Rotterdam, Amsterdam… and the troublesome travel bags

Rotterdam central is within easy reach by Eurostar. The advantage of rail – other than the carbon saving – is you can take a comfortable amount of luggage, not have to spend hours or days refining your choice down to what that just-flight-legal cabin bag will hold without breaking its zip. In February I’d really struggle with that for a three nighter.

Had an embarrassing incident at the St Pancras terminal after I’d forgotten to zip my bag’s back pocket. Travel passes and a spare phone fell out seemingly just after I’d walked the few metres to the queue with it on my back, I only realised when other passengers had picked them up. I must have been distracted by the surprise announcement, and lost in some discussion on streamed radio.

Embarrassed at my carelessness, I decided part of the problem was with my cheap eBay bag – I now would always associate with that embarrassing incident, so decided to buy a new one. Spent half an hour or so looking through sports discount store rucksacks. Well, it passed some of the time. After dark, the journey really dragged. No sense of the 200+km speed cross country. Still, one train journey from London to the Rotterdam central can’t be bad.

Only one night in Rotterdam before moving on to the capital. Glad to arrive late enough I wouldn’t feel the need to go out again since that meant notifying the hotel proprietor on return. How different from the capital!




Next day it was chilly, breezy, and not much sun; the kind of coldness just enough to be uncomfortable in the one jacket not too warm to wear inside a station. Hours before my bus was due. Much cheaper than train if you book in advance. Relieved to get out of the cold rain. Then at the destination I climbed out and made for the luggage area of the bus, and could not understand why it was closed. No one else taking their luggage. Then opened and shown to me it was empty. I was baffled, until he pointed out my bag was behind me. But how had I not noticed it? Surely it hadn’t been there the whole time? I know my peripheral vision is not the best (I’ve passed by a friend on the street completely unrecognising more than once). But to not see it at all. Still baffles me. It was as if this luggage bag had developed some power to make me seem foolish beyond its cheap appearance. My dislike of it became hatred. It was definitely going get dumped for another.

The budget XO hotel turned out to be impressive, other than its dimensions. Though it was away from the city centre. I could have upgraded to a double for under 2euros but that somehow seemed unnecessary. The room itself was impressively well-equipped with tech, for a 3star: a coffee machine, huge TV and luxury shower.

That evening I searched for a Lidl, hoping to find some cheap vodka. But nothing more than beer. Carrying basic supplies I headed back, still hoping to find an off-licence near the hotel as most shops were closing before 7. I ended up in a ‘night shop’. The cheapest bottle of 70cl was 21euros! Normally a discount supermarket in Belgium or Germany would sell the same for no more than €9. It had to be tax. I’m happy to pay loads of duty on spirits in the UK, but on holiday it leaves me feeling exploited. Nevertheless I bought it. I drank nearly a third that night.

That night I took a train into the notorious city centre. After drinking over a third of the vodka it seemed like a good idea. But it was getting late, approaching nine. The old town was crowded despite it being a cold winter Tuesday night. Somehow the red light district eluded me. But that night was, you might call it, a dry run, though I was there too long given my ticket only lasted an hour. No choice, it seemed, but to walk the entire 5km journey back. This is when you are glad of the alcohol in your system.

Second morning in Amsterdam, slightly hungover and tired-legged I set out to buy my new luggage bag. Train fares are way simpler than most other countries, not least the UK. I got one ticket that lasted 24hrs for 8euros. Amsterdam Noord Park first, where I went for a walk, yes, around the park. With the sun it felt pleasant to eat my grated cheese sandwich and cereal bar.


On to Noord town. I headed for a Decathlon store and picked up the rucksack I’d thoroughly perused online. I think I’d had a quick check of the zips before taking it to the counter to pay in cash, rather than self service. There was a queue so I had a look around and picked up a cheap bottle. Another embarrassing incident followed. The cashier asked me: ‘Is their anything inside?’
‘I’m not sure,’ came my honest response. Somehow I hadn’t noticed how it was filled out.
He unzipped it to look inside. And I can’t remember his exact words. But I remember the word ‘shoplifting,’ said both for me and his assistant who had suddenly appeared. He then started pulling out these little boxes, and commented: ‘Those would set off the alarm.’
But soon he realised they were just empty boxes, mostly flattened. Though he still seemed perplexed. I pointed out they must have been used to fill out the rucksack. At this point, I don’t know who was the most embarrassed. I hadn’t fully processed whether he was seriously suspecting me of attempted shoplifting, more concerned was I about making up the right cash. After I’d paid he said, ‘have a nice day.’ And I left with the burgeoning realisation that I’d been suspected not only of attempted theft but of being a rather stupid thief.

…to be continued.

Read the full unexpurgated version from the UK

from the US



Hot in Dusseldorf!

Düsseldorf was hot. The kind of heat you have to submit to or it can drive you crazy. For me it nearly did.

Düsseldorf was hot. The kind of heat you have to submit to or it can drive you crazy. For me it nearly did.

Another record-breaking summer in Europe. This was climate change in action. I tried to offset my carbon when booking the flight and buying travel insurance. Well, it’s only an hour by plane from Stansted to Weeze, but until there is a decent rail link there’s no other option. Not the main airport – Weeze is tiny and it’s a long way from the city centre, about 80km. It hadn’t occurred to me there’d be two but Düsseldorf Weeze has a good train link and the airport was generally less aggravating than Düsseldorf international.

Return journey pic.IMG_20190828_151137

It did start well. I even got a free train journey, offered by a student I met at the airport who said she’d include me on her pass – which covered the replacement [for the bus] taxi. I must admit to feeling a bit overwhelmed, not only by her kindness but also her preternatural attractiveness (that is, not just physically). She was, though, with a man also in his early twenties, and there was another young traveller she made the same offer to. Not that I would ever have had a chance with her under any circumstance. Even in my dream she was completely unobtainable. Rightfully. I would have thought had I been her age on meeting her I’d have been totally tongue-tied, but here I was talking about the heatwave and discussing Euro travelling. When she removed the band and shook her blonde hair free I felt myself go weak at the knees. In her short denim shorts and vest she must have known the effect she had on men. But being such a warm night there seemed nothing inappropriate in that. I think there is something about the heat that intensifies feelings.

After an awkward parting, I made it to the hotel. Late check-in was ok: pick the key – actually a contactless fob – out of a safe, to open doors. It’s the future!

Next day a long walk in the heat through wide trailed woods. Good to shelter under the canopy of trees. What a contrast the weather made from last time.


A woman runner passed me. And very soon I heard her gasping for breath and groaning. Turned round to see her doubled over. She sounded in a desperate state. I was surprised not least because she looked like a professional athlete. Yet there was no way I could have ignored her. But when I asked her if she was all right suddenly she stood up straight, a slight look of surprise. After a few words of German she was very much ‘I’m fine.’ I offered her a drink but she assured me she was very near her friend who had a drink. The incident left me bemused. It seemed as if she had been exaggerating her state of exhaustion, that she wanted to catch my attention. But then once she got a good view of me – or at least knew I’m not German – had second thoughts. I felt embarrassed afterwards and took an alternative path and waited out on a bench. A troubling thought then: the situation could have been construed that I was trying to take advantage of her. Approaching a lone woman on an isolated path is not something I’d normally do. But if I hadn’t I’d have felt bad. The heat has strange effects.

Left it respectably late to buy my usual in Lidl. Then finally back to the hotel – a relief! The room was way too warm so I took a cool shower. Started drinking the booze from about 5:30, and eating, possibly too much of either. Large packets of snacks not designed for one person.

Then something happened that left me shocked and disturbed. Not so much that I fell asleep. It was more a total dreamless unconsciousness. I’d got through two thirds of the bottle, and it seemed as a result knocked myself out. I don’t remember anything after about 7pm. Woke up at around 3am. I’d lost a night – as if the time had never existed. What would have been a very important night. I wondered: was it too late? Maybe I should have wondered: could I have died? I did wonder: could that be what it’s like to be dead? Pointless thoughts. Dark thoughts. Nothing else but to go back to sleep and hope I can make up for my lost night.

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Sin Cities (Kindle/app UK)

Sin Cities (Kindle/app US)


Somerset: Tricky Trains, Rain . . . and the Child Prodigy

This was my second and last chance to explore Somerset. I set out with my usual hope that it would all work out, despite the weather forecast. But it wasn’t long before things started to go wrong. Not having taken the bike to Taunton since 2009 it just hadn’t occurred to me I needed to reserve it for the last segment. One of the train staff at Westbury told me helpfully I could leave it at the station. As if…

Still I made it finally to Taunton via Bristol. With the campsite only 2 miles away mostly on a cycle path, and bike satnav, it was never really a problem getting there. I was surprised to see another cyclist had just arrived, who pointed out the owner was not around; just had to leave my name on a register. He suggested just pitching up. That other lone cyclist had somehow managed to compress a tent and whatever other travel equipment into neat little pannier cases around his bike, whereas my panniers hung bulkily on a rear 30yr old carrier frame, holding an air mattress+pillows, bike accessories and enough cereal bars to last a week. But also I had 65litre rucksack with my tent, sleeping bag and clothes on my back. I must have looked a worrying site to most motorists!

The campsite itself – in an orchard – was not too bad considering it was near the town centre. Empty except for other biker. So I carefully had to calculate how I’d pitch my tent a fair though not obvious avoidance distance away from his – not completely at the other end of the field and a trekking distance from the shower block. It took me a while to decide. But anyway most on bikes only stay one night, as it proved.

Before I’d unpacked my tent the owner arrived, got his payment for two nights – £14 less than the last Quantocks site! And not here the rigmarole of searching for my address on a database. I did get the impression the other cyclist knew the owner, asking him how he was. Or maybe that’s just some people’s more sociable demeanour than mine.

Finally I was pegging down the tent. But somehow I snagged my middle finger getting frustrated at the hard dry ground and bent pegs. The skin ripped off deeply; these accidents always seem so avoidable, wondering how I could have been so careless. Still I didn’t think much about it till the next day. Tiredness to took over. Even the incessant squawking of peacock/hens wasn’t enough to bother me.


The next day started brightly. Sun shining. It filled me with something approaching optimism, a quixotic hope that the heavy rain forecast would not materialise, that in these hilly parts there are more unpredictable local weather systems. I didn’t think to take my rain jacket.

From the outset the sky darkened. An hour into the journey towards the Quantocks the rain became torrential. After sheltering under trees at a roadside for it to ease to merely heavy, I pressed on to a fire-road connecting the main hill. Stopped again; ate peanuts, a mini cheese and a cereal bar under a heavily dripping tree. Feeling cold, my optimism had ebbed away.

At least one section of the main route was sheltered. But then was faced with the open hills. Well, I couldn’t face them, so found another grouping of trees and listened to Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-Trump tirade on my pocket radio until that gave out. My phone at least should be ok, attached to the bike and wrapped in clear baggie. Checked forecast: showers but sunny spells in the next hour. An MTBr with a dog passed by. He returned ten minutes later. Maybe even the hardened locals were getting defeated by it.

Eventually it became light enough to be tolerable. Sky brightening, I headed off onto the hill. But now I was starting to notice my sore finger, pressed against the next on the bar grip. Had a tube of Germolene … left in my tent. Damn! Perhaps it wouldn’t make much difference anyway in these conditions, I reasoned.


Reached the top of a ceremonial ground, then down a steep hill. Rain had stopped. Clouds cleared, the sun illuminated the spectacular view. Did an about-turn, climbed on foot. When back at the gate trying to empty a bit of grit from my shoe, a runner stopped by, wanting to know if that was good route. I gave my impression that it probably was. The number of possible routes can be overwhelming. I headed to West Quantockhead. Some decent trails and the views were stunning! I stopped to put tape and tissue round my finger. It helped. A bit.


Mostly sunny, the long hilly journey back was a pleasure on the small roads. Satnav on handlebars really removed the anxiety I once had of getting lost.

Finally reaching the town after 40miles I stopped off at an Aldi. Depleted of energy I picked up way too much food – nuts, crisps, biscuits, chocolate. At the checkout I was guessing it would be a pound or 2 over £10. But the cashier I was sure told me £18.21, and seemed to be confirmed by the little display. Pulling out two tens I somehow dropped a pound coin. But what happened next seemed strange. Incomprehensible, even! A child – perhaps no older than 7yrs, with his dad – picked up the coin and handed it back to me. Then I thought I heard him say something to the cashier, who then re-quoted me the price as £10.21. The kid’s dad, full of pride, was praising him, saying ‘Yeah! You’re my Power Ranger!’ But I was left befuddle. Did that child really correct the cashier? Was he some mathematical genius, who knew the total price of all those items? Or maybe he understood that the scanning system can malfunction – that a zero wrongly displayed as an 8. In my fatigued state I wondered if I had only imagined it.

Back at the campsite all I could think about was eating, and resting. Not even worrying about that potentially tricky train journey the next day.


The gradual descent over the Pyrenees was something to behold. Still, even though I had a window seat, it turned out the other side had the best view (according to the pilot). Anyway the flight from Gatwick at just under £50 seemed like a bargain. Pressure-based earache, though, distracted me on the final descent – maybe too steep. Then the inevitable infant expressing its suffering. The kid had my sympathy!


As often, at the airport my ears had that flu bunged-up feeling, and curious popping. Then my typical mild disorientation, having to really make an effort on focusing where I’m getting. Passport control has an automated option, but curiously a fingerprint sensor, which, on reflection, is slightly concerning. My fingerprints have never been stored anywhere except my phone, and now do the Spanish authorities possess it? It was taken again at near gate. Maybe this explained why so many people opted for a human checker.

Finding the train station wasn’t really a problem (certainly nothing like the questing journey in Madrid Barajas). A relatively short journey to Bar Sants. The city centre is reasonably easy to navigate but I’ve got so much in the habit of using my phone even to find a hotel that’s a 5 minute walk. Being near and at a budget will always feel like a comprise: small single room, in darkness until I found the slot for the key card (how they stop people wasting power). Hardly bothered with the invariably no-English TV. But free wifi felt like the saviour of my sanity. Even if you don’t have BBC Sounds there’s a world radio app (on android so not quite sure of its legality) that surely covers all your radio needs.

The first day often that feeling of trepidation – that if I make a plan it will go wrong. (Well, I always make a plan for the night, but more of that later.) Estacio de Franca: the obvious tourist destination. What could be simpler? I had my train map, so hardly needed to bother with the info at the station. Nicely numbered and colour-coded. Simple? No. Somehow I’d missed the display giving the platform number and instead went with corresponding R2, dark green. But none went there, and so I had a dilemma: do I risk exiting and losing my ticket or hope I can get off at a near station. Eventually I risked, and managed to get through the correct platform barrier. I often think there’s some logic that’s obvious to the locals and that somehow I’d missed. But actually I was make an even more grievous error the following morning.


But this day I got to Estacio de Franca, and in the sun it’s a lovely district – a circuitous park, stunning architecture amid trees in blossom. Abundant art installations that don’t have to mean anything beyond their aesthetic appeal. And people soaking up the joys of spring, making me wish I could too.


Barcelona is a city steeped in culture. Or maybe many. Not one I can fully grasp. Still, the night-time was sure to offer a different understanding.


Despite the number of road crossings I was determined to get to the coast. Even in late March it seemed very tourist heavy. I began to feel self-conscious and slightly overdressed in trousers, casual, bordering on smart and long sleeve top even though the temp was no more than 18c, and most others were in long sleeves. I’m reluctant to reduce to T-shirt level unless it goes above 20c. But the sun made it feel more like UK summer. The beach was everything I could expect, soft sand bordered by palm trees and a gentle lapping white-frothed dark blue sea. But there was no way I was venturing onto it. Most of the people looked under thirty, one on his own taking a selfie; something i’d never do. (I wish the selfie camera was an optional extra rather than feeling that, because it’s there, I should use it.) Others, I guess locals, wearing clothes that seemed too warm for a Brit.


Train back to Barcelona Sants; too early, really, for the hotel. But it turned out there was a problem with my ticket: the barrier machine rejected it. I only wanted to exit; I had a valid return ticket. A staff member told me I was supposed to stamp it at the destination! Stamp it where exactly – what machine? I was so irritated I didn’t even bother to ask, though she did seem surprised I was able to exit at de Franca. I’m sure there’s no puzzle at all for the regular traveller, but given this is a popular tourist area you shouldn’t have to figure out those quirks. UK stations only use ticket/barrier systems, the occasional inspector, and only one type of automated ticket vendor. So Britain’s system is not fare-dodge proof but at least it’s less likely to leave the foreign traveller irritated, and thus more likely to return.

Finally, she told me, “So you’ll remember to stamp it next time.”
Me: “There won’t be a next time!” Which I had meant at that moment. And it gave me a mild jolt of pleasure to see her dismay – whether or not it was genuine.

Shaking off my irritation, I had to think of the shopping mission, which involved a 2km walk to Lidl for something strong to drink. OK, mission sounds hyperbolic; it should be simple, but it wasn’t quite, not helped by a misleading offline map. It takes me a while to get used to crossing roads where motorists feel that stopping at a green crossing is not mandatory. I’d fear the driver with dark obsessive thoughts just as much as the distracted. The shop is far enough away from the tourist hub that staff are never going to bother speaking English – if they were able, but normally that isn’t a problem, until they are trying to tell you to do something (such as “can you move along so I can put the barrier across”). Spirits are so much cheaper than in the UK it seems like a no-brainer. We get to pay majority sin tax, which actually feels someway absolving. Never mind that it might one day kill me. My ideal checkout cashier is someone who’s disinterested enough in their job not to care that I’m a Brit alone wanting to get through a bottle of vodka.

Back in the hotel I contemplated the night ahead…

Read more… Sin Cities (Amazon UK)


Alternative Brussels

Brussels North (Brux Nord) is just far enough away from the city centre to escape the touristy trap, and business bustle. You can get a sense of life’s grittier side. The reality of poverty – just as anywhere else on its outskirts – is never far from sight. What you do have to watch out for is traffic, not always easy to negotiate through, and stopping at a green crossing is for them discretionary.

Generally the hotels are cheaper. Mine was part of a bar-restaurant. It felt strange having to walk through it to get to my room. There was no side door, so every time I went out I felt the need to say hello – or at least some kind of friendly acknowledgement – to the staff. Typically, as a Brit, I never bothered to mention the problems, such as the mismatched TV remote (no English speaking stations anyway so I wasn’t too bothered) or the likewise mismatched (reverse indicated) hot and cold shower taps. Surely someone else either had or would. At least I had free wifi, which meant UK radio – essential company when you’re on your own.

Next morning brought with it leaden skies that promised to last all day. Still, I had a plan for the day. Firstly, I just needed a drink to go with my lunch: bread, cheese and cereal bars – since I always take lots of those. And rarely eat out, not just because on my own it draws attention but i’m vegetarian and on a tight budget. Excuses, I know.

A vending machine at the station would suffice. The arrival day I had used the adjacent shop, staring at various types of cheese, and even asked a woman what she thought would be vegetarian (since none are marked with a V). She didn’t know but seemed amenable to my asking. I wondered afterwards if it seemed like I was just trying make conversation. In British supermarkets I’d never speak to young women customers (or any customers). At the time I fell into the lazy assumption that because she wore a headscarf there was no question of her being available – and that it wouldn’t occur to her i’d make a play. It is said though that supermarkets are a good place to meet single people. But I digress.

I get so dependent on my GPS map that I wonder if i’ve lost what little ability I had at navigation. But approaching the station I was sure I had to turn right, and thought for once not to use my phone map. Mistake: there was no way of walking round to the other side, so had to turn back. The south entrance has a rolling LED display. Odd – and that I missed it. Don’t know if my short-sightedness and typically male lack of peripheral vision accounted.

The first destination: the Atomium, was map-saved. Just needed to follow the least congested route, which involved getting as near to the park as possible. I have to admit to not feeling confident crossing many of the roads in Brux north. They seem less ordered than in the UK.

The Atomium in a central tourist hub, has a tempting set of stairwells to reach the lower atom. But I had to save my legs.


The next destination was the Museum of the Far East (or: Musées d’Extrême-Orient). I wanted to get there via the park. But again, not checking my phone every minute I strayed down the wrong path. Turned back by still failed to take the correct route. I had realised the right path as soon as i’d got onto the wrong path, but stupidly was too embarrassed to make another about turn. Most likely no one cared but anyway there was no hurry to get there. Nevertheless, I had this notion of another me who made the better choices and was reaching the destination – with a spring in his/my step and a sense of accomplishment. As it turned out I reached the museum and was fortunate to happen to be crossing the roads towards it at the same time as a couple, whilst simultaneously they were in some discussion with a beggar woman, who probably seeks out tourists. Well, good luck to her, I thought. Begging is no worse there than in many parts of the UK.

The actual museum was closed for restoration but I could still explore the encompassing grounds. No formal entrance, or guard – or anyone collecting donations. Maybe the beggar woman had taken that role, unofficially. The Japanese Pavilion and Chinese architecture looked magnificent, even in the grey daylight!



I got back to the hotel inappropriately early – about 15:45 local. A maid/cleaner called about half hour later. Could there have been any possibility of her cleaning while I was there? Does that ever happen? She was a good ten years my senior so unlikely to be worried about anything I might try with her. Anyway, I told her it didn’t need doing.

I needed to restore my energy and be well-prepared for the night ahead.


Read more of my travels: Sin Cities – An Alternative Exploration of Europe (Amazon UK)

Sin Cities (Amazon US)

Portslade – Brussels (part1)

Ever been in the grip of an overwhelming craving? Well, mine was the most unusual. Maybe the intensity of cravings is something you forget, but this was more than anything I can ever remember.

On the journey to London Victoria I discovered I’d left a sandwich at home (vegetarian turkey&stuffing), thinking I’d packed it but only realising I’d hadn’t when starting my lunch on the train. Suddenly the taste of that sandwich would have been the most wonderful thing. I even considered finding a Tesco in London. This craving was becoming all-consuming, to the point it might cause me to make some stupid error for a lack of focus on the travel. Somehow I got through the oftentimes tricky tube system. Having some familiarity with it helps, but thought it was only a matter of time before I made a slip-up. But somehow made it ok to St Pancras. I had a vague hope there’d be a vegetarian shop (not just restaurant) at this massive international station. But no.

Once on the Eurostar my hope for a turkey-substitute sandwich was all but gone. But the craving hadn’t. It’s not that I consider myself to have an addictive personality – although giving up alcohol would be a challenge. I can usually go a week without it, without craving it. But what I was experiencing then went so much deeper than mere hunger.

The worst thing is knowing something you could have had is now unobtainable.

There was so much to look forward on the trip. I had to forget about this flipping sandwich!

Read more of my travels: Sin Cities (Amazon UK)

Sin Cities (Amazon US)


Stuttgart is not the cheapest city to stay in Germany. Yet it has so much to offer, something I did not fully appreciate on my first visit two years earlier. Firstly, the walk in mid November. Although the trees had variously lost their flame and yellow leaves there was still enough of the wondrous majesty of a seemingly endless forest. 


The weather was perfect, at least for one day. Passed a number of people, either walking alone, in a couple, some joggers. No dog walkers (which makes a nice change from the UK). Never quite sure if I should say hello/guten targ. The few times I did it was barely a mumble. There’s no reason why these passing encounters should be awkward, but many of them were. I always am listening to something, in this case it was 5live streamed – as I find it difficult to break links with my home country; comforting when you’re alone, even though the discussion was mostly centred around Brexit (that nagging and seemingly unresolvable issue of 2018). Well, it’s no surprise that German 4G is exemplary even deep in the woods.


I kept going for miles and miles until eventually I reached some arbitrary point (at the bottom of a hill) where I decided it was time to turn back. Afterwards it seems ridiculous not to have kept some track of my distance. But this is something I never do. Maybe to know will only make me feel more tired.


Had to think about the following night. The following night was when it was going to happen. I had to keep something in the tank. Did not want to feel like last time, where I was just too knackered. Stopped off at Aldi for essential supplies, including a 70cl bottle of my usual, trying not to care about the mature woman cashier’s probable disapproval. Fact is, I don’t hope for a warm greeting at these budget places; the staff are surely not paid enough to be friendly.

The night didn’t go quite to plan…

Continue reading: An Alternative Exploration… (Kindle UK)


Amazon Kindle US

Cologne, Pt 3: the days after…


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.

Cologne, pt2

Cologne (Köln), part 1

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