Germany in December
Cologne Travel Tale
"When I think of Germany, I think of Socializing, Steps and the Stuttgart Ballet"
by Lorry Patton
In December, wrapped in shawls the size of blankets and wearing long wool overcoats, the people of Stuttgart,
Dusseldorf and Cologne flood their beloved outdoor markets, many just drifting past the merchandise hidden by a
wall of shoppers two bodies deep. Twisted wire statues, wooden carvings, handmade lamps, puppets, windup toys ...
These and other items cram the counters of the green and red huts with the scalloped gables. Remarkably, parents
push strollers through this human sea, the rosy-cheeked children, eyes mirroring the twinkling lights strung from post
to post, look on enthralled. Some sleep, eyes shut tight, bundled warmly and feeling safe in their rubber-wheeled
I was there, carried along with the tide of people through the sweet and sour smells of cinnamon waffles,
gingerbread, grilled sausage and Schupfnudeln mit kraut (a cabbage and potato noodles dish). Indeed, the food
kiosks seemed as popular as the gift stalls and my friends and I, like so many others there, set our elbows on the
sticky tables and devoured spicy bratwurst sausage, served to us faster than at any fast food chains! In no hurry to
leave, we sipped the season's traditional sweet mulled wine and exchanged anecdotes of overcrowded experiences,
some of us blowing smoke and others just steam from hot breath into the cold night air.
How enlightening, I thought. After work, a time when many cities of the world resemble ghost towns, the cities of
Stuttgart, Dusseldorf and Cologne regenerate with footsteps and voices. Even when temperatures drop below zero,
pedestrians pack the cobblestoned squares.
"Yes, many of these people are residents of nearby districts, but not all," our guide explained, her dark eyes steady,
her shiny black hair styled in a fashionable bob. " Busloads of shoppers come from Belgium, France and farther.
They come on special tours, just to shop at our Christmas markets. Most of the local people here, most of them
come just for the chance to get together, to be part of the celebrations."
It was the same at the pubs we crawled, like Papa Joe's, a jazz club with that comforting look of time, the walls
plastered in memorabilia posters and photographs from past guests. It didn't matter that it was a workday evening;
the place was full. A grey-haired gentleman ran his nimble fingers across a keyboard; handsome young men, deep in
conversation, leaned against sturdy pillars; pretty young women straddled their stocking legs around the bar stools
and flirted with the barman; middle-aged couples raised glasses to health and prosperity and a lone senior citizen
tapped his toes to the piano player's beat. And us, we drank it all in with every gulp of beer, trying hard to be one
with the people living on the Rhine, who eat, drink and socialize so naturally.
Perhaps it has to do with the country's hearty fare. German food is wickedly irresistible. Simple, savory dishes like
Spatzle, a flour and egg noodle smothered in buttered breadcrumbs. I love bread and Germany has more than three
hundred types of breads. Shiny golden crusted breads , braided and rolled, twisted and long, round, sweet and salty,
the pumpernickel and the pretzel. Then there's the beer . . . More than five thousand brands of beer exist in
Germany. It is as if every region, every city, every village and every neighborhood brews their very own beer. ( A
friendly rivalry exists between Dusseldorf and Cologne on which of the two, the Alt or the Koolsch is the
Despite their affection to food and drink, the people of Germany are generally fit. Perhaps it is because in Germany
stairs lead to just about everywhere.
I confronted my first set of stairs two minutes after we landed at Frankfurt Airport. They led to the AIRail terminal
below and my connections to Cologne, a city on the " Magic Cities" on the Rhine tour. I ignored the elevator and
proceeded down the stone treads past the baggage claim and approached the information booth to pick up my
prearranged rail pass. Whoops! Wrong place. Up I went, back to the airport concourse where my ticket waited and
then down again to catch my train.
That was the beginning of a daily ritual up the stairs and down the stairs. Sometimes elevators were available.
Other times, like to the roof of the Cologne Cathedral, the circular staircase was the only way up, and to the 12th
Century Mikva Jewish Bath, the stone stairwell was the only way down.
Stairs were the best way to get around Germany's magnificent baroque castles, the best way to peruse the old world
and new world art galleries and the best way to explore the many, many museums. Stairs also lead to an excellent
subway system and to underground passageways under busy thoroughfares.
Of course, beautiful wide stairways connect multi-leveled historic opera houses, concert halls and performing arts
centers. Sometimes, stairs are as artistically designed as the building.
A grand staircase and massive pillars beautify the entrance to the GroBes Haus, the 1912 building that houses the
Stuttgart State Theater and the Opera House. Tonight, the last night of our tour, the stage is set for the "Lady of the
Camellias" ( a ballet based on the novel by Alexandre Dumas.), performed by the world renowned Stuttgart Ballet
Company. The theater is full. Just like the German Opera House in Dusseldorf the night before and the
Philharmonic Concert Hall in Cologne two nights earlier.
The audience arrives early, checking their furs and winter jackets in the cloak room. Most of the women wear black
and the men dark suits and ties. Intense and more serious than the patrons of pubs, they settle quietly in small groups
in the lobby, a long hall bare of objects except for a few standing tables and a chesterfield or two. At side alcoves,
reserved tables seat four, where during intermission, the ballet afficionados nibble on hors d'oeuvres, drink
champagne and smoke cigarettes. When the play ends, the people cheer, applaud and honor the dancers with a
deserving standing ovation. Clearly, besides appreciating good food and good friends, the German people support
and appreciate fine arts and the tremendous talent of their people.
Which brings me to the ballet and the enchanting and erotic image of the courtesan Marguerite Gauthier sliding down Armond
Duval's body in the final act of "Lady of the Camellias". Surely, the whole of John Neumelier choreography oozes
with passion and despair, but is it Jurgen Rose's stark sets or his diaphanous pastel costumes that have me in a spell?
Or is it Frederik Chopin's stirring music that lingers in my heart? I don't know. Months have past, yet still, when I
think of Germany, this is the scene that comes to my mind. Marguerite, sliding uninterrupted, down her lover's
body, like a tear rolling down a cheek.
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