Impressions of Cologne

I did a post on the work side of my recent visit to Cologne, but I figured I’d stick something up about the time I spent off-duty. Like a proper Paddy, I landed in Dusseldorf airport with the complete clan in tow – wife, three kids and my mother. From the airport terminal, we took a monorail to the train station, a double-decker train (with no luggage space) to the Hauptbanhof in the city centre, then a taxi from there to the apartment where we’d be staying.

The organizers of the festival found the idea of this Irish gang arriving very entertaining altogether, and were enormously helpful throughout our week there. But keeping a whole family happy on a city break is no mean feat – particularly when none of you has a word of German between you. Thankfully, the city had a lot of offer.

Impressions? The tram system is excellent, though the signage of the stations and access for buggies left something to be desired in some places. Older people were incredibly helpful when they saw we had young kids, or saw us looking round aimlessly holding our maps, but teenagers made a habit of pushing past us as if we weren’t there (young people these days etc, etc). Germans don’t seem to believe much in queuing, unless it’s enforced, but we learned to stand our ground getting in and out of elevators.

We stayed (all six of us) in a two-bed apartment on the outskirts of town. It was grand for what it was, but the two little girls started going spare if we stayed in too long, and the only thing we watched on telly were the Euro matches (Note to the team: Ah, Jaysus lads!’ – but at least we can sing) and two DVD’s of ‘Peppa Pig’ and ‘The Wiggles’ . . . over and over and over again – anything for a bit of peace.

As in France, we found ourselves eating a lot of bread and cheese. This might have something to do with the fact the cooker in the apartment was like something out of Star Trek (the original series) and we did most of our shopping in Lidl, which didn’t seem to do a whole lot in the way of fruit and veg. There were bakeries everywhere too, with all sorts of delicious stuff. They seem to eat pastries like we eat white sliced bread, but it doesn’t show. They’re a fit-looking bunch for the most part. The pretzels didn’t do much for me, though you saw them around quite a bit.

We lunched on currywurst (sausage in sauce), wiener schnitzel (veal cutlet) and fleischkäse (a kind of meatloaf) – though Maedhbh, being vegetarian, had to opt out of these. She did, however, discover the wonders of the flammkuchen, a kind of pizza without the tomato sauce. We learned that ‘apfelstreusel’ is apple crumble, a German dish, while ‘apfelstrudel’ is pastry, an Austrian dish. The local beer is Kölsch, and is light and easy to drink.

A lot of the architecture was very samey, what with most of the city being bombed into a wasteland (though many of the most prominent churches were miraculously spared) and being rebuilt in a hurry in the forties and fifties. But the restored section of the old town was lovely, and there were beautiful and quirky buildings all over the place. We had a great time at the zoo – with its aquarium – which is on a par with Dublin Zoo, but has some of pens laid out better, so you could see more (you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a hippo shit underwater, up against the glass you’re looking through).

The football nut and I took a go on the cable car that’s strung across the river – two of us a few hundred feet up in a vehicle about the size of two telephone boxes. On another day, the two of us climbed the narrow spiral staircase up to the top of cathedral, which is stunning, but the walls of the viewing level were wallpapered in graffiti. You have to wonder what goes through people’s heads.

We all took a stroll through the Sculpture Park – the car in the picture above is not an accident, it was stuck on that pole on purpose. Through that week, we looked for things we could all do: the little tourist train that takes you through the old town (the locals hate it); the Volksgarten with its adventure playgrounds, ducks, pedal-boats and two turtles swimming in the pond. We spend one day in Phantasia Land, which I much preferred to Disneyland Paris. We walked through the city, along the Rhein, browsed in the Lego shop, had lunch in the Fischmarkt. Our boy got himself his long-promised Bayern Munich football jersey. We saw a bronze lion the size of a rhino outside a shop on a street, and smelled the cinnamon from the bakeries as we came up in the tram station elevators to the shopping levels, visited the sports museum, dipped into the chocolate museum and took a quick look into the Dutch Ark, which happened to be moored there that week.

It was brilliant, but exhausting, what with trying to keep the kids occupied all the time, walking everywhere with two buggies and just taking all this new stuff in. A fine time in a fine city. Thank you, Köln.

Cool for Cats – The Ideas Shop Comes to Kilkenny

The lovely Sarah Webb and I will be flying by the seats of our respective pants as we hold an ‘Ideas Shop’ event for the Kilkenny Arts Festival – without the calming presence of Judi Curtin. The event takes place at 3pm on the 12th of August at the Barnstorm Theatre.

In this show, we take a light-hearted approach to discussing how our childhoods influenced our approach to coming up with ideas, how we build our stories from nothing, and how we go about reaching our audience once we’ve completed those stories.

If you’re down that way, and your that way inclined, we’ll see you there.

Mad Grandad Goes to Cologne

I’m just catching back up on work after returning from Germany last Sunday, so I finally have some time to do a post on the trip. I was in Cologne for the annual Children’s Literature Festival run by Uschi Schröter and her fantastic team at SK Stiftung Kultur. Every year, they feature writers from a different country and this time it was Ireland’s turn.

I was in good company, with PJ Lynch, Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick (accompanied by hubbie and children’s author and illustrator Michael Emberley), Sheena Wilkinson, John Boyne and Judi Curtin. The week before, the city had played host to our Children’s Laureate, Niamh Sharkey, Siobhan Parkinson, Terry McDonagh and John Connolly.

The photo above shows PJ, Uschi, my translator Ulrike, and me at an exhibition featuring the work of PJ, Marie-Louise and Niamh’s paintings (I nicked the picture off PJ’s blog – thanks PJ). But for most of us, it was all about the libraries and schools we were brought out to, to do events for the festival.

In my case, I’d been asked to do five events centred around Mad Grandad, for ages of 8-11 years. Given my complete lack of German, I’d have to be translated for the kids, a task that interpreter Ulrike Sawicki performed with relish and expertise. She was great fun to work with. This was a new experience for me – I’ve been translated before for panels and interviews, but never during one of my sessions (unless you count sign language at a school for the deaf). But with Ulrike’s help it went down really well, and I had a brilliant time. It also forced me to talk a little slower, which was good, because it’s a discipline I have yet to master in my sessions.

I had three sessions in libraries and two in schools, and the people of Cologne were nothing if not welcoming and enthusiastic. At one school, I was treated to a cup of Lyons tea (the first cup of tea I’ve probably had in years). They’d done a whole project on Ireland because their teacher had spent a lot of time there. I was asked if I wanted some Guinness, which I regretfully declined, having seen all the kids being given tea (many for the first time ever) and proceeding to go haywire.

Two of the libraries I visited were Catholic libraries – I suppose in the same way that schools were originally run by the church in Ireland. They’re staffed by volunteers and also act as community support centres. The first one I visited was actually part of a brand new church building. It had a dedicated area downstairs devoted to community projects like free meals, fixing up bicycles to give to kids who don’t have them, taking in donations of things such as clothes, and even training people up on a forklift and one of those street-sweeper trucks. Imagine St Vincent de Paul, but working out of a brand new, purpose-built headquarters.

Wherever I went, I was given a warm welcome and all the events were run with energy and efficiency. it’s funny how kids in different countries are all the same when you get right down to it, but then you pay all the more attention to the little differences. In Ireland or Britain, the most common questions are ‘Where do you get your ideas?’; ‘What’s your favourite book?’ and ‘How much money do you make?’. In Cologne, the first two questions still got asked, but I was only asked once about the money. Instead, one of the most common questions was if I had children and what their names and ages were. One kid asked if I smoked, which was a first (I don’t, and never have). I also got asked why we spoke English in Ireland (a tricky one to answer briefly) and did I write my books in Irish too (no, and after thirteen years of learning the language, I’m barely capable of composing a coherent sentence in it).

All in all, I had a brilliant time over there. I brought the family over too (you pay for that part of it yourself, but Uschi and the others were a great help), but I’ll cover some of the things we did in the city in a separate post. My thanks to Uschi, Ulrike, Monica and everyone involved, and congratulations on a fantastic festival.

Merciless Reason Competition

The deadline for entering the Merciless Reason Competition has now passed! A big thanks to everyone who entered! The winner of the competition will appear as a character in my next book, and will be announced on the 15th of July. There will be three runners-up who will receive inscribed copies of all three Wildenstern books.

Thanks again to everyone who took part!

Flying the Flag in Germany

I’ll make this quick – it’s been a long day and the whole family’s got to be up at 4am to catch a plane to Germany. And I’m already a bit knackered. I’m taking part in Irischen Kinder- und Jugendbuchwochen 2012 (don’t ask me to pronounce that), a big children’s book festival in Cologne.

It celebrates the writing of a different country every year, and this year it’s Ireland’s turn. It stretches over two weeks, this being the second one. Last week, Niamh Sharkey (our new Children’s Laureate), PJ Lynch, Siobhan Parkinson, Malachy Doyle, Terry McDonagh and John Connolly flew the flag for Ireland.

On Monday, I join Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick, Judi Curtin, Sheena Wilkinson and John Boyne as we take Irish storytelling and illustration to the kids of Cologne.

I don’t get asked to events abroad (or beyond the UK anyway) too often, so this is a bit of a treat, and Maedhbh and I decided to upgrade it to a family holiday.

Don’t forget, the deadline for entries for the ‘Merciless Reason’ competition is the end of next week! Thanks to all those who’ve entered already, and for anybody else who’s planning to take part – time’s almost up!