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The local immigration office has been getting on our case again. We’re supposed to have a copy of everyone’s passport on their files but we were a little slow in applying for a couple of British passports, and they needed the passports ‘urgently’, or they may decide that we aren’t legally allowed to live here and throw us out. Or something.

So we had a mad rush filling in the forms, took the proper EU standard Biometric photos, took another set of non-EU standard, and more expensive photos because the UK Passport agency doesn’t use the same system, confused a friend when we asked him to countersign the photos -he has a doctorate, and a normal doctorate-less peasant wasn’t enough for the Passport Office- sent off the forms to the Embassy, got the forms back with “Not known at this address” on the envelope, found out where in the UK to send the forms to, got a certified English translation of the certified German translation of our Japanese wedding certificate, sent the forms, and wonder of wonders, we now have two shiny new British passports*.

So Yesterday I rushed down to the immigration office.

Which, along with the entire local government, was closed for the staff summer outing…

*The British Passport office is known for being desperately slow: a German or Japanese passport takes a week or two, but the UK demands you apply about two months before you need one.

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So last night I was riding the Bakfiets along the main road in the village, in the dark, and noticed I was being followed by something with a lot more lights than I had. Looking back this turned out to be a Big Black Truck.

About a thousand trucks drive through the village every day, which causes much harrumphing from the locals while they wait to pull out from side streets in their 4 x 4’s. This one had just squeezed around the sharp corner at the top of the hill and was rolling  about fifty metres behind my back wheel. I looked again to signal for a left turn, to find it was still there, but noted with surprise that he was hanging well back, giving me space and allowing himself a generous braking distance. Gratified that he was doing his best not to glue me to his massive bull bars, I signalled, pulled across the road and waved to acknowledge that I had seen the fifty tonnes of black and chrome just behind me. I was rewarded by a short flash of headlights with enough candlepower to safely guide ships, which projected my shadow on the buildings opposite.

It being rather late, there was no traffic in the opposite direction, so I could pull into our street easily enough. I stopped to wave again and got a quick honk on the horn and a wave from the shadowy figure in the cab as the behemoth rumbled out of the village into the darkness.

Why can’t it be like this more often?

(And let’s not ask why cyclists are sharing space with such massive vehicles on narrow roads in a small village, that’d spoil the story…)

 

 

Eldest son’s school seems to carefully plan parents’ evenings to be on the wettest day of the term, so as usual I arrived after a good invigorating shower. And, as usual, the evening went on… and on… powered by a group of competitive parents who wanted to know every way their child could get the best possible grades in maths and science (but who were notably silent when the art teacher asked for questions). By the end, it was nearly tomorrow morning and pretty dark. Thankfully it had stopped raining and the hours in an overheated classroom had dried off my clothes nicely.

I probably should have thought about the route back a little more, perhaps considering that as it was dark, the forest would be better avoided, and the surfaced route by a well lit road would be more sensible, but I was tired and cold, and the ‘begging buttons’ don’t work after ten, so I decided to take the short cut. What could go possibly wrong?

I know, I never learn. Things began badly when I was dive bombed by a bat*, then turned off the road into darkness and realised the crucial difference between this route and the other forest trail is that other one is straight, wide, and flat, and has the lights of the next town at the end as a guide. The ‘short cut’ has none of these advantages and is a winding, twisting strip of potholed gravel. For added fun there is a fork in the woods at the darkest point and a deep drainage ditch which could easily double as a tank trap if Stuttgart were ever attacked from the north.

In daylight this is a pleasant winding trail you can ride along thinking happy thoughts about squirrels**, whereas at night thoughts run thus: “This is dark… ouch… where’s the turning?… was that it? oof… no it isn’t… yes it is, brakes… tree stump… must avoid tree stump… and the ditch… ouch… hang on, it isn’t that steep in the day is it?  pothole… oof… corner… is that a lurking shadow creature hiding by the trail ready to attack unwitting cyclists… oh, no, it’s a bush… ow… with roots… Hat blowing off… must hold… oof, pothole… hat… corner… getting steeeeper…

And then as usual, just as I was starting to get the hang of things, the trail widened and I was able to see the lights of the next town.

Then it started raining again…

[Update: It seems I’ve been here before…]

*Either we have our own version of the ASBO Buzzard of Scotland or I sound like a bug on sonar. I’m not sure which is worse.
** When it isn’t raining, of course…

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.

I am currently obsessively cutting wood joins in preparation for the end of year exam or the collapse of civilisation as we know it, whichever comes sooner. The exam is in two weeks so that is the main focus for now. I’m getting better, slowly.

Dovetails aren’t used much  in modern carpentry, as the industry is based on machines making semi-disposable chipboard furniture which can be put together in a few hours, and will be replaced in a matter of years*, so anyone practicing traditional woodwork is considered pretty strange. I can live with that.

When I’m not practicing woodwork I’m spending a fair bit of time doing maths equations which will form most of the theory exam. We won’t use those much after college either.

Still, it keeps the system going…

*and is full of formaldehyde.

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Middle Son watching a tram pass near our village. There are a lot of routes all around Stuttgart using these serving the local towns (unfortunately not including ours). According to Wikipedia the trams are 3.7m high, 2.6m wide, and 38m long. They are, as you can see, bright yellow and have headlights, indicators and rear lights, and being rail vehicles they tend to follow the same route every time they pass. You will notice the crossing is protected with lights and signs.

So, I’m wondering, how do you manage to drive a car into or in front of one, or otherwise cause a collision?

Apparently drivers in Stuttgart manage this several times a year, and last month one managed to get tangled up with a tram on a straight road in broad daylight. I happen to know because I was waiting for said tram to come and pick me up so I could go home. Nothing happened for about half an hour, whereupon I gave up, walked to the railway station and caught the train instead. I appreciate that having the choice of tram or train, a service that runs more than once an hour* and a ticket I can use on both, marks me out as spoiled and I should be ashamed of myself, but I’m still wondering.

It turns out that a driver on a straight road parallel to the tramlines simply turned onto a crossing a couple of metres in front of the tram. As the car weighed about 1.5t and the tram is 55 tonnes empty, plus passengers, the car came off rather worse out of the situation.

This is why I don’t bother with reflective high-visibility clothes: if there are drivers out there unable to spot a massive yellow box full of lights, I don’t see that making myself look like an isotope is going to help very much.

*or once a day/week/month, delete as applicable.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALast week I was given my ‘Half yearly’ report for year two of my carpentry apprenticeship. This means I’m just over half way through.

In Germany an apprentice learns a trade with a company, so you really do learn on the job. It is great because a lot of young people learn a trade, but I’m hugely disappointed how much a carpentry apprenticeship here is about speed, money and feeding machines, not skill and love of woodworking.

I’m in a minority of one on this, so my goal now is to finish the apprenticeship, get my certificate, and look for some extra training in traditional carpentry. Meanwhile I’m getting as much practice as I can and currently that means making a bed for Youngest Son with simple mortise and tenon joins.

Last week a horrified colleague asked why on earth I was working with Japanese saws, chisels, and a drill inherited from my grandfather when there is a hall full of expensive and complex machines a few metres away. I replied that when my son sleeps on this bed I wanted the knowledge it was me who made it and not a machine, and because I wanted to build a future in working with wood, using my hands, not a computer screen. The joins aren’t perfect, but if you want perfect you can go to IKEA and get a perfect, soulless bed. This one is full of imperfections, and full of love.

Then with impeccable timing, the bedpost split.

Anyway, soon after this conversation, the tutor at a woodworking school I’m interested in posted a particularly passionate article on his blog about educating people in traditional woodwork, I commented and told him the story above. He replied:

So discouraging and yet I know it’s true.. …Hang in there, what we are doing is making a difference… …your letter just won you a free nine-day course here at the school. Just let me know when you want to come by choosing a date on the scheduled classes.

Emphasis mine.

So at some point in 2015 I’ll be off to this school in North Wales.

Even a feeding chipboard into a machine for eight hours didn’t stop me grinning for a day afterwards…

It is provided in the essence of things that from any fruition of success, no matter what, shall come forth something to make a greater struggle necessary.

Walt Whitman (with thanks to the Accidental Hermit).

For someone trying to live simply I sure seem to end up doing a lot of complicated things.

I started learning to be a carpenter so that I could earn a living without getting too mixed up in our hypercomplex, technology orientated society. It turns out that carpentry in Germany is as dominated by technology and machines as everything else.

I’m now working to finish the course and get the piece of paper. Then I can specialise (do what I want to do) afterwards.

Meanwhile I keep making pencil sketches of my ideas and trying to cut dovetails and mortise and tenon joins when I have time to spare. This causes much incredulity amongst people around me: there are machines for that today. Only wierdo tree-hugging hippies make their own.

On the other hand when the inevitable collapse of civilisation comes, I’ll still be able to put up shelves.

A big part of the course is learning to use machines and the computer software for operating them. This means attending tutorials at college and a couple of hours downloading and installing the software package so I can do coursework. Later I can upload the designs onto the college server, and all I have to do is write a computer programme and the big machine at college will make it for me. Simple, and obviously much better economic sense than messing about with a saw and a couple of chisels.

Then the software company brought out a new version of the software, rendering the existing version obsolete overnight. No problem: they also issued us with new codes to plug back into the matrix, so we could spend a couple more hours downloading and installing and get on with programming.

Except that the codes didn’t work.

The capitalist-industrial machine swung into action once more and the company sent a corrected set of codes after a mere three weeks, just in time for Christmas.

These didn’t work either.

If you need me, I’ll be sawing dovetails while awaiting the inevitable collapse of civilisation.

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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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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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