Cologne, if you’ve never been, is amazing. Although I speak with the highest level of bias you can possibly imagine.
Years ago, for Albrecht’s 27th birthday, his friends secretly invited me to a party they had organised in a medieval tower in a park somewhere in the north of the city. I seem to remember being poor for pretty much all of my 20s, (actually all of my 30s as well) so how I managed to afford travelling out to Germany at that point in my life is a long forgotten mystery.
Whatever the case, one of his pals collected me from the airport, beer in hand. This is always a novelty for anyone coming from a country like the UK, where the punishment for drinking in the street is a beating by the townsfolk and public castration.
The fun of surprising Albrecht with my radiant visage was only the beginning. The tower was three stories of DJs, dancing and carnage. How British bombers during “the war we don’t talk about in Germany” managed to level an entire city and miss this chunk of medieval history is beyond me. No matter, because we trashed it that night anyway.
And so began my love affair with a northern German city. There is one problem though. Because I only have fond memories of Germany, when I return I’m forced to tackle a reality that for some reason is a genuine surprise to me every single time – I don’t speak German. A shock, but an obstacle I’m used to overcoming by making sure all Germans speak excellent English.
This time round, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but even by the standards I’d grown accustomed to, this week looked like a serious one. I had the viewing party with Albrecht and his TV band the first night, a birthday party in some high end fashion boutique on the Saturday, and another birthday in a club that used to be a strip joint in the red light district two days later.
On a tangent I just want to establish that neither I nor Albrecht frequent red light districts in Hamburg or Cologne on a regular and depressing basis. It seems that Germany society is doing everything in its power to reclaim the seedy parts of each city and repurpose them for more wholesome activities. Like drinking until you are sick.
The viewing party was excellent, Albrecht’s band mates were charming and personable. And even though we got home late, there was still time for Albrecht’s favourite activity. On the first night of any time I visit him we end up sitting drunk at his kitchen table drinking and smoking while having a deep and personal catch up. Since the last time I visited, Albrecht had discovered port. We were one step away from smoking jackets and leather bound chairs, or so we thought, drunk and messy at 4am.
Party number two was to me, the funniest, although upon arrival, I had no idea where the night was going. Me and Albrecht took a subway to one of Cologne’s nicer shopping districts and made our way through some narrow streets to find the boutique in question. It wasn’t so much the people or the place…. Wait, maybe it was the people and the place.
I have never understood how or why these fashion boutiques exist. You know the type of store – there are more staff members than items for sale, because each piece of clothing is worth the same as a small car, loud techno plays to remind you you aren’t cool enough to ride this train, and everyone, and I mean everyone, is insanely attractive. Obviously, I get that these shops aren’t aimed at me, my question is – “but, then who?”
Where do these people with bottomless pockets and a strong desire to spend large sums on unique clothing come from? Because I’ve never been friends with anyone like that. I’ve never even met anyone like that. Until now I suppose. I just don’t understand how the business model works.
I felt out of place. And what made it worse was that Albrecht had suggested I make cocktails. Beforehand I had been a fan of the idea for a couple of reasons. One, I can make cocktails. And two, cocktails help you make friends. Also it meant I might be excused from having to actually converse with people which sometimes I find incredibly intimidating, especially when it’s a party I shouldn’t be at and I don’t even speak the same language. But it’s also a pain in the dick making cocktails in a place that doesn’t have a cocktail bar, and upon arrival I suddenly remembered that fact.
Again, my social anxiety was completely unjustified. Every single person there was incredibly charming, pleasant and welcoming. And luckily, the cocktail ruse worked a treat, although I can confirm that trying to make sugar syrup and transfer lime juice to a glass bottle in a kitchenette barely suitable to make a cup of tea is a fucking ball ache.
The party was moving along smoothly, then it happened. Suddenly, I became aware that all the beautiful people had disappeared leaving about 10 of us downstairs. From upstairs, flashing lights and 90s hardcore eurotrash techno started emanating at remarkable volume and frequency.
It was a photo shoot. An actual photo shoot, involving models and costume changes, and ludicrous makeup. This wasn’t just happening. It was happening to me. If they played Frankie Goes to Hollywood I was going to lose my mind. As I stood outside in the back courtyard, looking upstairs to the flashing lights and hot girl tugging around with her sequinned leotard, the largest smile crept across my face, and laughter began to eschew forth uncontrollably.
I would like to categorically state that I am being an arsehole. All those people upstairs had been really nice to me, but that didn’t change the fact that their photo shoot confirmed all my worst suspicions about photo shoots. I was thrilled that everything I’d been told was 100% true. The lights, the sounds, the super camp laughter and drinks. Drinks which were my fault, I might add. It was excellent, and one of the best things I’ve ever witnessed in Germany. It was also time to go. Time to let the beautiful people be beautiful.
Me, Albrecht and his pal Shari grabbed a taxi to a bar for one last drink before we all headed home. And that was when I was confronted with the sum of all my worst fears and worries.
Albrecht had just finished working on national TV, Shari had just begun her career as a stand up the year before. Both their professions were going the right way. As we talked about them and their next steps, I became aware of a guy sitting at the bar not far from me, looking over with ever increasing excitement and agitation.
I have worked in bars for a long time, and I have dealt with this cartoon character a million times. I didn’t know exactly how he was rudely going to thrust himself upon our lives, I just knew it was precious moments away.
And so then, it came. The lengthy monologue about his life and the moment he was almost famous, only for it to fail because the world wasn’t fair. And here he was, 30 years later, still obsessing over that moment, knowing we should know all about it, because it’s all he’s thought about while drinking in bars ever since the world turned cruel. How could it not be of interest to everyone else?
When I meet someone like this, I panic, feeling like I’m being confronted by some horrifying vision of my future, not just for one, but two reasons. The first is I used to play music in bands and for the longest time when I was a kid, believed I might be famous. Luckily I think, I don’t still hold on to that fantasy, obsessing about the one time it almost happened. For me it never did, and I knew plenty of talented musicians who came close and still didn’t make it. In short, I live in the real world.
No, the real reason I fear these people with horrifying, self introspective terror, is I’d hate to be sitting in a bar by myself 30 years from now, clinging to a past that never was. It is a reminder of everything that can and might go wrong. But perhaps then these people serve a purpose; even if I never achieve anything, please, let me at least have the dignity not to ambush people drunk, desperate to make myself relevant for one more repetitive night.
Me and Albrecht ran away to the port sitting on his kitchen table.
The third and final party was yet again, a completely different pace. It was in an ex strip club that still had all the tacky 80s red décor that, through the marvel of time being linear and trends being cyclical, had actually become retro and cool – lots of red tasselling and shiny Chinese dragon mosaics on smoke marked mirrors. What made this stranger was that a lot of the attendees were in their 40s. Nothing wrong with it, it’s just you could feel this was a special occasion away from the kids, rather than just another Tuesday night out. You’re also never quite prepared to walk into a strip club to be serenaded by a Calypso band of five white German guys in their 40s and 50s dressed in Hawaiian shirts and straw hats. Roll with the punches, I say.
Another night of drinking in Cologne, one of my favourite things to do.
The Thursday rolled round, and with it, the need for Albrecht to return to some semblance of normality. He took me to the train station where I booked my train to Belgium.