“Wow, so great the break is coming!” — my fellow master’s student Betty was seriously happy — “I would go on vacation in Sicily!”
Back then, in the windy February, Sicily sounded like a forbidden paradise. It is almost the end of March today; a new semester is about to begin. Spring is splashing color onto the streets of my small German town.
When I saw Betty last week, she seemed unreasonably cheerless on a bright sunny day. I bluntly asked if it was Sicily that had made her so sad.
“Oh, no. We didn’t go to Sicily. Such crap. I had to write my term papers. The whole break was ruined.”
Sad as it might sound, semester breaks in German — and European — universities, after the Bologna Process (the creation of the European Higher Education Area), are no longer meant for vacation and traveling. Well, officially.
Only the most daring of students can afford a week or two of careless fun. No kidding. With four to five term papers to be written and three to four exams to be taken, German students feel busier and more stressed during semester breaks than during regular school time.
University libraries become alive: students hunched over piles of books or peering into the screens of their cute little netbooks or more solid-looking laptops; students rushing up and down the old staircase, talking on their cellphones, giving a hug to a pal or a kiss to a girlfriend.
Coffee breaks between study hours feel almost like a ceremony: One hand is holding the coffee and the other is rolling a cigarette while the mind is off discussing something with a friend or an acquaintance. Bikes, prices and relationships; discounts, travel and work plans; and, of course, professors and papers: You live a whole new life during a coffee break.
You can make friends and fall in love in the library. The quite spacious reading rooms are full of secret thoughts and curious gazes. Just raise your head a little bit and wander around the room with your eyes. There is so much communication, hidden behind the tapping of the keys and the rhythmical clicks.
Once you’ve come here three or four times, you already recognize some of the students, dividing the whole of them into “my guys” and “the new ones.” You smile and say “hi” to a person without even knowing his or her name. You recognize the ringtones and the lightness of their steps.
I’ve known Jacob like this for about a week, which made me brave enough to break the silence of the reading room and distract him from his work: “Hey. Want a coffee break?” He tells me he’s been coming to the library every day for more than a month now.
When the library is closed or on Sundays, he goes to the Campus Bibliothek, which is open 24/7. “I hadn’t been coming during the past 8 years — that’s why I have to do it now if I want to graduate.”
Jacob is getting his degree in Arabic Studies and German as a Foreign Language. “I just want to be done, that’s it. This old Magister system (which still temporarily exists, while the whole of Europe is changing over to the bachelor-master standard) has gotten the best of me.”
He smiles when I ask him about his plans for the summer semester break. “Library.”
I wish Jacob good luck and a productive break as we finish our coffee, get up off the grassy lawn and go back to work.
Nadja Panchenko is a master’s student studying journalism and American studies who attended Ohio University last quarter. She is continuing her studies at Liepzig University and is a columnist for The Post. Email her at email@example.com.