I arrived in Frankfurt, Germany on the morning of September 5. All American ETAs had orientation in Cologne beginning at 2:30, and those in charge had advised us to come directly from the US to orientation. My plan was to have some beer on the plane (free on international flights with Delta!), fall asleep, and arrive fresh and well rested. This plan, of course, fell through, as I was unprepared for the individual TV screens on the back of each seat. This meant each passenger had on-demand access to his or her own movies, TV shows, games, and even an up-to-date map of the flight. George and I had been living without TV since May 2010. Once confronted with episodes of Say Yes to the Dress and Top Chef, all I could do was watch. I mesmerized. I watched TV for something like 6 hours straight. It was wonderful.
After the flight landed, I caught a train to Cologne. I arrived at 10:30am. We did not have to meet for the coach bus to orientation until 2:30, so I had four hours to kill. I was excited, especially after I entered the train station. Researchers say that smell is the most powerful memory trigger, and I have to agree; the Cologne train station smelled like Germany. It’s some mixture of rain, meat and freshly-baked pretzels. It sounds gross, but I swear it’s lovely. It took me back to my first trip here in 2003. All I had to do now was get rid of my 2 suitcases and backpack and use the restroom. Easier said than done.
I went to the lockers to stow my luggage, only to discover not everything would fit into just one locker. Instead, I would need 3 lockers, for a total of 7,50 for 2 hours, or 15 Euro for anything longer. I cheaped out and ended up putting only my largest suitcase in the locker. Then I, my backpack, laptop bag and small, rolling suitcase headed for the restrooms. The public restrooms in Germany are not free, but normally you do not have to pay very much. In the Cologne train station, however, they are 1 Euro. 1 Euro?!?! That meant 1 Euro for 1 trip to the bathroom. What if I had to go again? I certainly was not going to pay again for toilet access. I had already bought a bottle of water to break my 50-Euro bill to get smaller bills and coins for the luggage locker. I checked my wallet; I only had a single 1-Euro coin remaining. If I went now, I wouldn’t even have the option go later without buying something else to lug around with me. I decided to wait on the bathroom and check out the parts of the city closest to the station.
Cologne’s most famous attraction is its cathedral. I had been there before, but since it was adjacent to the train station, I thought I would check it out once more. After stepping out into the cold and wind, I realized there was no way for me to get up the front stairs, let alone up in the cathedral with most of my luggage in tow. I would have to skip the cathedral this time. To make up for this minor disappointment, I lugged my things around the brick-paved corner to get a Döner. Döner are flat-bread sandwiches made from meat cooked on a vertical spit, with veggies and a yogurt-based sauce. They are a Turkish-German creation, and they are delicious. (If you’re thinking “Hey, this sounds like a shawarma or a gyro, you’re right. Just don’t tell the guy serving your sandwich that. They don’t like it. Trust me.) The Döner was excellent, but I had accidentally spent my 1-Euro coin. How would I use the bathroom now?
I went back to the train station and resolved to buy my train ticket from Cologne to Damme for the end of orientation. This would allow me to break another bigger bill, and prepare me for the trip onward. After waiting in line forever, the man at the ticket center made me go to a machine to buy a ticket since I didn’t have a “real” question to ask an agent. Sooooo, I went to the machine and bought the ticket, only to look at it and notice that it had no times printed on it. My next stop was the information booth, where a kind agent explained that you could use a normal-priced ticket anytime on the day for which I had purchased it. Relief! But I still needed the bathroom.
As I left the information center, I overheard a nervous-sounding woman ask “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” and ask for a ticket for the same time and day as mine. Like a creep, I waited around the corner and immediately assaulted her as she left the booth. “Are you a Fulbrighter,”I asked her. “Yes!” she exclaimed. “Me too!” I said. She had to go to the travel center to buy a ticket, but we agreed to meet up. I then noticed four other people standing next to a column of huge luggage. I approached them and asked if they, too, were Fulbrighters. “Yes,” said one of them, “Go ahead and add to the pile.” I have never been more excited to see nervous-looking strangers. At least I could finally put my backpack down. I set everything on the ground, bought a pretzel, left it with my suitcase, and made a beeline for the restroom. Finally!
When I got back, the group had quadrupled, and within the next hour, there were 140 of us standing there in a giant, exhausted mob. The crowd was buzzing; we were all excited to hear where everyone was from and to where they were headed. The buses arrived, and we rode to a cloister in Altenberg, located just outside of Cologne. We stayed there for 3 nights and 3 days, getting to know one another and adjusting to the time difference. It was great. Everyone was friendly, and it was wonderful to spend time with fellow “Germanophiles.” Just as we got comfortable, though, we had to leave and go to our respective placements. We were still jet-lagged, homesick, nervous and filled with uncertainty. And so the adventure begins.