By Nicola Rae
While traveling in Europe, I moved around and saw different cities every few weeks. One of the cities I enjoyed visiting the most was Cologne, Germany.
I didn’t know much about Cologne before arriving, and it didn’t take long for me to absolutely love it.
Cologne surprised me a bit too.
1. Recycling is taken very seriously
In Germany, I got into sparkling water. It wasn’t my favorite in the States, but in Germany, I woke up one morning and decided I loved it.
After a few days of this new obsession, I had accumulated quite a pile of plastic bottles. My house sitting hosts mentioned that there was recycling at every grocery store, so I gathered my bottles and went to drop them off.
I was so wonderfully surprised to learn that in Germany, you get money back when you drop off your recycling. Depending on the bottle size and type of material, you can get back up to €0.25 per bottle.
After feeding the machine all my recycling, I took my receipt to the cashier and received a handful of euros. If that’s not validation that I should be drinking more sparkling water, I don’t know what is.
2. Cologne has a unique beer culture
Kölsch is the local beer in Cologne. It’s light and easy to drink, but the way it is served surprised me. Kölsch is served in tall, skinny glasses. Servers walk around the restaurant or Brauhaus with circular racks of those tiny Kölsch glasses, all filled to the brim. They never spill a drop. If they see a glass that is almost empty, they swap it out for a fresh glass and mark your coaster with a tally line.
This will continue forever, unless you figure out how to stop them. And if you don’t speak German, that might be difficult. So I’ll let you in on the secret: placing your coaster on top of your glass is the official and only way to stop the never-ending glasses of Kölsch.
3. Bicycles are a popular way to get around
I’m not the best at bicycles, but in Cologne I was a cycling queen. That is by no merit of my own and entirely because Cologne is beautifully laid out to accommodate cyclists, even lackluster ones like me. There are bike lanes everywhere and tons of places to lock up bikes around town.
I was there in winter and the weather never seemed to stop anyone. Everyone cycled - people in business suits, ladies in dresses, even kids with backpacks on their way to school. It was more convenient than the subway and felt great to get outside and exercise.
4. Two words: Coffee and Cake
How am I just now hearing about coffee and cake? Coffee and cake is a German tradition that takes place in the afternoon. Everywhere you turn there are teeny cafes with cake displays so impressive you might cry actual tears of joy. And the cafes are always filled with people enjoying an afternoon sugar and caffeine rush.
5. One word: Bread
If you read my blog, you know that I can talk about bread in almost any circumstance. Good bread is one of my greatest loves in this life, right up there with guacamole and questionable reality TV.
My love for bread began in France, the place where newbie travelers on study abroad trips learn that they love pistachio macaroons and red wine, the place where excellent table bread at every meal becomes an expectation.
I’ve often said that the best meal of my life was simple homemade bread smeared with goat cheese at a winery in the Loire Valley. When I asked the old man who owned the place where the bread came from, he pointed to his rosy-cheeked wife. When I asked about the cheese, he pointed to a goat in a pasture across the street.
Back home in the States, I dabbled in bread-making with a machine that looked like R2D2 and made more noise than a lawn mower on my kitchen counter. I even experimented with a sourdough starter that I baked into a brick so hard a serrated knife couldn’t cut it.
I wondered if I would ever find bread as good as the loaves I devoured in France.
Then I got to Germany.
The bread was one of the most pleasant and unexpected surprises I encountered in Germany. You hear about the bratwurst, about the beer, about the sauerkraut and schnitzel and spaetzle. You don’t often hear about the bread. And that, my friends, is a tragedy. [Read More: Best Food, Drink & Activities to Try in Cologne, Germany].
I won’t tell you how much bread I ate, but you can safely assume it would be measured in “loaves per day.” The woman at my local bakery knew me by name and would call to me from behind the counter if I walked past on the street.
When it was time to leave Germany, I seriously considered throwing away all my clothes and just packing my backpack full of fresh bread. Who even needs clothes anyway?
But practicality won out and I decided against it.
Instead, I promised myself I’d make it back to Germany someday. I’m already looking forward to feeding my recycling to one of those fun machines, drinking Kölsch, riding bikes, enjoying coffee and cake, and eating that fabulous bread.
Nicola is an Atlanta native who loves teaching, budget travel, and guacamole. She holds BA’s in Anthropology and Sociology from the University of Georgia and a Masters in Education from Francis Marion University. She is currently teaching English online while house sitting. Whens he's not busy teaching or drinking coffee in cozy cafes, Nicola enjoys writing about her travels on her blog seenicwander.com.
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- Learn More about ITA Ambassador, Nicola Rae
- Visit Germany Ambassador Corner
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- Cologne City Fact Sheet - find out everything you need to know about living in Cologne!
- Best Food, Drink & Activities to Try in Cologne, Germany
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- Visa Know How - Germany Freelance Visa
- Reverse Culture Shock - 5 Things That Surprised Me About American After Traveling Abroad