A year in Bremen
The German city is trendy and full of history – but James Nolan and his girlfriend saw no future there
We ended up in Bremen. Graduating college, Bridget applied for a job there in 2011, not thinking she’d get it but did. All my life I’d dreamt of living abroad, of building an existence away from my small-town friends and family. But it was more Paris and New York that I dreamt of — less so Bremen. However, we were young and Ireland was fucked, so to not go would’ve been moronic.
Bremen is a city in the north of Germany, with a population of half a million, right beside Hamburg. Arriving there we would go out a lot to meet new people and unwind from the stresses of adapting to a new life. Most of Bremen’s nightlife is situated in the same area of the city, das Viertel (the Quarter), and most of this, further still, along the same street, vor dem Steintor. This street stretches for three-quarters of a mile and — along with the surrounding ones — is smothered in graffiti, from road signs to electrical boxes, from apartment buildings to houses, from shopfronts to the toilets of bars.
Drinking here one night with Bridget’s colleagues I spotted a makeshift sign reading Saubere Wände, Höhere Mieten — Clean Walls, Higher Rents. What this sign suggested was, if das Viertel was scrubbed of its edge — specifically the graffiti but also, it implied, its drugs — then the added cost of living there (in what was Bremen’s trendiest neighbourhood) wouldn’t be worth the improvement.
Bremen’s city center, or the Altstadt (Old City), is built around its Marktplatz. In December the historic square plays host to the city’s Christmas market, and in summer the surrounding bars and restaurants put out tables, chairs, and umbrellas for people to sit around and drink beer and coffee as trams and shoppers buzz endlessly by.
Sitting here, one sees many of the sights plastered on postcards sold in the nearby tourist shops: the giant Rathaus (Town Hall), built in 1405, its Gothic front casting a shadow over the Marktplatz in the evening; the statue of Roland, a French commander killed by Basques in 878, who later became a symbol of German independence; and the Bremen Stadtmusikanten (Town Musicians), a bronze statue depicting characters (a dog, a cat, a rooster, and a donkey) from a Brothers Grimm fairytale.
At the other side of the Marktplatz, opposite the Rathaus, lies a narrow street called Böttcherstraße. Facing you as you enter — embedded above a red-bricked archway — hangs a gold relief, eight feet in height, by the artist Bernhard Hoetger. Named Der Lichtbringer it depicts an angel (Hitler) slaying a dragon. It was installed in 1936 in an attempt to appease the Führer but to no avail. The Nazis called it degenerate and, expelled from the Party, Hoetger moved to Switzerland, where he died in 1949.
Yet, despite the impressiveness of these historical features, they perhaps pale in comparison to those of the nearby Schnoor quarter.
Imagine me on an average night in Bremen. Perhaps a Friday. Perhaps a Friday in winter. I’m tired, frustrated with my job, and my breath is appearing in clouds in front of my face. I’m trying to learn German. I have fluent conversations in my head, but when I go to speak I hesitate and stumble.
I enter the Schnoor, knowing how it calms me, and in the dark of the night see lights from tiny bars and restaurants spilling out onto the cobbles of even tinier streets. I continue walking, the buildings (old and uniform) closing in on me as the streets lead me maze-like towards the center. Suddenly, the buildings are so close I literally have to turn sideways to keep going.
I slip through, the gap no more than a foot wide, and then, as it begins snowing, the streets expand again. People pass by, now I notice them, and instantly I’m reminded of the film In Bruges, of the scene near the end where Colin Farrell, an Irishman abroad — in a city that closely resembles Bremen — stumbles through the streets shot as, in his haze and through the snow, he sees midgets dressed as schoolchildren. The fairytale Brendan Gleeson’s character spoke of earlier has come true.
Except, in my fairytale, there are no midgets dressed as schoolchildren. Just Bremeners.
Exiting the Schnoor you meet the river Weser, which runs horizontally through the city and divides the Altstadt and das Viertel from more residential areas in the south. The walkway along the river — from the industrial harbours in the west, four miles down to the grassy area in the east known as am Deich — is one of Bremen’s highlights. To get a bike and cycle this route is great, especially in summer, especially if you end it by plonking down on the grass and pulling out a still-cold, slightly-shaken beer from your bag, drinking it as the river flows by and not even the tramps asking you for your empties — a bottle is worth eight cent when returned — can bother you.
I should explain here that my view of Bremeners is in large part defined by those I encountered in my job (customers as well as colleagues), some of whom were cool and made my time in the city easier — who in my stupidity I later avoided hanging out with because by then I’d become so embittered that all I wanted to do was stay in, hide, and wait for it all to be over — but most of whom, despite treating me well enough, radiated such a grotesque will to embrace the superficialities of life that I knew, with them around me, I’d just never feel at home.
To be honest, almost everyone I met in Bremen — including Bridget’s colleagues (young people working in a creative field) — seemed the same way. Everyone appeared inundated with pointless, trivial commitments: trips to IKEA, customising their cars and motorbikes, going out on boats, attending meetings of associations they themselves set up — just some of the things I encountered over and over again.
Bremen, I learnt, was a place people went to, but mainly stayed in, to be comfortable.
A couple of evenings before we left — a year after we’d arrived — Bridget and I cycled to am Deich in the blazing heat and sat on the grass beside hundreds of other people, looking out at the Weser and asking ourselves why it was we’d hated it so much.
The answer we came up with then is the same we come up with now: we had no future there. I’m not talking about prospects in the traditional sense — with making money, advancing in our jobs — but rather with our prospects of finding happiness that lasted beyond a day. Correctly or not, we felt like we’d exhausted the city in our year there, like we’d seen everything, including into its depths.
Living in a place like that — with no sense of discovery and with what we’d already discovered not really that good — seemed untenable. We imagined our lives there and instead of seeing a vast ocean of possibilities saw only a brick wall — one covered in graffiti, with a sign reading Saubere Wände, Höhere Mieten.
A longer version of this essay appears in the autumn issue of Cult magazine, available this week nationwide. James Nolan is a 26-year-old writer currently living in Dublin. Follow him on Twitter @0jnolan