a good idea to keep your ideas concise using language appropriate for the situation. He sort of listened to me, but Kristian did an excellent job nonetheless, especially considering we were there for 5 hours. I was also amazed at how much German I started to understand. It shares quite a few cognates with English, Russian, and French, so that combined with knowing the context, I was understanding about 10-15% of what was being said without translation. Not too shabby for being almost completely new to the language as a whole. Naturally, I forgot my camara to the family events, so we're definitely going to have to go back to visit, this time with German language skills in hand

Stephen's Oma is a fabulous cook too! She made all of the cakes for the reception and they were delish!! The three I tried were a Marzipan and Cream, Apple cake, and something like a Cheesecake with a "german" chocolate cake outside- tres yummy! She was the sweetest old woman too, and you wouldn't take her for much older than 65. Very spritely with a great humor, reminded me a lot of my friend Marcella in that way, and a lot like my grandmother when it came to her attitudes toward food. We quickly learned that an empty plate was her exuse to fuss over us and fill our plates with the next round herself. Fortunately everything was really tasty.
So we had a really nice time and learned a bit of a new language while we were at it. It was quite frustrating though to rely on someone else to be able to carry on a conversation or even deliver simple compliments to the hosts. So now I'm debating on if I should start learning German now or work my French up to a reasonable level first and then start.

Sunday we got up rather late, had a fantastic brunch: cereal, 10 different kinds of bread, butter, 5 different kinds of cheese, cold sausages (think salami type). Doesn't sound like much, but it really hit the spot and got us off to a good start for spending the afternoon in Cologne.

So we went into the city centre and saw the *huge* Gothic Cathedral. We didn't get much time there as the day was for an overview of the city, but it was incredible. Started in 1200, it wasn't finished until in the mid 1800s, only of course to be partially destroyed in WWII. So they're slowly restoring it. You walk in and the spiritual presence is electric. Next time we go back I want to go to Mass there.

Then we walked around the city as Marianne told us about the history, the various places that are now memorials to WWII and the Roman times. Evidently Cologne was an old Roman outpost and still has some of the original strucutures. Incredible considering that the city was virtually flattened during the War. Marianne had an interesting point of view as her father served in the German Army and her mother fled the Russian "liberation" of Eastern Germany, as well as being a modern History teacher.

So then we went back to their house, had a bit of a rest and then out to dinner to a local German restaurant that was wonderful! We sampled some of the local brew Kolsche, and man was it yummy. A light beer, but with less of the "grain" taste you usually get with them. Very well rounded and just a little on the sweet side. Definitely something to drink socially and not ponder too hard. It went really well with the food- Sauerbraten kind of a "sour" roast with a deep red gravy with macaroni type noodles dry sauteed every so slightly to make them crisp. 

A good description comes from this website:
Traditionally made with a beef roasting joint (topside or similar) the meat is marinated for 2-3 days in vinegar and/or beer, spices such as cloves, juniper berries, allspice and peppercorns, bay leaves and onions and is then braised in the marinade for a long period
Very yummy indeed. And good sized portions too. Stephen had to finish mine off, despite the fact that it was quite tasty.

Then we went back and had a nice long chat with Manfred and Marianne before heading to an early bed, since we had to be at the airport pretty early (though it turned out our flight was delayed an hour).

So a really great "taste" of Germany, and we're defintely looking forward to fairly regular visits. Our next one will probably be in time for the Christmas Markets, for which Cologne is renowned throughout Germany. And "hopefully", by then we'll know enough Germany that we can do our Christmas shopping there, and maybe all our interactions can be in German. It's so much more fun to learn a language when you have fairly ready access to native speakers. Yay for that, and yay for another stamp in our passports.