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It’s exam season, so this week I spent a day and a half building a pine step as practice for my end of year exams.

Exams here are different to how I remember from school in the UK. For starters you can’t just go in and pick up your tools. The first 45 minutes you have to write out your plan for making the item in the drawing you’ve been given. Only after your plan is finished do you get your wood.

You are supposed to follow this plan, or at least try to look like you are following it. I failed, as mine didn’t have instructions like “Discover you drilled half the holes in the wrong place at the end of the first day, and there is no way you can get the thing to go together”. The next item on the list could have been “introduce your fellow students to a few new English words they certainly didn’t learn at school”, because that’s what happened.

Thankfully in a practical exam I can ask for help. After twenty minutes with my tutor I’d been given a crash course in moving holes: there was an easy way and a hard way. Of course the easy way wouldn’t look half as good (meaning lower marks) as the hard way, provided the hard way worked. Of course if the hard way didn’t work, I’d probably fail quite dramatically.

And they say carpentry is dull.

To properly sort the problem I had to drill several new 8mm holes, this time in the right place, the enlarge the four misplaced holes to 10mm, put some 10mm pieces of pine into my enlarged holes, and cut them flush with the rest of the piece.

This done I could then glue the whole step together using the new holes, leaving plenty of time for finishing and sanding before eleven. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, I could drill the new holes in the wrong place, again, enlarge the new holes instead of the old ones, drill clean through the wood and make a mess of the other side, or just run out of time and hand in a pile of badly cut wood.

I solved the problem next morning by asking my vastly more gifted and very patient friend to watch what I was doing and make sure I didn’t make any of the mistakes above, or indeed, find some other way to mess things up. With him there I stopped fretting that I was about to do the wrong thing, which meant I drilled the new holes, enlarged the correct holes, and finished the rescue operation in ten minutes flat.

I even finished on time, and I’ve been given a 2.9 which is “fairly good.” considering there’s a row of former holes where no holes should be, I’m happy with that.

Now I just have to get through theory exams in economics, humanities, and, believe it or not, ethics, do the ‘real’ practical test, finish the final wood theory test, finish the second and final week of the machine course, retaining all fingers, draw the last of the technical drawings, and I’m done for year one.

And if anyone needs some holes moving, let me know…

Just over a fortnight ago we quietly passed the eighth anniversary of our moving to Ostfildern, so I’ve now lived here sixteen days longer than I lived anywhere else.

People occasionally ask us if we’ll ever move back ‘home’, meaning the UK. This rather misses the point that Beautiful Wife is Japanese, and even if we decided to go to the UK, it isn’t like we’ve got roots in a certain place anyway. Theoretically our family name comes from Wales but I think we’d have to go back a few hundred years to find that connection, and at that time the other side of the family was apparently living in Dundee with a German name, so it looks like we’ve a long tradition of making things complicated.

I occasionally have daydreams about moving to Wales or Scotland and living off grid, but unless we have a total collapse of the Euro or fall off the end of the Mayan calender, our boys have a much better chance of getting a decent education if we stay in Germany. And as much as I whine about it, our cycle provision and public transport is far ahead of anything in the Motherland, even here in Mercedesville.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t really have a ‘home’ in the normal sense. And that I’ve probably spent far too long thinking about it.

The carpentry apprenticeship continues. Last week we spent a day trying to fit a set of doors into crooked door frames in an apartment in Stuttgart. Apparently many of the older buildings on the edge of the city centre were solid enough to survive British and American bombs landing quite closely during the war, but they were shaken so badly that they were knocked out of alignment. Now doors have to be fitted very, very slowly and tailored to each frame, which involves much carrying of doors back and forth, a job done mostly by the apprentice.

The irony of this is not lost on me.


This is my Raubank, or jointer plane. It’s 600mm (about 2 feet) long. We don’t use this sort of thing in the carpentry industry today: we have machines that can plane wood almost as well as by hand in a fraction of the time, so it would be too expensive to pay a carpenter by the hour to hand plane wood any more.

I prefer hand tools to power tools because they are simpler, easier to maintain and last longer. In the UK and USA, hand planes are usually metal, but in mainland Europe still use these simpler wooden planes, where the blade is positioned by tapping it with a hammer and secured with a wooden wedge, which I prefer as there are no moving parts to go wrong.

I’m slowly building up a set of basic carpentry tools, and I’m trying to get as many as possible second hand, partly because it appeals to my inner tree hugging hippy (Less damage to the environment and no money to the evil corporations, et c.) and partly because I’m broke. I got this plane for a fraction of the price of a new one, even though the base is Guaiacum wood, instead of the usual (and much cheaper) beechwood. Probably it looked a bit too tatty (It was described by the seller as ‘Looking like the Titanic’) for most people to be bothered with it.

The Real Carpenters at work think I’m very strange to be excited about a tatty old jointer plane, but as I repeatedly turn up to the workshop on a Bakfiets, it’s just another eccentricity to add to the list.

Besides, when the inevitable collapse of civilisation comes, I’ll at least be able to make nice shelves.

Last week we had a village festival and were all walking about in shirt sleeves; this morning I opened the shutters and…

Winter just arrived. At least you know where you are with the seasons here, even if they do make us jump.

Beautiful sunrise too.

I’ve discovered that learning to be a carpenter makes me part of a tribe. The college where I’m learning the basics of carpentry (Try not to cut your finger off, etc) teaches other skills as well, so when we emerge from our workshop pulling sawdust out of our ears, we’re suddenly surrounded by people learning interior decoration, housebuilding, car repair, and half a dozen other things, all standing in little tribal groups.

You can tell what everyone is learning because every tribe has a different colour of trousers. The decorators have white, or a base of white at least, with all manner of colours on top, The car mechanics wear blue, the electricians have grey; and the very strange people learning house building favour traditional black corduroy. We all lurk in ‘our’ part of the campus every day as if someone had marked out territory boundaries with paint.

We don’t have this in the UK: probably because people change career much more frequently, and because courses in most trades last a matter of months rather than years. In Germany I’m not permitted to call myself a ‘carpenter’ until 2015 when I (hopefully) pass the exam and I’m entered on the register of craft persons. The same applies to the people learning to fix cars or paint houses: everyone has to have an apprenticeship lasting a minimum of two years, and the expectation is that they will keep working in their trade for their entire career, and in some cases for the same employer.

Most carpenters here wear khaki, the better for hiding sawdust, except for the occasional rebels and one Brit who failed to appreciate the significance of this and turned up wearing grey.

Not that that’s important of course: I certainly did not just order a pair of Khaki trousers because I want it to be obvious that I’m learning to be a carpenter and not an electrician.

I needed a new pair of trousers anyway.

I hope that is understood.

Carpentry school is proving challenging, not least trying to keep up with the instructions. We have eight to nine hour days and we’re starting to get research assignments and presentations to prepare. I didn’t realise that as well as woodwork we’re expected to be competent in technical drawing as well, which is why I spent the afternoon drawing lots and lots of parallel lines without a ruler. I think the idea was to show it can’t be done.

The plan was to change from posting on Saturday to writing little posts as and when I could, but I’m still getting used to the routine (and probably too lazy) to get writing most evenings when I come home.

I was going to say that the good side to this is that when you do a carpentry apprenticeship, you can be fairly sure you’ll get a decent job, but then today’s newspapers were saying that our local car company is announcing things aren’t looking too good. In theory it’s a good thing if we are producing less oil dependent cars: that will mean a tiny bit less pollution, a tiny reduction in our resource destruction to make flashy cars whose drivers object to my presence on the road, but Stuttgert depends on the car industry and it would be nice if we could avoid economic meltdown until I’ve at least managed to finish my apprenticeship…

Anyway, I’m still here, don’t go anywhere…

Long-suffering readers of this blog will have noticed that I’ve been trying to get an apprenticeship or other qualification for a couple of years now.

It turns out that working with young people is a great job, but doesn’t bring in a vast amount of money. This is because everyone thinks it is a wonderful thing to do, but considerably less people think it’s wonderful enough to pay for. We also have some long term goals, and being a carpenter will help us reach these. I’ll say more about this another time.

Well, after two years of false starts, next week I’ll start an apprenticeship as a cabinet maker/carpenter, having managed to convince a local company that I’m not too much of a liability, and filled in a small bale of forms to persuade the government that no, I’m not attempting to get money for nothing but I would like to eat. The system here is that although I’ve got an employer, I’ll spend most of the first year in college learning the basics.

Assuming I actually manage to pass the intermediate exams in a years time, I’ll be working with the company that took me on as an apprentice until 2015. Then I have to pass the final exams, including a German and Maths exam* and then make something out of wood that looks good and doesn’t collapse when the judges poke it.

But that’s in three years time. This week I need to get my feet used to holding my weight all the time again, and then next week I’ll start commuting to college. Which starts at seven fifteen in the morning…

*Guess what my worst school subjects were.

This weekend is likely to be a bit busy as we’re off to a friends wedding in Freiburg, which if all goes to plan will involve picking up a car share car at a railway station in the middle of nowhere, driving to the wedding and thence to the reception and back without driving into anything, coming home on Sunday and then catching a train to Rotterdam to meet the ferry to hull on Monday, so I leave you with a small dilemma I discovered this week.

On one of the routes I cycle frequently here, there’s a point where the mandatory cycleway I follow alongside a busy road becomes a mandatory footpath, meaning I have to go onto said road or ride illegally. Nothing new there of course, but there’s a catch. I have about two hundred metres of this road before turning left (and crossing two lanes of traffic) onto a quieter road. These two hundred metres are on a blind bend, and we all know how aware most drivers are of cyclists on blind bends. There is no way there will ever be a cycleway on this bit of road: even a filter lane into traffic was dismissed out of hand by the town as it ‘would be abused by cyclists’, presumably by cycling on it…

Where the cycleway ends there’s a pedestrian crossing with lights, and I’ve discovered that if I press the button on the lights and ride onto the road, I can pedal around the corner and be turning off before the first car catches up, saving me the stress of being buzzed or possibly overtaken dangerously closely on the blind bend. Is this adaptive use of poor infrastructure, or abuse of a pedestrian crossing?

(Tales of the UK come next week: I doubt there’s W-lan on the ferry so responses to comments may take time…)

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.

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