A week old in Cologne after having managed to find groceries and my way to the institute, I thought I could conquer anything. So, I woke up on the second sunday morning of September, and decided to travel to Saarbrücken to find myself an apartment. At a crowded Cologne Central station, I found my way to the ticketing counter and stood in front of the woman wearing a pleasant smile and an eye shadow in the shade of striking silver. The badge on her vest probably said Joanna.
“Where to today?” she said before I could ask her if she spoke english.
“Ok. Would you like to take the ICE or the local train?”
“Umm… What is the difference?”
“ICE is faster. Also if you take the local train you will have to change once.” She said as she turned her computer screen towards me.
As I evaluated both options, I couldn’t help but notice that the price of the local train ticket was half of the ICE fare, so I told her that I would take the former.
“Very well. One way or round trip?” she asked.
“Round trip, but I want to be back by 11.”
“All right. But remember, you must catch the 7:20 p.m. train back or you’ll have to buy the ticket again.”
She printed out the ticket and highlighted time of change and platform number. I stood there and repeated the details twice as though displaying my skills in reiteration. Then, I ran towards the platform and and saw a sign which announced that the train to Trier would arrive next. To confirm whether I was about to catch the right train, I turned to the man standing next to me. Nodding, he pointed me to another man who turned out to be Raza, a middle aged Pakistani TV journalist who happened to be on the same train as I. He owned a flower shop in Bonn and did wedding photography. He was in Cologne to buy supplies for his shop which had run out from a week long wedding rush. We boarded the train and continued to talk.
“Where are you from and when did you arrive in Germany?”
“Oh. India and a week ago.”
“That’s really soon. What do you do and how long are you here for?”
“I am here to do my masters and then I go back.”
“Why go back? Stay.” He said with a convincing smile.
He continued to talk for the remaining journey. He chuckled about his observation that Indians and Pakistanis have the same narrow mindset about most things. Germans, he thought were different. He also pointed out that women had more freedom in Germany as compared to Pakistan or India. He also jokingly rued that you couldn’t keep more than one wife, although he did have a friend who had one wife and three girlfriends and 48 children. He was also still amazed that to be able to keep pets, you needed to take them to the vet at least thrice a year. In India we didn’t keep out our children with so much care. I told him I was happy to hear a familiar tongue.
At Bonn, Raza deboarded after wishing me luck for my apartment hunt and I waited for my connection to arrive. About 15 minutes later, the train stopped at Trier and I got off the train and walked on to platform 11. In the middle of the afternoon, It was already very cold and I sought a spot near a pillar, shielding myself from the wind. A couple stood leaning against the very pillar in an embrace only opening eyes to wipe a disobedient tear. They were probably saying goodbye. Once I was on the train, I saw that an offeror had responded to my request and agreed to allow me to come and view it the same day. I now had three houses to see. With my kindle tucked inside my bag unused, I decided to spend my time clicking selfies. I stopped only to preserve my phone battery which had drained to about 50%.
As I walked out of the train station eating a slice of pizza, I was pleased to discover that the first appointment was close to the train station. I stood outside the apartment building as a French girl, walked out. She was the girl who was going to vacate the room i was about to see, to go for an internship to Luxembourg. She told me that someone was already upstairs viewing the apartment, so I sat down on the pavement with her, waiting as she lit a cigarette. We introduced ourselves, and I told her that I was here to do my masters. She told me that I stood a better chance compared to others since i was the a girl and the right age. When I looked at her a little surprised, she explained that Peter thought that young people cared less about cleaning and were less likely to stick to cleaning schedules. She, however, thought that age had little to do with one’s tendency to clean. She told me that she preferred to clean whenever she found anything dirty, and it wasn’t fair to be asked to follow a schedule if she was travelling for, say, a whole week.
Once the boy walked out, we went up to meet Peter who was the longest staying inmate and de-facto in- charge of apartment affairs. He showed me the room which had two big windows and spacious a walk in cupboard. The bed and the rest of the furniture could be spared at a throwaway price of 100 euros.
“Oh and there is a also dog who lives in the apartment but it is currently on ‘vacation'” Peter said.
“Oh that is great. I do not mind dogs.” I said, second guessing.
“Do you smoke?”
“Do you have any questions for us?”
“Actually, I do. How do you manage with the shower being installed in the kitchen instead of the bathroom?”I had thought a shower in the kitchen to be odd while answering the advertisement, but thought it was probably an extra shower mistakenly installed in the bright yellow kitchen. I saw that it was the only shower in the house.
He told me they had an understanding that whenever one of them was going to shower, they would close the kitchen door beforehand so the rest knew not to go inside. He asked me if I was okay with that arrangement. With the most genuine expression I could muster, I assured him that I could get used to it.
“So the rent starts next week?” he asked.
“Next week? No that definitely won’t work. You see, I have already paid the rent for this whole month in Cologne and I am only looking to rent October onwards” as soon as I said it, i realised that i should have cleared the issue of the date of moving in before coming all the way to Saarbrücken. Peter told me he would write to me when he had made his decision. But I already knew that I wasn’t going to live there.
The next appointment was sometime away so I went to an outdoor café near the Europa Gallery and ordered a cup of hot chocolate. I looked around trying to absorb a little bit of the city which was going to be my home till next the end of next summer. It felt alien for it lacked the familiarity which I had come to associate with Cologne in the past week. With an hour and a half remaining for the next appointment, I walked to the nearest bus stop (Johanneskirsche) and asked a bystander how I could reach reach the city centre near University. He didn’t know but consulted his phone and told me that bus no. 101 goes in that direction and that I could ask the bus driver to help me with the exact stop.
I thanked him and got on the next 101 and attempted to ask the driver about the stop nearest to my destination. He was; however, only interested in seeing a ticket or a card I told him that I didn’t have a ticket but I was ready to buy one. He clearly couldn’t understand what I said but kept trying to explain something to me, not a word of which i understood. Since there were no other passengers whom I could turn to for help, I couldn’t do anything but get off as he showed me the way out at the next stop. In hindsight, i am embarrassed for not having handled it better, but at this point I was scared for having committed a felony by getting on without a ticket.
I stood on the road, evaluating my options, I could either abandon the remaining appointments altogether and figure out my way back to the station or I could go on and find my way on foot. I checked google maps which told me that it was about 4 kilometers away and would take about an hour to reach. Thinking I shouldn’t give up just yet, I began to walk.
Hopping through curves, bends and intermittent stairs, I continued, until google maps guided me into what looked like a thicket of trees. As I stood in front of the way which would require me to walk through a forest, through a trail, complete with tall trees and vines engulfing the moss covering them. I must have been surprised at forest trails having been recorded on google maps, for I continued walking, skipping any thought process or decision making. As I walked along, I wondered what would happen if I were to lose my way or fall into a ditch.The walk, after all didn’t turn out to be difficult, despite the a wrong turn or two and a draining phone battery. I managed to it with only a brief pause and finally clambered into Guckelsberg. I had reached the destination in an hour’s time just as google maps had predicted. I messaged the flat owner and waited.
With my phone battery was at its alarming red fifteen minutes later and no sign of the flat owner at 6:00 p.m., the disaster management lobe of my brain decided to take the wheel as I headed into the restaurant around the corner to ask for a charger and directions to the train station. The restaurant owner handed me with the charger promptly, for my face must have shown signs of acute distress. After i charged my phone for about 15 minutes, a friendly looking teenager helped me with the bus route and pointed the way to the bus stop.
The flat owner still hadn’t turned up as I walked to find my bus back to the city, but i didn’t have time to regret the hour long fruitless walk for i was determined to make it back to the city in time and catch the train. I learnt that once I knew where I had to go, I merely had to name the station and hand in sufficient money to the driver and Voila! The students merely flashed their identity cards. I didn’t deserve the penalty I had been handed out at my first attempt. I reached the city in what felt like a swish of air and ran all the way to the train station which was about half a kilometer away, a sight which can probably be best likened to a lunatic running from the falling sky. Nonetheless, I succeeded in catching my train back by a margin of three minutes. As i found a seat I decided to not consider the failure the day had been. I was hungry, thirsty and a little terrified, but thankful that i would be home in a few hours.
Soon as I dozed off, I was woken by an announcement as the train slowed down and several people began to descend at the next station. I asked the person sitting behind me if it was the last stop already which seemed to be the right question to ask at the time. The fellow assured me that the train would go on, and it did.
As we were about to reach Trier, I thought to check my ticket to confirm the station and platform of the connection. This turned out to be a good idea only I was a little late in its execution. I realized that I had missed my connection an hour ago. It had passed after the announcement which I had heard. I was suddenly reminded of my gripping childhood fear of being left parent-less in a bus which slowly began to move. As I sat fearing the discovery of my next mistake, I tried not to think about what I would do if I reached Trier to discover that no trains going to Cologne that night.
Upon reaching Trier, I found an automated billing counter at the station where an angel of a lady helped me extract a ticket to Cologne.(As I write this more than a month later, I think I probably would have been able to do it myself but for my shattering nerves at the time.) As I stood waiting on the designated platform, I could only feel the chill and a strange twitch in my left thigh. The ICE back to Cologne scheduled to leave at 10:13 p.m. was late.
I somehow managed to get through the train ride back to Cologne terribly tired, but strangely alert. At an hour and a half past midnight, as i got off the local train close to my house, I didn’t mind the soft warm drizzle or the last fifteen minutes of walk which led me to my bed.