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As I write this, I sit by a window in a slightly cramped room on the highest floor of an inner-city apartment block, surrounded by a great many other inner-city apartment blocks, a baffling prevalence of the English language, and an overwhelming lack of lederhosen. Yes, this is Germany.

Travel writing has never been a strong point of mine and I have written fewer diary entries in my life than Neanderthals have written on the walls of caves, but considering that I’m staying here for the next week I’ve decided to keep track of my experiences. Until now I have rambled from France to Finland and from Brussels to Barcelona, but I have not set a single foot in Germany. Thus I am blessed, or perhaps cursed, with a true outsider’s perspective, where everything here is new to me and I’m as impartial as I could hope to be. (I doubt that will last for long, but we’ll see what happens.) With these articles you can enjoy the enviable experience of witnessing one of the world’s most influential countries through the eyes of one of the world’s least influential people, a bumbling Irish student with absolutely no idea of what’s going on around him. Viel Spaß!

The first thing that the average turbulent tourist will notice upon arrival in Köln (for the uninitiated, “Köln” is the official German name of what we English-speaking perfume connoisseurs would know as “Cologne”), is that it is big. Very big. In fact, all of Germany is massive, which you might think goes without saying, but honestly its massiveness is unmissable once you’re in it and simply has to be mentioned. It isn’t just the sheer landmass that’s enormous, but literally everything, from the heights of the buildings to the widths of the streets to the cravings for sausages to the egos of certain citizens that elbow past you in a crowd.  You could drive a steamship through the street with scarcely a scratch.

The second thing that a tourist would notice is that practically all of the galleries and museums are closed on a Monday, which swiftly flushed what vague plans I had for the day down the proverbial toilet and left me rudderless in a vast ocean of foreignness. Having sufficiently mourned the untimely passing of my itinerary, I set off towards the so-called “city centre” in the dim hope of accidentally discovering something else to do.

It was an easier task than I expected. As soon as one hits the Fußgängerzone (that is, the pedestrianised bike-free area that is nonetheless overrun by bikes of all shapes and sizes) around the central shopping district of Köln, every few paces brings you within reach of the next looming adventure of some sort. The most noteworthy attraction is of course the Dom (a word which here means “gobsmackingly humungous cathedral”), a spectacular piece of jaw-droppingly ornate Gothic architecture that has withstood the centuries like faith itself. I haven’t gone inside yet – if I do I may never summon the willpower to get out again – but from the outside alone it is already a highlight of my visit.

Other than setting aside a small portion of ogling time to gape and marvel at the wonder of the cathedral, I passed my day by exploring the two great department stores of Köln, the almost indistinguishable “Karstadt” and “Kaufhof”. The former provided me with the second highlight of my visit – the unparalleled experience of eating an actual schnitzel. To anyone who wonders like I did about what exactly a schnitzel is – I still don’t really have the faintest idea, but they’re nice. Imagine if you will a slice of miscellaneous meat (in my case, pork) that has been smothered in fish-finger-like breadcrumbs and cooked. It might be worth noting that the department store eateries of Köln tend to provide a relatively cheap meal deal providing you can pile your plate high with the available foodstuffs, of which there are many, many more than an Irish equivalent. It might also be worth noting that the department store bathroom facilities have attached to them certain cultural customs. I’m talking about the man or woman who sits just outside the bathroom door with a small table and a plate to receive tips of roughly 50c from the customers passing to and fro to relieve themselves. Why exactly this bizarre tradition has taken hold I do not yet know, but it is just one of a few curious things that makes travelling to another country so fascinating.

On the other hand though, it must be acknowledged that the legion of globalisation is here in full force. Köln’s distinctive personality has been seriously strangled by a worldwide push towards capitalist uniformity. One will easy find the McDonalds’, the Burger Kings, the Primarks and H&Ms. Almost every German you meet will talk near-fluent English at you if given the opportunity, like a hail of machine-gun fire against your self-esteem if you are not equally automatic at Deutsch. And, perhaps most tragically of all, waistcoats and the famous lederhosen have faded into myth, and are only rolled out on very special occasions of national pride and well-meaning self-mockery like our Paddy’s Day. To someone who globetrots for the giddy glee of experiencing utterly alien cultures, it is something of an anticlimax to stroll into what is in many ways just another modern, Western city.

That being said, it has been only one day, and there is much more to see. I haven’t a clue where the next day will take me, as I have been wisely writing this sprawl of an article when I should be planning out the rest of the week – but isn’t there always something more fun about making it all up as you go along?

Auf Wiedersehen,
31. Juli 2017