Sunday, October 23, 2011

Trying to Blend In

Yesterday was filled with more adventures in Aachen and Cologne. We met a great couple during some of our briefings and they invited us to hop a ride with them. We're already getting better with the train stations! We bought an all-day ticket for four people instead of purchasing individually. We saved about 80 euro by doing this. I guess you just learn these things one day at a time.

We arrived in Aachen at 11am and bought tickets for an English-speaking tour of the Aachen Cathedral. The tour began at 2pm so that gave us time to have a light snack at an outdoor cafe, and we were also able to visit the cathedral treasury. It was amazing! At one point I was standing in front of a glass case with three reliquaries. They contained the belt of Mary, and the belt and flagellation rope of Christ. My thought was, "This can't be real." It's mind-blowing to know you're standing in a place that was constructed around 792. And of course, the relics are real.

The tour of the cathedral was also great. Our tour guide spoke perfect English. I am endlessly impressed by all of these people who can fluidly switch from German to English. We learned a lot and were able to stand directly in front of the remains of Charlemagne.

After the cathedral tour we stopped for some glasses of wine. We were hungry again and since our train tickets were for anywhere all day, we decided to go to Cologne for dinner. It's so convenient to hop on a nice train and relax for 40 minutes on the way to another awesome city. 

By now the sun was down and it was windy and freezing in Cologne! We stood in awe of the Dom once again and then made our way to a restaurant. We were walking on a narrow side street when suddenly a man darted out of a hidden door into our path and exclaimed to my husband, "You have iPhone? You will take a photo!" He put his arm around my husband's shoulders and steered him toward a darkened pub. None of us were sure what was happening. Was he going to steal our iPhones? As you might imagine, we have been briefed about the possible dangers of trusting strangers. 

Throwing caution to the wind, my husband barely hesitated and strode confidently into the bar while we stood in the doorway. Then, instead of staying with the two women, the other male in our group followed him in so he wouldn't be alone. At this point, we're thinking we might as well head to dinner and retrieve our husbands from the dungeon later.

The man gestured for my husband to situate himself behind the bar and then he handed him an iPhone. After that he rushed back to his friends and they all struck a pose. Apparently he was asking if we knew how to use an iPhone so one of us could take a photo of their group. Silly us. 

We ended up at another beer hall, this one much smaller than the one we chose last weekend. The room was full of long tables that were all apparently reserved. We thought we found one that was available and as soon as we sat, a waiter rushed over and bellowed, "You want to eat? This is RESERVED! Upstairs you go!" 

We dutifully trotted upstairs and came to a woman dressed as what appeared to be a bar wench. She was sitting at a table guarding two large oak doors. She beckoned us to move inside and we were confronted with a tiny room. As soon as the door shut behind us, all of the noise stopped as if we sucked it out with our presence. All eyes were on us. Mouths were agape, forks suspended halfway. We began fidgeting and I think we all wanted to turn around, flee downstairs, and find a McDonald's. 

The waiter who yelled at us suddenly appeared and told us to sit down in the middle of one of the tables. As we approached, I distinctly heard a man say, "Ugh, Americans."

I sat down beside a man who immediately grabbed his belongings and pulled them to himself. I guess he thought I was going to steal something. The restaurant was still silent as we sat and took off our coats. We tried to only maintain eye contact with each other. A waitress arrived and we ordered our drinks. The people on both sides of us smirked. Eventually people began talking again but we were gaped at boldly during our entire meal. No one smiled.

This was the first time I've experienced hostility since being here. We are living in a very small village right now and everyone has been so nice. Cologne is a huge center of tourism so I assumed people would be tolerant. I wonder what their perception is of Americans. We were polite and ate everything we ordered, even if we weren't sure exactly what it was. It was very uncomfortable sitting among these people who obviously have strong preconceptions of us. And how do they immediately know we're American? 

I will be happy to learn German so I can hear what they're saying about us. Then I will respond, in German, "When you visit America, I hope you don't receive this treatment." It was strange.

After dinner we boarded the train back to Geilenkirchen. Ultimately the day was great. I think we must have just happened upon a local restaurant nestled among the tourist streets. It was certainly a little discouraging. Whatever they must think about us, I hope by the end of our time here we will have changed some of their minds.

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