Bremen & Boredom


Exchange Student in Germany

Bremen is not a boring city. It may be small, but it has a huge soul, complete with a gothic town hall in a pedestrian zone buzzing with life and delicious German bakeries.  They’ve been hosting an annual friemarkt (free market festival) since the year 1036.  (That’s 170 years before Genghis Kahn and the rise of the Mongolian empire, over 400 years before Machu Picchu was built, and 600 years before Galileo declared the world was round.)

No, a place isn’t boring. But being an exchange student, sitting through a class in a language you don’t speak, day after day — that is boring.

I don’t know why they let me become an exchange student in the first place, when I only knew about 10 words in German… my first 6 months abroad were spent just learning the language. Bremen is in west Germany, and while this was 4 years after the East and West were reunified, Russian was still spoken in the east, and English in the west. It made it harder to learn German, because everyone could speak to me in English — it was the path of least resistance.

Another student from my school studied in East Germany. She started from the same place I did (zero German), but was speaking German in 3 months… because she had no other choice. (Oddly, she was the only other person from my high school to go on an exchange program that year — she was a year ahead of me, we ended up going to the same university… and even though it took me 6 years to graduate, I still graduated before her. Not that it was a competition. Just that some things in life never work out as you expect.)

The point though, is that it took me awhile to learn German. And while people would converse with me in English, all of my classes were in German. Except for, well, English class, which was quite amusing (I  did manage to learn some aspects of the English grammar that I didn’t know even existed.  Superlative or super latte?).

My bike for the year, parked at the school.  I biked *everywhere* during that year.

Sitting in a class all day, listening to lectures in a foreign language you don’t speak is quite humbling. I actually tried to make sense of Calculus and Physics, and made some pretty good progress by actually figuring it out for myself. (One question on graphing velocity and acceleration, I managed to discover using common sense, after translating the question with my dictionary during the exam… and I was the only student in the class to get it right.)

One of my earliest introductions to SLR photography and developing.  Whoever said German’s aren’t fun and a little bit crazy didn’t attend school in Germany.

Needless to say, my performance as a whole was fairly poor. With the exception of English class and Chorus, my grade was “Teilgenommen” which loosely translates as “taken part”… they had the decency not to fail me outright. (But hey, I showed up, which was more than many of my fellow exchange students could say.)

Another exception was gym class… also known as skiing in the Alps for 10 days.  You got credit in school for this.  Seriously.  I’m not kidding.

So, what happened, sitting in these classes all day? I got bored. Reeeeeeally bored. But the funny thing about boredom — I was forced to face it. And when I faced it, I learned how to accept it (otherwise I might have gone mad), and it evaporated.

Not overnight, but slowly it became an experiment in itself, and an interesting one, examining where I was at that moment, looking for distractions or activities, or just being present trying to make sense of the gibberish in the room.

When you face something you’re struggling with — you will overcome it.

It does help when you’ve got a fun class.  I love that Mido was taking this opportunity to tickle Phillip.  We were all good friends by the end of the year.

And I’ve never been bored since. Well, that may be an understatement, I  do get bored from time from time. But I’m never really bored. I can sit quietly in a room doing absolutely nothing.  (I used to freak people out in college by just lying on the carpet, staring at the ceiling for long periods of time.).

In case you’re not convinced, here are some other exciting facts about boredom you might also find interesting just as I did:

I didn’t realize this at the time, but most people are unable to sit quietly doing nothing for even 5 minutes.  These days, I struggle with the opposite: busyness… and rarely make time just to sit and do nothing.  Maybe we all should.

My fellow exchange students.  Shinji, from Japan, staged this photo because having a beer, a cigarette and two beautiful women was completely unimaginable back home.

Also published on Medium.

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1 thought on “Bremen & Boredom”

  1. Only speaking English in Germany and being able to avoid learning German (especially when it’s so hard – seriously, 3 genders? Why??) is still possible now. Everyone speaks better english than I ever have and is more than willing to practice it on anyone they meet. I’m going to have to try your boredom cure!


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