It was past midnight when my wife and I stepped off the train in Cologne—the city’s Gothic cathedral looming in the distance, casting long shadows on the cobblestone streets. The World Cup had brought a unique energy to the city, but at this hour, it was more of a quiet hum, punctuated by the occasional distant cheer or the clinking of beer glasses.
I had armed myself with a month’s worth of “Learn German on CD” lessons. My wife, on the other hand, had armed herself with skepticism about my newfound linguistic prowess. “Just let me do the talking,” I assured her as I hailed a cab, an old BMW that appeared to have seen more Autobahn miles than any car should.
I proudly showed the driver the name of our hotel. He gave a nod that I mistook for understanding. With a face that seemed to have witnessed a thousand tourist tales, he optimistically tried to engage us in small talk, despite not speaking a word of English. Our conversation was a delightful dance of misinterpretation. Words flew past, lost in translation, but when he gestured to ask where we were from and I beamed, saying “Dallas,” his eyes lit up like the city’s skyline. “Dirk Nowitzki?” he exclaimed. I nodded, and without missing a beat, he declared, “Dirk! Better than Shaq!”
I chuckled, both at the unexpected basketball reference and the sheer enthusiasm behind it. Little did I know, this would become our unofficial greeting throughout our German sojourn. Every time our Dallas origin was revealed, the response was as predictable as a German clock: “Dirk! Better than Shaq!” It was as if Dirk had replaced the traditional “Guten Tag” for us.
But back to our cab ride. My newfound camaraderie with the driver didn’t exactly translate to accurate directions. As the streets grew eerier, my wife leaned in, “Did you maybe ask him to take us to Dirk’s favorite schnitzel spot?”
Before I could answer, we pulled up outside a pub. The same name as our hotel, glowing in neon lights. The cab driver, perhaps sensing my embarrassment, gave a smirk that seemed to say, “Your German needs work.”
But as luck would have it, the pub’s owner was in the midst of locking up. The dim glow from the streetlights illuminated a middle-aged man with salt and pepper hair, his face etched with the lines of countless stories. He glanced over, his eyes reflecting a warmth and understanding, as if he’d seen many a lost tourist before. The pub itself, with its vibrant neon sign casting a soft glow on the cobblestone street, seemed to have stood the test of time, a silent witness to many such late-night tales. The soft hum of a radio playing old German ballads drifted from inside, adding to the ambiance of this unexpected detour.
Through a series of charades, broken German (mostly on my part), and shared laughter—he set us on the right path. I’m pretty sure at one point I thanked him by saying something that translated to “Your grandmother’s bicycle is lovely.” But he just smiled, probably thinking about Dirk’s free throw technique.
We eventually made it to our hotel, our journey taking twice as long but twice as entertaining. As we settled into our room, my wife turned to me, chuckling, “You know, if you hadn’t been so confident in your ‘fluent’ German, we wouldn’t have had such a fun start to our trip.”
I think she used the word “fun” in place of “stressful”, but it was a fitting self-edit for an evening punctuated by kindness.
The next day, as we explored the city, every twist and turn felt like an invitation to another comedic misadventure. And while we never did find that pub again, its memory served as a reminder that sometimes, the best stories come from the places we never intended to go—especially when your German is, well, less than perfect.