Cologne is no beauty. Naturally, this is something locals are allowed to state – but not those from out of town. The city boasts few old buildings yet plenty of grime, which possibly explains the natives’ general lack of respect for architectural landmarks. Take the city’s blue Musical Dome, otherwise known as the “garbage bag.” Or the Lanxess Arena with its handle-like arch, colloquially called the “Henkelmännchen.”

With an urban joy index of 80 (editor’s note: The Urban Joy Index represents the amount of joy that respondents associate with living in their city ), however, Cologne soars above the European average and also excels at other factors on urban joy. The people I know enjoy living here, myself included.

It does not take long to feel at home in Cologne. New arrivals quickly realize that they don’t have to conform or hide their personalities. Here, people can live their lives the way they like. Anyone can be themselves.

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Cologne’s diversity also has historic roots. Founded by Romans, for a long time the city skirted the boundary between Romanic countries like France and Teutonic tribes considered barbarian by others. Today, this colorful mix of ethnicities is reflected in a large migrant community with plenty of Turks and Italians who arrived with the first wave of guest workers as well as students from around the world. Overall, citizens of Cologne welcome this mix since, in their view, anything new can become something beautiful. Among others, this allowed plenty of different scenes and subcultures to emerge and thrive. In the 1980s, for example, plenty of punks populated the city. Today, Cologne has one of Germany’s largest gay and lesbian communities.

Naturally, carnival also plays a major role; there is no way to separate it from the city. While outsiders might find the whole thing a little strange or bizarre, the event provides a fantastic overview of Cologne’s lifestyles in all their multi-faceted glory. Unlike in Berlin, where the label would stick, men can try on drag if they like, without the danger of being called a drag queen because the get-up is simply a costume. Once carnival is over, you return to your everyday life. In a way, carnival serves as a cultural permit to switch sides for a few days. In terms of psychology, this works really well.

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Back in the 1980s and 1990s it was hip to diss carnival. I, myself, remember trying to escape from it all. At some point, however, young people rediscovered the tradition and by now the city has many young carnival troupes. This is what makes Cologne truly unique: It is one of the few remaining cities with its own style of music. Cologne’s songs are no folksy sing-alongs or traditional rock tunes, but in a league of their own. They are played at soccer matches and sung at parties or carnival outings – by people of all ages.

Today, few people speak the local Kölsch dialect anymore. The singsong lilt turns “ch” into “sh” and carries a certain laid-back charm. Somehow, everything will be all-right. Not the worst attitude to have when faced with the many mishaps that can result from our idiosyncratic nature.

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Yet this nature and disposition also helps us to meet new people. In Cologne, there is no need to call people if you want to go to the pub. Here, it is fine to go by yourself and find a place at the bar. Most of the time, you will easily strike up a conversation with strangers – maybe even bona fide locals.

Text: Stephan Urlings
All the images, incl. the header image: Lilly Wolf