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Germany

Crash course in Carnival - Refugees witness revelry in Cologne

November 11 rings in Rhineland’s Carnival season. Some of Germany’s newest residents were caught off guard, but very pleasantly surprised, as Milan Gagnon reports from Cologne.

The city of Cologne has set up a home for 80 male refugees awaiting verdicts on their asylum applications right across the street from one of the better-loved dive bars smack in the middle of the never-quiet student nightlife center.

And why not? There are few better ways to see Germany's young people at play than through a window in literal spitting distance, if the wind is right, from four favorite student nightspots. What's more, it's also a raucous and revelrous day spot when the Rhineland's Carnival season comes around.

Deutschland Auftakt Karneval in Köln

Crowds gathered in Cologne for the traditional beginning of the Carnival season

The official beginning of the Carnival season came on Wednesday, kicking off at 11:11 a.m. on November 11 (known in German as "den Elfter im Elften," or 11-11). By noon, the party on Zülpicher Straße, the main street of Cologne's studentville, had begun to spill over onto neighboring Kyffhäuserstrasse and curious heads were poking out of the asylum residence windows to catch glimpses of buzzing kids clad as clowns and cows. Bemused but amused, and not informed of the costume requirement, some of the residents even ventured out.

“This carnival is so beautiful,” said Hassan, who said he taught sociology in Syria until four months ago, and on Wednesday found himself and two friends unpainted and unmasked in a crowd of zombies and bumblebees. “We want to put makeup on, to mix together, to make carnival.”

‘Good, beautiful, nice'

Carnival is the Rhineland's fifth season. Parties are big in Düsseldorf, Mainz and Bonn, but there's none bigger than Cologne's. A couple hundred thousand people showed up in Cologne on Wednesday, some dressed in the city's traditional white and red stripes and some enticed into skimpier shorts and T-shirts by the unseasonably warm 14 degrees Celsius (57F).

By midafternoon local media were reporting more than 140 citations for public urination, though any given block in some sectors might have seen hundreds more people get away with it in the course of the day. The streets around the asylum-intake center, in any case, were certainly welling puddles of beer and piddle.

Karneval Alter Markt Köln Jecken NRW Deutschland

Revelers were in a party mood

It was wild, said Ibrahim, a Kurdish sign painter from near Aleppo, though he said it in more limited English. “It's very good,” he said, smiling big, liking the day. He was echoed by his friend Hussein, a student and, like Ibrahim, 20 years old. “It's very good,” Hussein said with a smile that also echoed Ibrahim's. Through a translator app on his mobile phone, he said he planned to pick his studies back up when he learned enough German, and that they both wanted to stay in Cologne. It's very good, they said.

In his 40s, Benyamin, an agricultural engineer from a Christian area in the Aleppo region, said he wasn't sure that he would stick around Cologne once he got his residency permission, but he also found Carnival very “good, beautiful, nice.” “I came here because of peace and love,” he said, and he wants badly to bring his wife and daughter from back home. “It's very dangerous there.” He added: “When the people come together to be good and nice and loving, this is better than killing.” Still, Benyamin said, he wasn't sure that he and his family would stay in Cologne once they arrived, but he didn't rule it out.

Hassan, the sociology teacher from Damascus, said he certainly wanted his family to stay in Cologne when they came. “My daughter, my son, like this, like this, like this,” he said, he said, gesturing into the crowd of Vikings and Smurfs and sailors. “I want to see all the Deutschland people laughing. I want to see that and I want to stay in Deutschland."

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