A shot across the Rhine

Posted by Mishqah Schippers on 5 November 2020

You don’t need to see a city’s highlights to remember it fondly. Sometimes all you need is a drink…

Words Tyson Jopson

I was in Cologne on something of a work trip. That is to say my days were more about hobnobbing in conference rooms than hanging out with the city’s highlights. In fact, only the final evening of my visit was truly mine. Even then, I only got back to my budget hotel after 9pm – exhausted. I crumbled onto the bed like a detonated building, ready to take off my pants and watch Die Slowly (Stirb Langsam – the German-dubbed Die Hard) on a tiny television bolted to the furthest corner of the room. But I was uneasy. On the one hand I really wanted to hear German-speaking Hans Gruber say ‘I’m going to count to three. There will not be a four!’ On the other, if I didn’t go outside could I even tell anybody that I’d been to Cologne?

So instead of taking my pants off, I took them out for a drink. My corduroys and I criss-crossed the cobbled streets of Cologne’s Deutz neighbourhood to find a quiet bar. Looking west, I could see the golden arches of the Hohenzollern Bridge stretch across the shimmering Rhine. On the other side, the city’s Musical Dome glowed an audacious purple. Beside it, the twin spires of the Cologne Cathedral poked at the cloudless heavens while the old town buzzed and hummed below. It looked magnificent – a picture-perfect Cologne beneath a clear night sky. Equally clear was the fact that I was on the wrong side of the river. The only thing with any radiance on my side was a ribbon of neon-red lights around the outside of an empty American sports bar called Joe Champs.

‘Fine,’ I said to my pants. Inside I discovered where all the normal-sized televisions in the neighbourhood had gone. Joe Champs was plastered with them, all glowing green with the visuals from a football match. I also discovered that when you order a beer in Cologne it comes in a small 200ml cylindrical glass called a stange (a rod).

‘Do you have anything larger?’ I said. ‘No, this is how you get drinks in Cologne,’ said the barman, ‘Were you at the match?’ ‘Match?’ The Haie are playing the Oilers. The arena is not far from here.’ I looked up at the bank of screens. No, ice hockey,’ said the barman.

Over the next few minutes I learnt that the Kölner Haie (Cologne’s version of the KZN Sharks) had recently defeated the Wolfsburg Grizzlys and were now playing a conference match against the Edmonton Oilers from Canada. I had many questions: Why was Cologne’s team called the Sharks? There isn’t an ocean for miles. Are there sharks in the Rhine? And who the hell decided that Wolfsburg would be the Grizzlys? I mean ‘wolf’ is right there, in the name. Do Germans just randomly pluck their team names from a menagerie?

And then the Canadians walked in. Tens of them; men with broad shoulders in bright-orange supporters jerseys with reflective stripes above the hem. They looked like upside-down traffic cones. The Oilers had won 4–3 and one of the traffic cones decided it was time for a shot. ‘Jägerbomb!’ he yelled at the barman.

The barman poured a tot of Jägermeister into a stange, filling it with ice and Red Bull. ‘What’s this?!’ yelled the Canadian.

‘That’s how you get drinks in Cologne,’ I offered my newly learnt cultural insights. The traffic cone glared at me.

‘No, no, no… it needs to be a glass with another glass in it.’

‘Ah you want a U-boat!’ said the barman. He poured Red Bull into another stange and sank a shot glass of Jäger into it so that it fizzed.

‘No, no it needs to be a short glass,’ yelled the Canadian.

‘In Köln we only have these glasses,’ said the barman.

‘In Cologne they only have those glasses,’ I repeated, cheekily. It was not true. In a dark corner of the rack behind the counter were a handful of dusty tumblers. The Canadian, whose face had now turned the same shade of purple as the city’s Musical Dome, gestured indignantly at them. A third attempt was made: this time, a tot of Jäger poured into the tumbler and topped with Red Bull. Now there were two discharged bombs and one U-boat lined up on the counter.

The enraged cone grabbed a shot glass, ordered another tumbler and began to explain, with visual aids, how to make a Jägerbomb. ‘And so now?’ said the barman pointing at the line of duds. ‘What about these?’

I said nothing. What I wish I had said was, ‘You should tell him you’ve already poured three. And there will not be a four!’

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