Cologne in a warm sunny June is invariably going to seem like a fine place to holiday – and so the 5 mile walk to my next hotel in Marsdorf, despite being loaded with luggage, was pleasant. I sensed the serenity of others. Even motorists were careful to slow near pedestrian areas. This felt like such a contrast to the freneticism of neighboring Düsseldorf – though that was well into the autumn.
And so I continued on, along the canal paths and peripheral tree-lined routes, stopping at a bench. There were two close together with few people passing so it didn’t occur to me that anybody would want to sit on one. But as I got up to leave a woman stopped, off her bike, to sit on the adjacent bench. I was listening to music on earbuds so wasn’t sure I heard her say hello to me. But anyway said hello to her and she responded in kind. Well, as I’d already got up to leave I did the predictable thing and kept to that plan. So had I missed the one opportunity to meet my ideal partner? That’s the question that stuck with me, just the vague possibility that I had. Assuming she was German there might have been a language barrier. I’ve got passed the stage where small talk – especially when it is limited by the language barrier – serves any use. No, if I’d been bold enough (aided by a good amount of my leftover vodka) maybe I’d have cut to the chase. After all it was fairly obvious I’m single, with all my luggage. She seemed about my age or a bit younger. And here I am typing this (first draft) in my hotel with its twin bed, wondering if I could have dared to tell her where I’d be staying, give her my phone number. Could I have chanced she’d have been that desperately in need of someone? Would I have seemed desperate or just so smitten that I’d be prepared to risk a knockback? I’m not the gambling type – I don’t believe in trying my luck such as it often seems lacking. And yet sometimes it feels there is such a thing as fate that deals a useful hand. Now rapidly approaching middle age, I don’t feel these opportunities will in future be so forthcoming. So: what if? Always the question, isn’t it, that bugs most of us; that lack of courage, of decisiveness. I should have got passed the fear of embarrassment by this stage of my life. People think there is a way to game the odds by using dating sites/apps, but my fear has always been the check-list credential comparisons, subject to which I’d fall short, I feel. Maybe that’s just my cynical outsider view. I’m sure most women, like men, have ideals but are prepared to compromise. After all, isn’t that what deep and meaningful relationships are about? Well perhaps I’m not really qualified to answer such a question….
Final day, the weather was sunny, just bordering on hot. Way too early just to head back to the airport.
I stepped off a tram – the only way to get back from Marsdorf – at Köln Lindenthal Melaten. I didn’t actually plan or know that it was a cemetery until stepping through an opened gate. There a network of paths leading through grand iconographically religious graves, rich in flowers bordered profusely with trees. It was almost overwhelming. The beauty, the serenity – for the grieving, for the dead, but maybe more than just by design.
I was completely sober at the time. Had I been drinking, maybe it would have all been too much. It felt like something profound was trying to break through to my slightly hungover psyche, and I thought if I let it I would just break down. Only the sporadic presence of other people – visitors and grounds staff – kept me on an even keel, it seemed.
Stepping out onto a main street surrounded by students brought me back to a normal state of vigilance. Had to find somewhere for lunch, so I went back through the park I’d become familiar with. It was crowded. When I found a metal picnic bench it was too near a path – a feeling of being noticed as the loner. Eventually found a similar bench near an empty playground. Lots of people nearby, a gathering of five or more who seemed more my age. I started on the leftover vodka, listened to an Unexplained podcast, hearing about phenomena most people have hardly time to consider but enough time to dismiss.
More relaxed now I could head back to the station. It still felt too early. Evening flights are cheaper, but it always feels like there’s so much time to kill. I never understand why most holiday travellers drag along those wheelie cases. Surely they must be restrictive. Or is there somewhere safe they leave them on that final day?
At Cologne (Köln Bonn) airport I predictably set off their version of a body-scanner, more of an arch than a chamber. This time I was only wearing shorts and a t-shirt; hardly anything metal other than a zip and button (although it could be the alien implant). Still the guy there didn’t bother with the full pat-down.
Once through I didn’t think I had a whole lot of time, and started to hurry to the gate. I needn’t have worried. A storm was forecast to approach. And about twenty minutes before the flight was due to depart, the first flash of lightning. People had already been standing in line. Then came the delay announcements. Then came the thunder. These departure areas are well soundproofed for obvious reasons, but when the storm came overhead, it was loud enough, near after the flashes of forked lightning to know that this was a serious storm! No time was given for estimated departure. People began to disperse. The storm was right overhead, with no sign of moving away. I imagined someone joking: “Is this divine punishment for one of us who has sinned?” The mind wanders with so much time. Ever waited for an indefinitely delayed flight? You feel like your sanity is becoming increasingly fragile.
Away after nearly 3hrs delay, the relief and even happiness of other passengers was palpable. Except I was faced with the sobering prospect of a long and difficult journey home. There were more delays, disruptions. To be honest, I really felt I was losing it by the time I got back to London. But I made it home eventually.
On reflection, it was a holiday I will remember fondly. I’m sure one day I’d be tempted to go back. But perhaps I should resist that temptation.
Edited version from Sin Cities: an alternative explanation of Europe, by Aiden Rykat.
Sin Cities (Amazon Kindle UK) Sin Cities (Amazon US)