My very first night abroad in Faro, Portugal. Stephan is on the left and Tom in the middle.

Since I began my trip I feel like I’m constantly berating myself for posting these entries months behind schedule, but there is a silver lining to it all - it gives me the chance to relive stories that already feel like they occurred ages ago. Cologne for me is particularly special because, looking back, it marks the first instance where I deviated from the original "plan" I outlined back in the US. The reason why I ventured out to Cologne in the first place was to meet up with a friend, Stephan, who I met on the very first day of my travels back in Faro, Portugal. I never considered Cologne as a city I'd visit on this trip, but in my experience the best way to travel is with a local; it doesn't matter what city it is, whenever opportunity presents itself, I always take it.

I spoke with Stephan off and on as I slowly made my way through Switzerland and southern Germany trying to time out my visit since he was planning a trip of his own, but all was in vain thanks to a simple miscommunication on my part. After scheduling everything, I realized that the day I was due to arrive, July 30th, was the day Stephan left for his trip and not the day he returned. I felt like kicking myself for such idiocy, but without hesitation, Stephan generously offered his room seeing as how he would be out of town for the duration of my stay. He indicated that his roommates would love to have me over and since a free, private room is a rare luxury in my life, I stuck with the plan. At the very least, I’d get a more local experience than if I was just touring by myself, so I felt the trip would be interesting regardless.

Cologne's City Hall building in the center of town.

On the first day I arrived at the main bus station in Cologne in my usual state of affairs: no map, no wifi, no idea where I was, and no clue even which direction north was, but by now these issues hardly phase me. I eventually figure out how to navigate the labyrinth that is the Cologne Hauptbahnhof and made my way through the subway system until I finally reached Stephan's apartment outside of town. Stephan has two roommates, Kristina and Yannick, who were both incredibly welcoming especially considering that the person I was technically in town to see wasn’t even there. Nevertheless, that first evening I spent talking with Kristina and her friends in the kitchen talking about everything from life on the road, life in Germany, the world cup, and even politics; it was refreshing to spend time away from the usual hostel crowd with people who actually lived/worked in the city I was visiting.

Their apartment, in my opinion, was relatively good size, but to anyone back home in Texas it would feel like a shoebox. Coming from NYC, I’m a bit skewed when it comes to what an "appropriate sized" apartment should look like, but it was all the space a person could need. Stephan occupied the smallest room in the apartment and it reminded me of my old room back in NYC with all the glorious comforts of home. The many shelves were full of various books, liquor bottles, crinkled papers, and a beer glasses that Stephan likely collected from his many travels around Europe (or possibly in town). The walls were adorned with pictures from around the world like a prized trophy collection and it was incredibly rewarding to recognize some of the locations; oddly enough, I noticed the vast majority of the pictures were of Marseille. I remember him constantly saying how great the city was, and after I spoke with Yannick, I found out he spent a few months on exchange in Marseille.

Now it all makes sense why Stephan has such a fascination with the city.

Although after my own visit to Marseille I can understand why.

Kölner Dom, the main cathedral in Cologne... it could really use a scrub, but still beautiful.

My first few days in Cologne I spent wandering around exploring all of the various avenues and little streets that I could find, but within a few hours I realized I'd seen just about the entire city. You have to understand that Cologne was effectively leveled during World War II and has yet to regain it's former pre-war size. As a result, there aren't many historic buildings and, while some of the neighborhoods were rebuilt to reflect the old styles, just about everything in town less than 70 years old. There are a number of good sights such as the incredibly domineering cathedral, Kölner Dom, the main bridge in town covered in love locks, Hohenzollernbrücke, and the Imhoff Chocolate Museum just to name a few, but unless you have a local connection to show you around, Cologne can easily be seen in a day or two.

Thankfully, I was fortunate enough to know people in the city, so there was still much to do and it just so happened to be Yannick’s birthday. Much like I would have done back in NY, Yannick didn't plan anything for his birthday, but since he enjoyed cooking he simply invited his friends over for dinner and drinks. Yannick generously extended the invitation to me and the eight of us spent the evening crammed into the tiny kitchen happily talking for hours on end. The conversation would frequently swing between English and German as the group attempted to include me and I was impressed by how easily they were able to switch between the two without ever missing a beat. Before I realized, it was already 1:00am and the group was ready to go out.

It doesn’t matter how many times I travel, it feels absurd to “start the night” at one in the morning.

The many love locks covering Hohenzollernbrücke. I've never seen so many in my life.

The group quickly polished off the remaining bottle of tequila and we were off to the races. Yannick was determined to find some sort of party to celebrate the occasion, but without any plans, we had difficulties locating one. It hardly mattered though because in Germany it is legal to drink in public, so we made our own entertainment along the sidewalks of Cologne. We wandered the streets hopping from convenience store to convenience store, beers in hand, chatting, joking, and telling stories all the while. It was a fantastic way to spend the evening and was the whole reason why I wanted to come to Cologne in the first place - it’s not the attractions that make a city great, it's the people! We were out the entire night and didn’t return to the apartment until after 6:00am.

We even got to watch the sun rise on our walk back.

As the days progressed, the weather in Cologne progressively became more rainy which can ruin a travelers plans, but thankfully Yannick and his friends were not deterred by the inclement weather. After a complete washout of a day, Yannick invited me to join him and his friends to the park for a few beers, but within an hour after we arrived a horrendous storm swept over the area. We sprinted through downpour to one of Yannick’s friend’s apartments and spent the evening talking over beers. I learned an incredibly valuable lesson that night - never mistake a Kiwi (New Zealander) for an Australian. For those of you back in Texas, it is the equivalent of thinking someone from A&M attended UT - it usually causes offense.

Strangely, mistaking people the other way is not a problem. People from Australia (or UT for that matter) are comfortable with themselves and don’t really care... perhaps it's an inferiority complex.

Muaha, take that! *makes jabbing motion*

View of Cologne from the top of Köln Triangle Tower across the Rhine River. Much better at night. :)

After an unnecessarily long debate over who's better, Australians or New Zealanders, I bid farewell to my new friends and headed home, but even with all the excitement, the highlight of my evening goes to a stranger we met back at the park before the storm hit. He was a man of average height with weathered skin and scraggly, unkept gray hair down to his shoulders. It appeared Yannick knew the man as the park’s local “crazy guy," but he was surprisingly intelligent. I honestly couldn't tell if he was borderline insane or wielded deductive reasoning skills that could rival Sherlock Holmes, but as we talked the man somehow knew the age and degree of one of Yannick's friend, the field of work of an other friend, and knew I studied finance and economic in school. His accuracy startled me and even creeped out one of Yannick’s friends who refused to let him see her hand out of fear of what else he would say about her.

When the storm hit, we all raced home, but as I bid the man farewell he paused for a seemingly long handshake. Curious about what was running through his head, I inquired. He stared at me for a moment and responded that there was an aura of happiness that surrounded me, that I was relaxed and at peace, and that I had wise eyes like Yoda. Chuckling, I smiled and said goodbye to my strange friend as he turned and sprinted through the rain, but I was rather flattered. I've always admired Yoda even though he is a fictional character, but what surprised me was that I know the design of Yoda's eyes were based off Albert Einstein's, a childhood hero mine. I'll never know if the man was completely full of crap or not, but he did get one thing right that evening.

I really am happy.

Farewell Cologne, I’m so glad I visited. Special thanks to Stephan, Yannick and Katrina for making this part of my trip so enjoyable. I can’t thank you all enough!

I’m off to go hitchhiking! Wish me luck!