The hotel reception was lit by three gloomy low-wattage light bulbs. It should have been six but the management was economising. The hotel’s nod to the city carnival was a single balloon strung from one of the empty bulb holders. I let my backpack drop from my shoulders and checked in. WiFi, said the receptionist, cost extra. The WiFi registration process was as insanely convoluted as buying illegal drugs.
Room number dreiunddreissig was on a shabby corridor with two other doors. The room was dismally cold and small. It was bare of every amenity one normally expects to find even in a cheap hotel room, except for a bed, a kit wardrobe and a tiny table whose surface area was taken up by a dirty old television. The thin carpet was soiled, the wallpaper peeling. The toilet in the adjoining bathroom was fixed at an angle to the wall of 45 degrees to fit it in. The partition wall was thin enough to hear the three women in the next room chatting and laughing and coughing and opening cans. The din of accelerating engines from the road outside was constant. Shutting the window muted the din a little. I tried the WiFi. It didn’t work. I kicked off my boots and sank down on to the low divan, grateful simply to be able to stop moving.
After I’d rested, I went downstairs to reception, complained about the WiFi, and went outside to smoke a cigarette. It was raining and the daylight was failing. I walked along the pavement until I found shelter in the doorway of a rather grim public building of some sort that was closed and shuttered for the duration of the carnival. I stood on the doorstep and lit up. I came and stood in this doorway to smoke several times before it was pointed out to me by a passing antiquarian bookseller that I was standing in the doorway of the former Gestapo headquarters in Cologne, now a historic archive of National Socialism. When I saw it the next day in broad daylight, armed with this knowledge, the sinister-looking pre-war building could hardly have been anything other than a Gestapo headquarters. It was ironic that it was one of the few buildings in Cologne that wasn’t flattened by Allied bombing. There still exists a tunnel leading from the cells to the courthouse on the other side of the road, said my informant. Prisoners were led via this tunnel to be summarily condemned by a judge, led back again, and shot in the courtyard at the back.
One very wonderful thing about my awful hotel was that every guest that I encountered while coming and going from my room was wearing fancy dress and either drunk or penitently hungover but setting out determined to get drunk again. The room at the end of my corridor, einunddreissig, was occupied by a young Italian couple who came and went dressed in furry polar-bear suits. These two were always drunk and always arguing. Whether they were having one long continuous argument or the subject changed sometimes was impossible to tell. The woman shrieked at the man with a level of vituperation that was embarrassing to witness. They would leave the hotel in their polar-bear suits drunk and arguing and return even more drunk and still arguing.
One afternoon they were so drunk in their room that they lost their room key, which was an almost impossible feat, as it was attached to a bloody great lump of metal that at a push could be used as an offensive weapon. They had locked their door from the inside, then somehow lost the key and were prisoners. I lay on my divan listening to the woman screaming at the man. Finally the screaming seemed to be reaching some kind of an emotional crescendo and I opened my door and went out into the corridor to listen. The three women next door were also out and listening. This was the first time we’d actually met, so we said hello, how do you do. Neither they nor I knew at that time that the Italians had locked themselves in. We simply imagined that one was about to murder the other. I was dressed as a Regency dandy; they were all nuns.
Presently the hotel receptionist came hurrying along the corridor with a master key and unlocked the Italians’ door. Immediately, the door sprung violently open and the man came running out wearing his polar-bear costume, closely pursued by the woman in hers. She caught up with him at the top of the stairs, hauled him back and punched him very hard in the face. The ensuing wrestling match between the two polar bears on the hotel landing was perhaps the highlight of the Cologne carnival for all of us who were there to witness it.