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I always find the whole business of Christmas presents rather stressful. Finding the ‘right’ present for people is fraught with difficulties and seems to be missing the point in any case.

A few years back Beautiful Wife and I decided it was much simpler to tell each other exactly what we’d like for Christmas and then leave it at that, and this year she requested a Cajon bass tube to annoy the neighbours with, while I asked for two new woodworking chisels. My parents have also adopted this system and very kindly bought me a  brass bell from Lionworks in the UK, photographed (badly) above.

Presents for three boys are less stressful: lots of Lego. Of course I had to spend the afternoon building things with them.

It’s a tough life.

How was your Christmas?

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Pulling my back muscle last week meant I couldn’t get Youngest Son’s bed quite ready before the workshop was shut down for Christmas, but we went ahead and got a matress to fit anyway (assuming it will fit and I haven’t made an awful mistake measuring the wood).

Personally I’d have preferred to make our own mattress with a straw filling but I couldn’t see that plan going down too well, so we all headed off to the big city, or at least the nearest bit of it in the next town but one, and confused a salesperson by insisting that we could transport our mattress home by bike. As the picture shows it worked pretty well: we had to go the long way to keep The Boys off a busy road but it was worth it for all the incredulous looks from passing drivers. Notice, despite my whining, that we are on a segregated pedestrian/cycleway and didn’t have to ride on a road apart from the one we live on.

The white bunker-like object on the left is an expensive piece of sculpture installed by the town to emphasise ‘working together’ or something. This is the same town which decided the best way to mark the geographical centre was with a giant carrot and circle of plastic lagomorphs, so we shouldn’t really be surprised.

On arriving at the apartment we decided to have a chinese takeaway so The Bakfiets was pressed back into service. Perhaps overkill in this case but there we go.

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Notice rope coiled up ready for use. If I remembered to do this more often it would probably give a better impression.

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We cycle past these blocks of flats every week on the way to Eldest Son’s club activities and I’ve been meaning to mention it for some time*. It is an isolated section of Stuttgart called Asemwald, essentially made up of three blocks of flats, each 70 metres tall.

The trees are supposed to screen the buildings. When an architect feels the need to hide his building it really must be bad.

When the city built the flats they decided the best place was on a big hill to the south of the city. You can see it from miles away, in all directions. Unfortunately this also meant the 1800 inhabitants were far from the nearest railway station. The designers solved this by building a huge underground car park, and a bus stop.

There is a restaurant on the top floor of one of the buildings which is quite popular, possibly because when you are in it, you can’t see Asemwald.

*Which is why the trees apparently have leaves in November. I’ve been busy.

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College days come once or twice a week now, and mean getting up at silly O’clock in order to arrive in time for the atart of the day at 0745. Bleary-eyed lack of sense may explain why I suddenly decided that it would be really intelligent to see if I could d the whole 25k by bike.

It worked out pretty well considering. I was on time without rushing. I’d have been a bit earlier if I’d not kept getting off to take pictures.

Carrying everything in a backpack was deeply unpleasant though, and bottle dynamos get annoying after about ten kilometres. I have now arranged a safe parking space near college, so I can take the Xtracycle, so naturally rain is forecast all week…

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A friend of ours needed to move house, and I opened my big mouth and suggested that I could drive a car-share van, thus saving him a lot of money compared to renting. Being totally unaware of my driving incompetence he agreed.

We arrived intact -after a minor detour in Tübingen and a tour of an old railway yard- and found his apartment in an old mill, down a narrow track alongside a stream, on the edge of a small village.

The sort of place which is just begging for a family like ours to come along and start a smallholding/arts centre, like we’ve been dreaming of doing for ages.

Our dream is becoming more practical as I’m going to be a fully fledged carpenter from 2015. This will give me the skills to build stuff, and a way of actually earning money*. Rather conveniently there is a shortage of carpenters in rural areas.

At which point lots of people feel the need to remind me that we couldn’t possibly do this with our lifestyle. The vast distances of the countryside are simply too much for us to rely on bicycles, and public transport as we know it doesn’t exist. Better, we are told, to stay near to the big city with all the convenience this brings. Or grow up and get a car.

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This is the view from our friends new apartment.

In the time it takes to catch a bus to our local tram stop and wait for a tram, my friend could take this train right into Tübingen, and take his bike with him.

Or he could use the traffic-free cycle way through the fields behind which goes into the centre of the city.

To add insult to injury, our friend pays far less rent than we do, because of the ‘convenience’ of our public transport.

* A Theatre studies degree being as useful as a submarine in the Sahara when it comes to making a living.

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At the Very Smallholding there is very little shelter, apart from a small section of the patio which is under some overhanging trees. So naturally when the rain started while I was doing some gardening I carried the Xtracycle down the steps from the gate and put it under cover.

Then went back out in the rain and carried on gardening.

It was only later I realised this may be considered slightly strange.

I haven’t written much about using bicycles lately, especially considering how much use our bikes get.

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The Bakfiets spends much of its time being a tractor, as seen above delivering compost and a load of wood to the garden for making the Mighty Steppe. Without the Bakfiets we’d probably not be able to keep our crazy hippy lifestyle going, as it is the main way of transporting stuff back and forth to the Very Smallholding. I could probably fill one of these if I had one, which would remove almost all need for a car except for the occasional long trip, but I always end up deciding I’m better off with what I’ve got.

I may make a flat bed for the Bakfiets as soon as The Boys are too big to ride in it (that’s if I don’t make a coffee bar instead).

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Meanwhile the Xtracycle remains my vehicle of choice for going to the next town and beyond, visiting friends and running errands, not least because it means I can combine trips.

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This of course means it is out in all weather, and I’m going to have to get myself into gear and replace the wooden deck at some point: it is made for sunny California, not cold damp Germany.

People still shake their heads and tell me it is much more convenient to have  car, but when I hear stories like this I’m not so sure…

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Whenever we are cycling beyond the next village, we don’t need to ask if there will be a hill. The question is how many hills there will be. Accompanying Eldest Son to his Saturday activity -3 kilometres away- involves a steep downhill into a valley, followed by a steep climb up the other side. We then do the same in reverse. I’m not suprised that Eldest Son isn’t always very excited to go.

The constant presence of hills is one problem we have when trying to encourage cycling here. Hills are very clearly, very visibly there, all the time, and they look much, much steeper when you are at the bottom riding a bicycle.

In the other hand, you do get a nice view from the top.

This argument has failed to win over the masses to cycling, although that does leave plenty of space at viewpoints.

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A quick pause on the way back from Eldest Son’s Saturday activity. Notice gradient of the road in the background.

Everyone who takes a carpentry apprenticeship in Germany has to make a ‘final project’. I have to make mine by August 2015. Much to the amusement of my fellow students, I’ve been planning it for about six months already, but there are plenty of stories where people either didn’t finish in time or arrived at the presentation room carrying projects covered in wet varnish. I did the last-minute thing quite enough when I was at school, and this time I fully intend to be in the presentation room with a finished piece and a self-righteous look on my face while fellow students pull in sticky bits of furniture. This is why I am so popular.

My first idea was a really cool toolbox* so I could live the hippy dream of travelling while repairing things for people, astonishing them with my skill and receiving accommodation in return in a sort of communal barter system. I may have got a bit carried away with that idea.

Beautiful Wife suggested I make a Coffee Bar to fit onto the Bakfiets. When she is working with various organisations dealing with ecology and justice, I could ride it over and she could serve coffee. The combination of an unusual vehicle and the smell of fresh coffee would attract people over and we could introduce them to Fair Trade and low(er) impact living, all at the same time.

I wondered how on earth we’d present this to my carpentry master, who has to approve the plans and finance the materials, but that probably wouldn’t be too hard because it is essentially a kitchen unit and we make those all the time. Okay, so it would need to be very waterproof and as light as possible, and most kitchen units don’t have holes in the bottom to fit onto a bicycle frame, but it’s the same basic idea. The idea of driving my Bakfiets into the examination room also appeals, as does being able to blog about it here although I’ll probably do that in any case.

Hang on, I could make mobile bike workshop…

Any other ideas? I need to make something out of wood, remember…

*And only a carpentry student could think of a toolbox as ‘really cool’.

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