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The carpentry apprenticeship is starting in six weeks to a month, depending on whether I’m working at my employers from the start of September, or if I get a bit more holiday before the school begins on September the tenth. My contract is with my employer, who enrolled me with the school, (One of these days I’ll reduce your will to live by explaining the system) and I’d heard nothing from the school itself, so I wasn’t convinced that I was registered at all*, so I was quite pleased to get a letter yesterday morning telling me when to turn up, and enclosing my student ticket, which the transport authority insist on calling the ‘Scool’ ticket. And before you scoff, consider that 1: this is in another language, yet people get the joke, and 2: At least it isn’t named after a mollusc. So there.
I was also a bit suprised to read the small print on the season ticket that arrived yesterday, and dicover that not only is it a combined ticket for the bus and train into the college (integrated ticketing being entirely taken for granted in Germany) but also that after midday it stops being a ‘direct route only’ ticket and becomes an all zones travel card, on any train, bus, or tram in and around Stuttgart, and it’s usable on weekends and holidays; for the next six months, which is all rather pleasant: when I was a student living in the wilds of south-west Britain, I had a begrudgingly issued season ticket which was valid on school days only, for one route between where I lived and the college in the town. I couldn’t use the card to go into town after 1300, nor to go home before 1300, which was not helpful when I had one lecture ending at eleven. The ticket was valid on one company’s buses, and that company didn’t really want to take you either.
Of course there’s a flip side to all this generosity, namely that when I was in the UK, the earliest I had to get to college was 0900, and only when I happened to have a lecture, whereas here I’ve been told to get myself over for the first lesson by 0715, which means getting up and leaving the house at silly O’clock in the morning…
*Being the cheery optimist I am.
I’m busy getting my last-minute panicking started nice and early, and incidentally doing a few other things, which unfortunately aren’t very interesting when written down:
- I’ve been fixing Bike N + 1, which went fine until the seat post broke: I have no idea how I managed that.
- I spent some time buying a pannier/bag luggage set which when delivered was missing the panniers, so I’m trying to contact the company and see if they’d like to send me the rest of it.
- I filled in paperwork informing the Job Centre I wouldn’t be at home, so they sent me more forms, and then had a hissy fit and said I’m showing dangerous levels of initiative and I’ll be away longer than paupers are allowed, so they will reduce my unemployment payments while I’m in north Germany. They then demanded a different form which has to be delivered a week after I leave.
- I spent a day applying to thirty different hospitals and ambulance stations trying to get an internship, and several more days being inundated with refusals and worrying that I’ll have to go somewhere else for that part of the course which would mean (a) Not being with family, and (b) either losing all my unemployment benefit, or being naughty and not telling the Job Centre.
- I watered the seedlings.
- I ordered the train tickets with seat and bicycle reservations. I can get from here to within 30 kilometres of the school in one day, whereupon I’ll stay overnight in a bike-friendly bed and breakfast before riding the last bit.
- I bought a map so I can find my way on that last bit, and a German-English medical dictionary, and then realised I didn’t understand half the English words either.
- I’ll have to buy a mobile phone for the first time in my life so I’ve been getting advice, some of which I actually understood.
- I’ve been dispensing hugs to The Boys, who have been staying noticeably close this week.
- I was (rather suddenly) interviewed and offered a placement in an emergency room at a major children’s hospital as long as I don’t get in the way too much (I’ll have to wear a white uniform. Beautiful Wife finds this hilarious)
- I read the electricity meter.
- I lost some files on the computer, made a mental note to sort it out and forgot about it three minutes later, several times.
- I collected our seed potatoes.
- And a few minutes ago, I was offered an internship at an ambulance station, subject to an interview next week.
So things are happening fast, and I’m about to do something I’ve wanted to do for a very long time, but the process doesn’t make for exciting blogging.
So we were in Yokohama and went to Chinatown for lunch. This is where our problems began. We were due to catch a Shinkansen to our next appointment in just over an hour, and half of Yokohama had apparently just come to Chinatown. With their friends. And their friends families.
We went for a small restaurant, which turned out to be a mistake. After half an hour passed and only two very small bowls had found their way to our table we asked to cancel our order. This threw the staff into a turmoil and they spent several minutes working out the bill.
Once outside no-one knew where the station was. Unfortunately they didn’t tell us this but tried to give us directions. After negotiationg a zone of delivery entrances and bars with names like ‘Club Hammer’ we were directed around a corner. Where we found a ship.
Now we were in trouble. The Shinkansen we had booked was due to leave in half an hour from the other end of a metro that had apparently vanished.
We decided to risk instinct, followed a street where we thought the metro should be and five minutes later we wandered into the station entrance. Hooray. As we got down to rail level, the train left. Not so hooray.
On the next train. We crossed the city, then changed for the metro to the Shinkansen. The machine wouldn’t take our ticket. Went to ticket office. Our ticket wasn’t valid to this station. Would have been handy to know this sooner. Bought a new ticket. Through machine, changed train. To Shinkansen station, through the barrier and up the stairs as the Shinkansen came in. Our coach was number 16. At the other end of the platform, naturally. We ran past station staff, several grannies, an entire baseball team with cheerleaders, half the businessmen of Yokkaichi* and one small dog, and counted our boys into coach sixteen as the doors closed.
Next time we’re going to try and get local help, and hopefully a bike.
*The half not in Chinatown
I promise this won’t become a political blog, but this is priceless. A comment from the new State Premier, Winfried Kretschmann of the Green party in an interview a couple of weeks ago :
“Fewer cars are of course better than more. We must sell mobility concepts in the future and not just cars. That includes walking, bicycles, cars, trains. We must join these up so well that one can travel easily and protect the environment,”
“If the car industry does not manage to become greener, it will have no future.”
““Porsche and Daimler should not have their names tarnished. Both companies build environmentally friendly cars and sell them not only in Germany but around the world.”
Of course, and this will never change: infinite growth is possible on a finite planet and we’ve got lots of oil.
It must be tough to wake up one morning and find the politicians aren’t going dance to your tune any more…
By the way, some of you may have noticed the posting rate on the blog has increased rapidly this week: I’m experimenting to see if writing more frequent, shorter posts works better than one each week. Picking a week when I come down with a cold and cough probably wasn’t the best timing for this, but there we go.
Thanks to the horrendously complex German electoral system the Green Party have managed, via an coalition with the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SDP), to get themselves into the driving seat in our state of Baden-Württemberg. It’s not a great surprise: the natives have been getting thoroughly restless of late, mostly over a project called ‘Stuttgart 21′ to rebuild Stuttgart main railway station. The project briefly flashed into international news on September the 30th last year when police sprayed a peaceful demonstration with water cannon. This didn’t exactly get the population behind the project.
Stuttgart central station is a Terminus, so trains have to come in and reverse out. German Railways (Deutsche Bahn or DB) thinks this is so very last century. The track to the station also takes up a very large area of Stuttgart city centre, which just happens to be very wealthy, very popular with businesses, and very short on prime building land. DB’s idea was to build a groovy new underground through station so trains could arrive under the city, stop briefly to drop off passengers, and whiz off to exciting other European places with none of that annoying reversing business. By pure coincidence this would free up a very large area of prime development land right in the centre of Stuttgart.(I wrote an even more detailed post about this here)
Building a whole new station and several kilometres of tunnel would be a tad expensive, of course, but Deutsche Bahn (German railways) and the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) came up with a nifty equation: the current terminus station has 17 platforms, so when that becomes a through station it will only need eight platforms because trains won’t reverse. And that’s obviously far cheaper. Sort of. If you say it quickly is sounds almost feasable.
Now the CDU is out, the Greens are in, German Railways (Deutsche Bahn or DB)paused in their attempts to turn the station into a hole in the ground, and everyone is expecting the Greens to stop them permanently. The question is how they’ll manage this when their coalition partners are cheer leading for the project, but there are a couple of possibilities. One is a referendum, if they can get enough signatures to make it legal. The other is the sleight of hand DB tried to pull a couple of years ago, which at the time I referred to as a POSAD: A Politically Over Simplified Accountants Dream.
After the water cannon episode last year news got out that where old people and children were injured and things were getting out of hand, so a mediator was called in before people started turning cars over. He told Deutsche Bahn to go and find check their shiny new station really could work with eight platforms at peak times. This looks very unlikely, so they’ll be told to go and redesign the station with ten platforms, at which point the whole business case falls to pieces. The report is expected in May.
I can keep you posted if you aren’t bored already.
Normal ramblings to continue next week.
I’m in Freiburg again this weekend but I’ll reply to comments next week.
Travelling from Stuttgart to Freiburg is a bit like going on a bear hunt: The Black Forest is in the way, and we can’t go under it, we can’t go over it, and if we go through it, it’ll take half a day because the railways all go north to south, so we have to go around it and down the Rhine valley, which takes almost as long. So when I found myself with the Xtracycle in the outer suburbs of Freiburg and utterly unable to find the venue for the Permaculture course I was attending, I’d already been sitting on various trains since the small hours.
I asked for directions from a local* and they pointed beyond the town where a pine forest rose into the clouds like the gates of Mordor. “You see that hotel up there?” They asked as said clouds parted to show a building perched high up on the hillside. “Well, the road you want starts there.”
One long, winding climb later I was up in the clouds and surprised to note that my legs hadn’t fallen off, so all those hills around Stuttgart have obviously done me some good. I could still have done with some sleep before starting the course, but we had eighteen hours of lectures to get through before Sunday afternoon so what I got was shovel-loads of information about how we’re living like someone paying off debts with credit cards, and in urgent need of a reset of priorities, along with a drastic reduction in energy consumption. As agriculture uses more energy (often supplied by oil) to grow food than we get from eating it, this is a problem even for weirdo car-free types like us.
Permaculture is a sort of toolbox for a more sustainable lifestyle, which plugs into natural cycles that are already there instead of relying on oil. By the end of the four weekends we’ll have had 72 hours of this and we’ll be all set to design our own permaculture farms, gardens, or in my case balcony. I can also try and carve a niche out as a permaculture designer which is arguably a bit academic in the absence of clients or land, but all my rambling here about bicycles and simple living is a part of a bigger goal for our family to live more sustainably and start a small scale arts centre. The Permaculture training means that when we do manage to get (access to) some land, we’ll be a tiny bit more ready.
Hopefully; in theory.
*I know blokes should never do this, but it was that or ride around Freiburg for a week.
I’m not the only one riding this winter. I spotted this handsome looking steed against the ticket machine in our local metro station while its owner waited for the service to the next town.
In the 1970′s Freiburg decided to encourage people to use public transport, walk ,or cycle, and to make it difficult to drive into the city. In the centre they closed a large area to cars and built tram lines which could take people right into the main shopping streets, and built a network of cycle lanes and other facilities. I can can report that the sky has not fallen, nor has the centre of the city become a wasteland.
On the other hand…
…there were lots of bikes…
And very little traffic.
In fact, the whole experience of walking in this city was far more pleasant than in our village.
Now there’s a coincidence.
Apparently the modal share of bikes in Freiburg is 27%, Not bad considering that Freiburg is right on the edge of the Black Forest, which is a Very Hilly Place. For comparison ‘driving a car’ is given as 26%, ‘car passenger’ as a paltry 6% and public transport covers 20%.
I asked David Hembrow when the Dutch City of Assen made the same policy decisions as Freiburg and the current modal share for bicycles. It turns out the main change was in the 1970′s and 80′s, and today bicycles have a modal share of 41%.
The coincidences just pile up, don’t they?
On the numerous occasions I tell people that I’m hoping, one day, to move into the countryside, they roll their eyes.
“But, you odd person” they say. “Apart from the fact this is a village of five thousand people, albeit only fifteen kilometres from Stuttgart, how will you live in the countryside without a car? There’s no public transport…”
I don’t know where people got this idea. Of course, I come from the UK, where the village bus turns up at half past three on the second Tuesday of the month*, hangs about for exactly seven and a half minutes and then disappears, but I’ve found the local public transport in rural Germany is pretty good, and in some cases better outside the towns, especially if you want to combine it with using a bike. Okay, so you need to pick your future abode carefully to be near to a link, but still.
Take our village as an example. We’re within the Stuttgart urban transport network with all the convenience this implies. Except that our village is served by a bus which runs to our county town of Esslingen, stopping on the way to deliver people to a Ü-Bahn (light rail line) to Stuttgart. Alas, the bus goes on a 40 minute mystery tour to Esslingen, and doesn’t connect very well with the Ü-Bahn either so we often end up waiting twenty minutes at the station for a three kilometre bus journey home. We can’t even cycle home because there’s no secure bike parking at the station. I used to get around this by parking the bike at a friends apartment, but then he went and moved and I lost my exclusive parking space.
Contrast this with the time I needed to get home quickly (another badly timed bike ride) from Obermettingen, a village the size of ours out in the allegedly public transport-free countryside. I got on the local train, which had a large, dedicated bike space, ran as frequently as the bus in our village, and got me 20km closer to home, whereupon I had to cycle the rest of the way because there’s no train to our allegedly well served town and the buses don’t take bicycles except off-peak. Elsewhere I’ve travelled on local trains which start hundreds of kilometres apart and meet at remote junctions to allow direct transfers for through passengers, something apparently impossible for our bus and metro system. And there’s secure bike parking in these places. And there’s less traffic so it’s more pleasant to cycle.
On the other hand, the cost of living in these allegedly transport-poor areas is much lower than it is here, because everyone believes that it’s more convenient to live in the suburbs of Stuttgart, so if you don’t mind, I’d prefer you to keep this to yourselves. That way, when we finally do manage to move out there, this urban myth will work to our advantage…
* In August
The weather has improved. This is good news. Even better is that my camera battery survived the storm in the night, wrapped up in a ziplock bag. My shoes didn’t do so well though: despite being wrapped thoroughly in a large rubbish bag, my shoes feel suspiciously heavy and before putting them on I pour enough water out to make a small puddle on the floor. Squelch to the unheated shower hoping that’s not the way the day will continue.
We leave a bit earlier than the previous day, in sunshine, and with a strong tail wind. Everything looks great although we all know we’ll probably get at least one soaking by lunchtime. We’re following dykes again. I’m fascinated by these as they are almost unheard of in the south, certainly on this scale. They provide a dual purpose of protection against the river and a flat means of communication between villages, and all we have to do is stay on the top and they bring us where we need to go. Or that’s what we think until the road stops abruptly in a farm. We see a group of walkers appear from behind a woodland, and the path they are using appears to be bikable . More to the point no-one wants to ride against the wind so we manhandle the bikes straight down the bank -I’ll say this for the Bakfiets, it has good brakes- squeeze through a wood, and find ourselves under a signpost for the Rhine bike way. Unfortunately we annoy the walkers who don’t hear the bike bells, and shout at us that we should whistle. That’s a new one.
We cross flat countryside and roll through small villages with brick built houses which still remind me of the UK. We’ve learned that the showers are short lived, and we’ve been soaked and dried off so many times in three days that no-one even mentions it when a particulairly violent squall hits when we are about a kilometre away from the nearest cover. True to form, the sun emerges straight after the rain and we’re dry in minutes. I suggest to Alex I could have saved myself a shower if I’d known. He grins.
„I’m sharing a tent with you, so I’m glad you didn’t know“
Duisburg creeps up on us. We’re riding through a picturesque village when we turn a corner and there is a blast furnace at the end of the street. A few kilometres later we reach the river once more and suddenly we’re in one of the centres of German heavy industry. Duisburg exists by an accident of geography. It’s where the Ruhr meets the Rhine.The Ruhr isn’t the biggest tributary of the Rhine, in fact it’s the 6th largest, but when the only option was hordes over some pretty steep hills, it made a handy route across the north of the country. The fact this link also led directly to the longest river in Western Europe, giving access to the sea and the cities to the south was an even greater bon us, so so there has been a harbour in Duisburg since records began, and probably long before. In the 19th century someone a few kilometres along the Rhur noticed that if they dug down a bit, there was lots of coal for the asking. Coal is heavy stuff, so this would have been of limited use, but with a but with a nice big river to take it away on, there was money to be made: the Rhine/Ruhr area became the centre of German heavy industry, and Duisburg, at the junction of the rivers, thrived.
More recently the city has become known for its enlightened approach to cycling infrastructure, as we cross the Rhine into the city we find ourselves on the sort of infrastructure that you dream about when following narrow painted ‘bike lanes’ through the door zone: segregated from traffic, bright red, wide and clean. Even better, we get a great view of the point where the Rhine and Rhur meet, so we stop for a few minutes to look at the meeting point of these two rivers which have affected the history of Germany so much.
A few minutes later I lose a foot. Not personally you understand, but from the Bakfiets. I stop to take a photo, and when I lift the stand the foot falls off onto the road. On closer examination it looks like the bolt holding the foot was overtightened and split the rubber. The bike wobbles a bit on its stand without the foot but that’s the only difference, well, that and the fact that for the rest of the journey my progress will be shown by small scratch marks wherever I stop. I’m literally making a mark wherever I go.
We get a lot of time to appreciate the infrastructure in Duisburg, mainly because we get lost. I don’t know what it is with cities on this trip, we don’t seem to be able to leave without making a grand tour. After following the road we think is correct for several kilometres, we stop to ask for directions. The pedestrian we meet is helpful and gives detailed advice, but clearly can’t understand the map we’re using, which leaves us none the wiser. Finally after some more asking around we meet a restraunt owner who not only tells us where we are (on the Rhine cycleway) but also how to get out of this maze of streets and south. It doesn’t look promising. We end up on a road bordered by some pretty shabby apartments on one side and a massive steelworks on the other, but then we cross the railway, go through some woodland, and suddenly we’re in fields again. Duisburg has stopped as suddenly as it started.
However, all this getting lost and then finding the way means it’s now mid-afternoon and we’re a long way north of Düsseldorf, which itself is north of our campsite on the banks of the Rhine. Either we have to ride through one of the biggest cities in Germany in a few hours, or we have to try some wild camping.