Köln Moment

“It’s not total identity theft – they spit out your bones.” Hilary B. Price

Somehow i never got around to visiting Köln while i was in the Army in Germany 1964-66, but did so during my 1988 return to Germany when my German was at its peak and i had no difficulty understanding people who were speaking directly to me. I fell in love with Köln almost from the beginning.  I say “almost” because my traveling companion and i had flown there from Berlin and picked up a rental car at the airport.

Since i had driven for a couple of years in Germany and since he was unfamiliar with German road signs and traffic conventions, i was the designated driver, which left him to be the navigator.  Back in those days before Garmin, when you were in an unfamiliar city trying to find your hotel and were a bit confused by the spaghetti maze of a typical German city, the standard practice was for the driver to call out the names of the cross streets so the navigator could figure out where you were on the map and then start telling the driver where to turn to get to the destination.

This worked fine if the navigator was not so totally lacking in trust of the driver that he couldn’t take his eyes off the road long enough to look at the map.  So i had to keep stopping so he could relax enough to determine our location.  Grrrrr.  But eventually we found the hotel and then everything started working beautifully.

The manager was a charming woman with whom i hit it off instantly, but she was no exception.  I got along great with Germans all over the country, but for some reason, i found the Kölner particularly delightful.  And the feeling was mutual.  So much so that it became embarrassing since they pretty much ignored my companion when we were together and focused entirely on me.  This was only partly a matter of personality, of course, since his German was rudimentary and they could actually carry on a conversation with me.  But still, our focuses were completely different.  He was there to go to museums and attend performance arts events, especially opera, while i was there to hang out with people, eat German food, improve my command of the language, and have fun.

Incidentally, it was in Köln that i got the finest compliment i ever received on my German.  I was chatting up a gay bartender, telling him how i’d started learning the language when i was stationed there in the Army, and he interrupted me with one word:  “Frankfurt”.  Yes!  Discernible through my American accent was a Frankfurt accent!  I’ll never forget him.

It was also in Köln that i had the most entertaining medical encounter of my life.  See, in those days i’d been rotting out my gums with smoking, so my periodontal health was iffy, and in Berlin i’d come down with what i diagnosed as an infection that i’d treated with only marginal success by mouthwashing with hydrogen peroxide.  By the time i got to Köln it was clear i needed to see a periodontist, so i asked the hotel manager whether she knew of one and how to go about making an appointment with a German doctor.

She didn’t know of a periodontist and looked in the phone book only to discover that there was no Zahnfleischarzt listed in the city.  Hmmm.  So she called her dentist and discovered that this specialty was virtually unknown in Germany and that you just saw a regular dentist.  And then, bless her, she got him to give me an appointment the very next day!

So that evening i pored over my dictionary learning the German for every word i could think of relating to mouth care and gum infections.  Brushed my teeth especially well the next morning and walked over to the dentist’s office a few minutes before my appointment.

The young receptionists were as delightful as everyone else i’d met in Köln, and then, at the stroke of the hour, absolutely pünktlich, they ushered me into the adjacent examination area and introduced me to the dentist.

I explained the problem, and he said, well, let’s see.  I sat in the chair while he examined my mouth, muttering an occasional “ach!”.  He diagnosed me with a severe inflammation rather than an infection, told me i needed to go immediately to a dentist upon my return to the states, and started treatment right there by squirting some vile stuff in for me to rinse around well and hold for a minute before spitting out.  We repeated this several times, and i have to say, my mouth started feeling better immediately.

So what’s so strange and entertaining about that, you ask.  Umm, nothing, actually.  What was utterly bizarre, though, was that while he was examining my mouth both of the young women somehow needed to pass by the chair and, since they were in the neighborhood, make sidelong discreet glances into my mouth.  As if somehow they were wondering whether, down inside, American mouths were anything at all like German mouths in spite of their superficial external similarity.

And then after the dentist had given me a bottle of the vile stuff to use for the next few days and i returned to the front desk to pay for the treatment and asked them to give me a receipt against the remote possibility that i could get my insurance company to pay for part of the charge, i got another clue.  They could give me right then a cash receipt, but they could also mail me a detailed report on the treatment and how the charges were broken down, so they needed my American address.

I wrote it down for them, and it threw them for a loop.  All the numbers were in the wrong places, they protested, so how could a letter possibly reach me with such a bizarre address?

And as i was explaining that Americans used a much different form for addresses and that somehow it seemed reasonable to us to put the house number in front of the street name, stick the postal code way out in the bottom right corner where nobody would expect to find it, and add a separate letter code after the city name for the state name as if the postal code were insufficient, suddenly i understood.

History lesson:  After Germany surrendered to the allies in May, 1945, the country (with its 1937 borders) was divided into occupation zones.  The French got by far the smallest area, basically a strip along the southwestern border.  The remainder of Germany was divided into thirds, with the British having the north, the Russians the east, and the Americans the south.  The American zone extended little north of Frankfurt, whereas Köln was near the bottom of the British zone.  Furthermore, the British occupation force was never anywhere near as large as that of the Americans, so the average Kölner had encountered relatively few British soldiers.  In fact, the only English speakers they had much familiarity with were tourists, and Köln was not a major American tourist attraction.

So of course i was an exotic.  The vast majority of Kölner had never had the slightest interaction with an American, so that’s why an American-style address would look strange and an American would be inherently interesting.

But i promise you, nowhere else have i found people sneaking looks into my mouth.  They must have been terribly disappointed to find it so ordinary.

Meanwhile, happiness is where you find it.  In this case, on Howard Street near the waterfront.

Happiness on Howard Street

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