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Living car free is easy, but the expectations of the car culture around us can be a problem. For example, when I have to get to several different places in a short period of time, and the public transport connection is just too tight or too long to be sure of making the appointments.

Enter the commuter bike which finds itself dumped at some distant tram or bus stop where I’d never dream of leaving my Xtracycle, while I follow some complex itinerary to get where I need to go.

Here it is towards the end of a rather complex journey involving two appointments in different places which required a round trip on several busses, trams and trains.

Suddenly it is the end of year two at college, so we had an exam. The system of putting everyone in a room and telling them to make something perfectly in seven hours because their whole future depends on it still seems very odd to me, but what do I know?

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This isn’t the exam: it’s what happens when you get too enthusiastic with a hand plane and have to add an extra piece of wood to make up the difference. That long piece of wood is the replacement for 2mm that I took off by mistake: but for that lack of attention I could have started the next step on making a box. I’m choosing to see this as ‘character building’. Or something.

Anyway, the carpentry is now closed for three weeks and we’re off to the UK, which is always an interesting experience. I will have to get used to offering pounds in shops and looking to the right when I cross the road. We’re going by train which can be fantastic or stressful depending on how well the German and French railways, Eurostar and whoever is currently running trains to York  have got their act together. On previous occasions we’ve been through Brussels but this time we will catch a direct TGV to Paris, where we have to make our way from Paris Est station to Paris Nord without getting lost.

As the two stations are a few hundred metres apart and each the size of a cathedral, that shouldn’t present too many difficulties, but if you don’t hear from me in the next week, you know where to start looking.

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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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Pencil sketch of a pencil, sketched during a break from annoyingly impossible maths problems at college. The pencil was a souvenir of our last visit to Japan: the Japanese seem to make these far better than we manage (see also: erasers, sketchbooks, notebooks, etc…) so whenever I go there I stock up on stationery. If you are wondering how I managed to do a sketch of a pencil using pencil, I always carry a spare. This is less because I’m organised, more that I have an incredible capacity to lose things.

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House in Esslingen-am-Neckar. Esslingen is our local ‘big’ town and it emerged relatively unscathed from the war. Faced with an almost unparalleled stock of ancient wood-framed houses, the local council then bulldozed about two hundred of them to make a new ring road, which is now noisy, smelly, congested, and loathed by all who have to use it. Still, there are a lot of traditional, timber-framed buildings left, held together with wooden pegs like this one. There are also a few carpenters who make a living fixing them, because old buildings have to be maintained using traditional methods and hardly anyone is willing to learn the skills any more.

All the better for those of us who are, of course.

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Esslingen railway station, where I change from train to bus every weekday. Usually this works but last Friday I arrived just in time to watch the bus leaving. Still, at least I had something to do while I waited for the next one.

More sketches may follow. depending on family, work and me not being caught while drawing at college…

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,”

and:

“If the car industry does not manage to become greener, it will have no future.”

The industry response:

““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.

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