Ein Kölsch, bitte

I’m writing after the end of my first complete week in Germany, the country which will be my home for the year to come, and there is already a lot to tell.

This is how it went down:

Day 1: Edinburgh to Cologne

I fly from the Scottish capital, my home of two years and where I study German & English Literature at the university (the former part of my degree having a compulsory year abroad and the excuse for the whole adventure) to the most populous city on the Rhine to attend a four-day training course provided by the Pädagogischer Austauschdienst on behalf of the British Council, who organise a foreign language assistant exchange programme.

Arriving a little early, in order for me to be able to explore the city a bit before I’m whisked away to the relative seclusion of a place called Altenberg on the outskirts, I have some time to consider a couple of coincidences that seem to bode well for the year ahead. For a start, the notebook upon which I’m writing these reflections is a Leuchturm, not only made in Germany, but more specifically Hamburg, where I’m spending my assistantship. The second coincidence is relevant to Cologne; just the previous evening I’d had a last hurrah in Edinburgh with a good friend and after a delicious Thai meal we paid a visit to our regular craft beer paradise where they play B-movie horror films on low in the background. Anyway, I asked for a citrusy pale ale (it’s the kind of bar where that’s necessary, not solely pretentious by virtue of the regularly rotated selection of indie beers on tap) and I was presented with Kölsh – a beverage for which Cologne is renowned.

Day 2: A Tourist in Cologne

Only getting to the city in the early evening, I resolve to try and see as much of the sights as possible. The cathedral is impossible to miss and dominates the townscape (pardon the pun lol), it’s gothic architecture makes me feel oddly conflicted – I want to feel awe at what medieval society was capable of but knowing a bit of the history introduces something more complicated. It was only actually completed by 19th century enthusiasts when the middle ages were in vogue, and much of the structure is in fact a reconstruction after the intense bombing at the end of the Second World War. Adding to this, it’s hard to experience anything approaching spiritual when there is such an influx of tourist traffic, people taking selfies when a father instructs his children to kneel in prayer before a shrine etc.

Seemingly I have a knack for coming to Germany on open days, or that most of them fall in early September and that’s when I’m there. Today is Der Tag des offenen Denkmals and this meant that I got to explore the medieval Rathaus free of charge. Apparently, it is one of the oldest still in use in Europe. Part of it is highly modern, but the medieval sections are remarkably preserved. In some ways, it is reminiscent of the Reichstag building in Berlin in that it combines styles from different architectural eras. It evokes craftmanship, guilds and the hanseatic leagues.

I try to reach the cable car for a bird’s eye view over the Rhine, but it’s closed for repair and I only manage the botanical gardens. The chocolate museum seemed like a good deal for 9 euros and unlimited free samples in the guise of something educational, but the reality was about three pieces in total if you didn’t pay more.

Day 3: Arrival in Altenberg

Having walked around most of the city to the west of the Rhine, I decide to cross over to the east to kill a couple of hours before I travel, a bit counterintuitively, back to the airport where the rest of the language assistants are meeting to get the bus out to our training course. Apart from the rather grand Köln Messe/Deutz train station there is really not much there.


On arrival in the airport I feel awkward, but conversation soon starts flowing. I’m able to relate an icebreaker anecdote about my lack of appreciation for “Wurst mit brötchen” being exactly that, with sausage and bun being completely separate items – to top if off even the Senf came in a separate plastic pouch.

It takes a bit of faffing but once we’re all in the coach, given rooms and fed we get quite an extensive admin talk. After this we’re told (to at least my surprise anyway) that the bar opens at half eight, and there’s nothing else to do in this place (apart from view the cross-denominational Cathedral with, apparently, the largest stained-glass window in Northern Europe, which is admittedly impressive) other than to make use of the facilities on offer.

Day 4: The course properly begins

We are taught how to teach.

Day 5: Final day

Employing these very freshly acquired skills, we give lessons we spent the previous day preparing. There is a pub quiz and I feel inordinately proud of myself for knowing who Heidegger is.

Day 6: To Hamburg

Some (most) had overindulged the night before, but somehow I ended up in one of the more sensible teams, so got off lightly. We are bussed back to the Bahnhof and several of us catch the train to Hamburg. I am seated beside a Canadian; more of them seem to know where Orkney is than English folk! We both get off in Harburg, where I meet my mentor, who tells me that the city has more bridges than Venice.

Day 7: Zur Schule

I commute south to the school I’m placed in. Correctly identifying the three pop-art style images of the philosopher after whom it’s named, I meet the head teacher, who seems to warm to me. The first class I observe have a lesson in Hispanics in the United States; the primary school pupils who follow them all come to the front and compare heights with me and find the question ‘do you have a girlfriend?’ absolutely hysterical. I wish I could see the funny side with the answer I give them…

Day 8: Some of the city is seen

Confirmed: Hamburg does have many bridges. Its canals, harbours and warehouse district are beautiful. Even what could be ugly concrete facades are transformed by the citizenry into vibrant and engaging murals.


Day 9: A stroll around Altona

Pick a tourist attraction that’s open on a Sunday or is free; go there. This happened to be the Altonaer Balkon, which gives a magnificent view of the harbour and commercial cargo vessels. I have to squint to make them out in glorious sunshine. However, after a trip to the train station to scavenge some lunch the sky breaks with a crack to unleash a thunderous downpour and I’m forced to retreat to base for the day.

About alasdairflett

German & English Literature graduate. From Orkney. Interested in alternative and indie music, language, writing and politics.
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